From Ealing to Bombay: new drama school offers a gateway to Bollywood

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The Independent Culture

The hunt for the next Shahrukh Khan and Aishwarya Rai arrives today in the UK, when the first British acting school dedicated to training future Bollywood stars opens its doors for applications.

The Ealing-based project is the first overseas branch of the Mumbai stage school Actor Prepares, founded by the Bollywood star Anupam Kher, who appeared in Bend it Like Beckham. He aims to address the exodus of talented British Asians who move 4,500 miles to India in search of fortune after finding opportunities here limited to bit-parts in soap operas.

Kher chose to launch Actor Prepares in London partly because of the popularity of Bollywood films in Britain; they have long been a source of nostalgia and, for second-generation immigrants, a means of connecting with their heritage. The school aims to be an Indian cinema version of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (Rada), with professional actors coming in from Mumbai to pass on their knowledge.

Auditions for the first batch of students will take place in July; applicants must perform an X Factor-style act in front of a panel of judges including Kher and Tannishtha Chatterjee, who played the lead role in the film version of Monica Ali's Brick Lane. Around 30 students will be selected to join the course, and the three months of classes begin in September: successful candidates will be trained in Bollywood dance, martial arts and diction, and can choose to study in English or Hindi. Students will also learn yoga to help them better control their bodies and minds.

"We're looking for people from all ethnic and cultural backgrounds, ages and sexes," said Kher. "We're looking for rough gemstones that we can polish into professional actors. We're opening a UK chapter not only because there is a huge and growing interest in the Indian film industry here, but also because we're looking to bring fresh talent into Indian and other cinema."

Bollywood is notoriously hard to break into and the full-time course costs £6,000 per student. But there are also scholarships for candidates from west London – the school is part of the Ealing, Hammersmith and West London College. Actor Prepares also runs a talent agency, which will represent students after their studies – in return for a percentage of their fees.

"Bollywood is making its presence felt all over the world," said Hemendra Bhatia, the international dean of Actor Prepares. "In India, we have students from London, the USA, Germany and Canada."

If the London school succeeds, the management of Actor Prepares plan to expand the franchise to Durban and Sydney.

Sabina Sheema, 23, from west London, was part of the second intake of students at Actor Prepares in Mumbai, which she joined in 2006 after meeting Kher at a function in the UK. After the course, she won the Indian reality TV talent show Zee Cinestars. She has since made a Hindi movie, Fast Forward, and is currently working on a "South" film – one which is dubbed into the languages of India's southern states. At the end of the month she will return to London to shoot another Bollywood project.

"You learn different ways you can put a character into a situation," she said, "how to be an extrovert and how to do it from the inside; how to use your body in different ways. You start from basics of how to walk properly, how to sit, what to look out for when you're working with a camera."

British Asians who made it big over there

*Upen Patel

Patel, 27, grew up in Brent, north-west London, and studied computer science at the University of Hertfordshire. As a student he was spotted by a model scout and appeared in campaigns for Hugo Boss and Paul Smith, before landing his first Bollywood part in the thriller 36 China Town (2006). The following year he appeared in Namastey London, a box office hit about British Asian youngsters who do not conform to their parents' more traditional expectations.

*Ateesh Randev

Randev grew up in Hounslow, west London, and studied at Kingston University. After becoming a presenter on an Asian satellite channel, he moved to Mumbai seeking stardom and enrolled at the Creating Characters acting school. His first film, Sambar Salsa (2007), tells the story of an Indian boy and a Spanish girl who fall in love – much to the disapproval of the Indian's parents, even though they too had married in defiance of their elders.

*Ferena Wazeir

Glasgow-born Wazeir trained at Rada, but struggled to find parts in the UK. While travelling in India, she was spotted by a photographer at a camel fair, and went on to star in several high-profile advertising campaigns. Film offers flooded in on the back of her modelling. She was chosen to play Mumtaz Mahal, the 17th-century woman who inspired the Taj Mahal, and has signed a three-film deal.

*Katrina Kaif

Born in Hong Kong in 1984 to a Kashmiri Muslim father and British mother, Kaif began modelling jewellery in London at the age of 14. Her first Bollywood film was Boom (2003). Despite her good looks, Kaif was hindered by speaking Hindi with a heavy accent, so many of her films had to be dubbed. But she has since taken dancing and Hindi lessons to better assimilate into Bollywood culture.