From database analyst Down Under to film star in India

I make fun of weird, over-the-top Bollywood fight scenes in these pages from time to time, but the Indian film market is huge and varied, with a lot of original talent.  Shortly before the Oscars last weekend, I read about an Australian woman of Indian descent who’s become a major film star in her ancestral country.  It’s interesting to contrast the challenges she faced (particularly with regard to language and culture) with those affecting American actresses.  I’d say she’s had to overcome a lot more obstacles than most of us could ever imagine.

An Australian actor with more than two million Facebook followers is about to arrive at the Sydney gala screening of her record-breaking 45th movie, but with an hour until curtain this bright Sunday afternoon, where is the red carpet? Where are the flashing cameras and the media gauntlet. Where are the fans straining at metal fences watching VIPs saunter past? Where is everybody?

The gala venue is unusual – 40 kilometres south-west of the CBD, at Westfield Liverpool – and this meet-and-greet is all very last-minute. The film’s distributors only found out a few days ago that the actor in question, Vimala Raman, was in Sydney.

After winning the Miss India Australia title in 2004, and moving to India in 2005, Raman has barely been out of work. She left behind family and friends, not to mention a job in Sydney as a database analyst and her beloved purple Honda Civic hatchback (licence plate VIM 555) to pursue a career in acting. Now her retinue includes a make-up man, hair stylist and two personal assistants (one to look after her food)

Raman … is the most successful Australian actor in Indian cinema history.

. . .

The catch-all term for Indian film is “Bollywood”, but that refers specifically to the Hindi film industry based in Mumbai, which produces just one in six movies nationally. Other regional centres include Tollywood (Telugu language, in West Bengal), Mollywood (Malayalam, Kerala), Kollywood (Tamil, Chennai) and Sandalwood (Kannada, Karnataka).

Raman has acted in all of these, and can speak each language. “I do have a flair [for languages],” she says, with a stagey flourish. “It’s a matter of being exposed to it young.” There was an initial flood of roles in Mollywood’s Malayalam, the language in which Oppam was filmed and which is fiendishly complex. It contains 578 characters, a base alphabet of 16 vowels and 36 consonants, and Raman says one word in her first script – she learnt her lines phonetically – took up the width of an A4 piece of paper. (She knows of actors who, instead of tackling an unfamiliar language, simply count from one to six and are overdubbed in the editing process, though she’s never worked this way.)

There’s more at the link.

I wonder how many of the gilded elite at last Sunday’s celebrations could claim to have overcome so many obstacles, and triumphed?  And I wonder how many of them have ever heard of Ms. Raman and her success – or if they even care about Bollywood at all?


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