When actress and cancer survivor Lisa Ray, 39, was a young girl growing up in Etobicoke, Ont., her Bengalese dad would take her every weekend to an Indian grocer in Rexdale to pick up the ingredients for a traditional South Asian feast. There, Ray and her mother would peruse the shelves stocked-to-overflowing with the gaudily packaged Bollywood films that were an intriguing mystery to the Toronto-born girl and her Polish mother.
The women of the Ray household started renting the flicks - movies that her father disliked, but her mother, who couldn't understand a word of Hindi, was entranced by, primarily because of the sheer spectacle of song, dance and pageantry. Ten years later, at the tender age of 16, Ray found herself in Bombay (now Mumbai), where she fast became one of India's most sought-after models. Soon, the offers from Bollywood poured in. But she was hesitant about a career in an industry that seemed to an Indo-Canadian girl - particularly then - so kitschy. Eventually, the brunette beauty capitulated, appearing in 2001's Kasoor. Soon afterwards, however, exhausted from the noise and frenetic pace of India, the actress moved back to Canada to focus on art-house-film roles. Ironically, it was her turn in Kasoor that caught filmmaker Deepa Mehta's eye, and Ray's first starring role back in her native country was Mehta's spoof Bollywood Hollywood, followed by her poignant performance in the same director's Oscar-nominated Water.
As the International Indian Film Academy Awards come to Toronto this weekend, Ray reflects on the magic and mayhem of the industry in her own words.
MOM AND BOLLYWOOD AND ME
When I was a kid, we'd rent Bollywood movies, and my mom and I would watch them. My dad didn't bother because he was very disdainful of them for many different reasons. He grew up in the Bengali community, which considers itself to be the intellectuals, the visionaries of India, regardless of whether that's true or not. Bengal also produced the great, serious filmmaker Satyajit Ray, who is considered one of the masters in India.
But my mom and I would watch the movies for the action, more than the storylines, which are more or less interchangeable. We had our favourite actors and actresses. I certainly never aspired to be a part of Bollywood films. To my eye and taste, the actual storylines and the quality of production are not that impressive. The appeal to me was simply the songs, dancers and costumes.
MOVIES 'KIND OF LIKE FAST FOOD'
I was just in a play for Luminato called Taj, with the Indian actor Kabir Bedi, a very renowned, very worldly and wise Indian actor. We were rehearsing the play in Mississauga, in a complex that was quite close to a couple of Indian grocery stores. One day, we were walking to lunch and Kabir saw in the shop windows, dahl, rice and Bollywood films, a slew of them. And he giggled and said to me, "My God, when you're making a Bollywood film, you're consumed by the sheer amount of effort involved - you're shooting when it's too hot, cold, dusty, dirty and chaotic. You go through all that, and here your final product is probably given away free with a sack of dahl." We chuckled together because Bollywood films are kind of like fast food. They're easy, quick consumption.
AN OVERNIGHT RISE TO FAME
I moved to Bombay when I was 16, where I shot to overnight, national celebrity as a model. At the time, there essentially was no other career path for an aspiring actress besides Bollywood, and I was flooded with offers. Just like Hollywood, Bollywood loves plucking the hot new thing. But much as I had this affection for Bollywood - and when I was in Canada it gave me this perception of the home country - when I was living in India, I really had no time for it. I never planned on being part of the Bollywood film industry and, particularly at that time in the 1990s, it was somewhat sleazy, especially for young women - although that's changed dramatically now. Most of the directors and producers were still focused on very traditional themes, so as a Canadian girl, I couldn't relate. But when you live in Bombay, you cannot escape Bollywood, and I had many friends and colleagues connected to it.
Finally, I ended up accepting 2001's Kasoor, with a young director, Vikram Bhatt. Many of the Bollywood films were then rehashes of Hollywood films, and this was an Hindi version of a Glenn Close film, called Jagged Edge, where she plays a lawyer who falls in love with her client.
WHEN LISA MET DEEPA
There is a saying that sums up Bollywood films: There are good films. There are bad films. And there are Bollywood films. It means they're in their own category, and you can't judge them by the same parameters that we would anything else. Bollywood films are watched for the experience. Kasoor was quite well received, but after it, I wanted to do world cinema, and small, more intimate films. But my image in India meant I was only offered traditional, mainstream Bollywood roles. In a sense, I'd become a victim of my image in India. So I had to leave. And that's when Deepa offered me Bollywood Hollywood, after she'd seen me in Kasoor. So in a sense, I owe my entire career to India and Bollywood.
A FAN BASE LIKE JUSTIN BIEBER'S
The advent of the multiplexes in India has now completely changed the game in Bollywood. Filmmakers can now experiment with different themes because they know they can find a release for these different films. For Canadian of South Asian descent, Bollywood simply represents a connection to India. Bollywood is not the truest reflection of what India is - not by any stretch - but Bollywood films are the most potent pop art that we have. The fans are there, and the frenzy. The only comparable thing here to the fevered fan base might be Justin Bieber.
DON'T MISTAKE THIS INDUSTRY FOR INDIA
I think Bollywood has become a reflection of where India Inc. is going - the new, young, fresh, dynamic outlook of India percolates through these films. Both Deepa and myself have great affection for Bollywood, although we're also disdainful of the films. And like everyone, we know the biggest actors of Bollywood. It's almost like a guilty pleasure. And I still get the occasional Bollywood film offer, which is flattering. I'd be open to doing something again in India with one of the new regime of Bollywood filmmakers.
The International Indian Film Academy is a very effective format for promoting Bollywood. IIFA intriguingly used Bollywood as a gateway into the overall culture. However, I have to emphasize that Bollywood is not India. India is completely different. It's a great, complex country of so much diversity. Bollywood is all about crass commercialism. It's very unapologetic. It's just out to entertain.