On White Girls in Bollywood

Indian cinema has had a long flirtation with the gori, the white woman. White girls appear as item dancers in many Bollywood numbers and have the licence to wear skimpy clothes and perform raunchy dance moves because they not bound by Indian notions of propriety. The hero may have a romantic dalliance with a white girl but end up falling in love with an Indian heroine (the gori having been safely confined within the parameters of being a narrative device by this point). There were numerous white women in Bollywood movies of the 1950’s and 1960’s, who played exotic temptresses or item dancers. The most famous of these was Helen, an actress and dancer of Anglo-Indian and Burmese descent, who appeared in countless movies from the 1950’s onwards.

‘As a film maker you have used your Indian woman to define the positive moral pole of the universe. You now need a negative pole. This is where the other comes in’ writes Indian journalist Jerry Pinto (author of ‘Helen: The Life and Times of an H-Bomb’

The white woman in Bollywood can be a foil, a seductress, a plot device, or eye candy. She is rarely a character in her own right, although there are a few notable exceptions. I got to thinking about the topic and have come up with a countdown of the top ten gori appearances in Bollywood:

10) Rang de Basanti –Alice Patten plays a film-maker struggling to shoot a movie about an Indian uprising against the British colonizers. She speaks halting, heavily accented Hindi and even dances a bit. Patten is affable, but even at her most emotional moments comes across like a prim head girl from the Home Counties and is dwarfed by the massive presence of co-star Amir Khan. A rather bloodless performance, but ten house points for effort.

9)  Salaam-e-Ishq: in one of the movie’s many sub-plots, blonde American Stephanie  travels to India to search frantically for her Indian boyfriend who is about to be married off by his family somewhere in deepest Punjab to a girl of their choosing. When she arrives at the airport in Delhi she meets a chunky Indian taxi driver, played by Govinda, and they fall in love, playing out the fantasies of semi-employed, sexually frustrated Indian males everywhere.

8 Love Aaj Kal: Saif Ali Khan hooks up a blonde, perpetually surprised looking airhead in London after he decides to end his relationship with his desi girlfriend when she moves to Delhi to pursue a career restoring frescos. Needless to say it doesn’t last, but this doesn’t matter because she doesn’t have a personality and being white is presumed to be dispensable.

7 Love Aaj Kal: On the flip side, we also see a caucasian actress plays an Indian character in this movie. Brazilian Giselli Montiero gives a more-Indian-than-Indian performance as a Punjabi girl, Harleen Kaur.

6) Kites: Mexican actress Barbara Mori is currently the talk of Bollywood after sparks flew between her and co-star Hrithik Roshan on the set of their forthcoming movie Kites. Hrithik’s marriage to interior designer Sussanne Roshan was reported to be in trouble after his rumoured hook-up with Mori. I’ve yet to see the movie myself but this seems to me to be a classic case of the white woman being the forbidden, sexy other.

5) Lagaan: Rachel Shelley plays a British woman in colonial India who teaches a bunch of farmers how to play cricket in order to win a symbolic match against the Brits. Shelley does something that most white women in Bollywood films fail to do – to establish themselves as a character in her own right rather than being just a cipher or a projection of the audience’s fantasies. A sterling performance, but a shame about her cringe-worthy appearance in the song ‘O Re Chori’, complete with red roses and doves.

4) Blue: Kylie Minogue performs item number ‘I wanna Chiggy-Wiggy with you’, looking visibly uncomfortable next to sleazy Akshay Kumar.

3) Katrina Kaif: Technically this doesn’t count as Katrina is half Kashmiri, but the British-raised actress had to have her films dubbed into Hindi until fairly recently because of her weak grasp of the language. Now she has established herself as one of the highest-paid actresses in Bollywood, and everyone has now forgotten that she grew up in East Finchley.

2) Thandavam: Any self-respecting white girl who has studied at SOAS has a story about how they once had a walk-on part in an Indian movie, and I am no different. I once had a speaking part in a Malayalam language movie Thandavam, starring Mohan Lal. I played a backpacker in distress who had to be rescued by the tubby Keralan heart-throb when a marauding baddie came to ‘eve tease’ me and my gori friends. Lal quickly sorted the situation out by putting his knowledge of ‘traditional Keralan martial arts’ into practice and sending the baddie flying through the air into a cart of marigolds. A lot of screaming, a lot of bad dancing and a lot of fake rain. On balance, a lot of fun, but not one of the Ajnabee’s more ladylike moments. Sexy, dangerous phoren girl I was not, on this occasion.

That's me on the left, at the tender age of 18

1) The one and only Helen. All of the other goris pale into insignificance  in comparison (no pun intended). This video shows one of her finest moments, doing an ‘exotic’ dance for the entertainment of the bad guys in Sholay, one of the most successful Hindi movies of all time

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12 Responses to “On White Girls in Bollywood”

  1. Fascinating though I’ve seen none of these films! I didn’t know you were in a film though I saw your pic before and it did look film-set like. I want to see that clip, it would be so fun! Post it! 🙂

  2. Hahaha, this is great! You should go back to soas, waving this blog post entry in hand and demand direct entry to a Rachel Dwyer-led phd on the same 😀 Incidentally I watched Sholay with the Indian Signallers here; also seen Kagbeni with the Neps 😛

  3. Not seen Kagbeni myself yet. Surely there must be a blog post in there about watching ‘Sholay’ in Sudan?

    Chris, I have the DVD of that particular moment of glory somewhere, so maybe someday you will get to see it

  4. not seen kagbeni? omg, its even been shown in london, at the recent himalayan film fest. i saw it in birat’s good cinema (not the one for goondas).

    yes, there r a few things worth blogging about perhaps but i prefer sending annoying round-robin e-mails once a month or so. plus all blog sites banned here too (im in a net cafe in the capital).

    im honoured to be sharing a comment wall with you Chris! (aka Library Announcement Man and poetic genius).

  5. white girls in indian movies don’t really strike me as anything. then again, i haven’t seen the classics with helen and so on .but in things like lagaan and rang de basanti they play the random white girl that loves india and in loving it somehow “gets” india. also, mr. amir seems to like casting white girls in his movies (remember the ones that tricked his dost in gao in dil chata hain?). otherwise, they dance. and i think they dress as raunchy and dance as suggestive as any desi girls – they’re a nice bit of “diversity” on any shoot it seems…maybe kind of like it is with most “white” movies.

  6. hahaha the random white girl who loves and then ‘gets’ India… how many times have people taken the piss out of me for being that person because of my ‘rang de basanti Hindi’… hmmmm

    Oh yes, i remember that Dil Chahta Hai moment. that should have made it to the list. Bad, wicked gori!

  7. I just couldn’t stop myself from commenting here..though I wanted to start by a loud HAHAHA 😀 . I enjoy watching South Indian movies dubbed in hindi whenever they are on ZeeTV , laughing alone at all the Ganesh Chaturthi dances or over the top action cum everything else..though I have only watched Chiranjibee’s movies and none of Mohan Lal. so I might start by watching your movie 😉
    And I loved the way you put Govinda’s romance in Salaam-e-Ishq “playing out the fantasies of semi-employed, sexually frustrated Indian males everywhere.”
    But what I notice most in Bollywood movies with the Phoren element is the Gora goris dancing behind the Hero n Heroines …I just can’t help wondering what must be going on the heads of the dancers while they do all sorts of dance steps ( though its supposedly their job to dance) like this video for instance http://bit.ly/dnNQ76 . god knows what Kylie Minogue was thinking while singing smth like ‘Chiggy Wiggy’ or how A.R Rahman came up with something as horrible as that.
    P.S It was great reading this post.

  8. […] Anuraag Kashyap’s Dev D (2009) last week and realised that I had made a key omission in my top 10 performances by goris (white women) in Bollywood movies post – Kalki […]

  9. oggielicious Says:

    i am not sure if u are aware of other hindi movies with white actresses in them; kisna, marigold and theres two more that i cant quite remember the names of. kisna is by far my favorite movie, and though the girl Kathrine does not end up with Kisna; their journey together through India to Delhi is incredible. In marigold, the girl does in fact end up with the guy; but the acting and story line was lame, could have been better. as for the other two movies, if i remember the names or find the movies i will try to post them on here, one is about a girl who’s mom married an indian man with two children only to learn that man was actually her father; the other was about a couple who were together in one lifetime and were reunited in another one, it was ok..

  10. one south indian movie naming kshna kshnan is dubbed int hindi
    HAIRAAN where can i get that movie

  11. […] about white girls in Bollywood doing raunchy dances and wearing skimpy clothes (see blog post here), because they are not constrained by Indian notions of propriety. ‘As a film maker you have used […]

  12. Iam looking for the movie hairan in hindi . this film is dubbed
    from south indian movie kshna kshnam e telegu movie.
    can i get cd othe same in hindi verssion hairaan.

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