Monday, June 15, 2009

How Katrina Kaif made it from Barnet to Bollywood

Flick through this month’s Indian edition of Vogue or any one of the country’s gossipy tabloids and you will see one face pictured again and again — that of Bollywood’s newest megastar: a 24-year-old from the London borough of Barnet.

The profile belongs to Katrina Kaif, who watched her first Bollywood film at the age of 16 on Channel 4. Rejected as a teenager by modelling agencies in London for not being skinny enough, she has the £1 billion-a-year Hindi cinema industry at her feet.

The trajectory of her career has been extraordinary even by Bollywood’s hyperbolic standards. She arrived in India aged 17, speaking not a word of Hindi or knowing how to dance — two prerequisites of Indian cinema. Today, with 15 films to her credit, she is India’s most searched-for celebrity, according to Google; the country’s sexiest woman, according to the lads’ magazines FHM and Maxim; and the sub-continent’s most bankable female lead, according to the past year’s box-office receipts.

Her A-list status was confirmed earlier this year when Mattel, the toymaker, said that a forthcoming Bollywood Barbie doll would be modelled on Miss Kaif — not bad for a former wannabe model who couldn’t get a break in waif-obsessed Britain.

Assured of being mobbed if she appears in public in India, she cherishes her relative anonymity in Britain and speaks fondly about being able to stroll down Finchley High Street unmolested during her frequent but secret visits to her childhood home. “My London childhood and my career are two very different things,” she said. “I don’t like people to make the connection. The little bits you’ll read on the internet here and there about my London roots, they are the limits of what I’m willing to divulge.”

What is known is that she is one of eight siblings — six sisters, one brother — born in Hong Kong to a British mother, a lawyer-turned- charity worker, and a now-estranged Kashmiri father. The family moved to Finchley via homes across the globe when Miss Kaif was 14.

After being brought up on a film diet of Casablanca, MGM classics and Charlton Heston epics — “my mum was strict; she wouldn’t allow us to see ‘bad’ movies,” — the exuberance of Bollywood resonated instantly.

Miss Kaif’s fair skin, classical features and hourglass figure proved an instant hit in India, even if her halting Hindi was initially jibed at. Industry watchers say that her success has been based on her work ethic as much as her looks. She has five films in various states of production at the moment.

Miss Kaif is about to take the biggest gamble of her career. Her next film, New York, is set in the United States and based on the 9/11 terror attacks. Part of a new wave of Bollywood films that are dispensing with traditional Hindi formulas, it risks bemusing her fan base, which is used to seeing her miming and dancing.

New York is going to be a complete departure,” Miss Kaif said. “No lip synching. No dancing. Whether it’s going to be a good surprise or a bad surprise — I like to leave those things in the hands of God, and destiny and the audience.”


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