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The New Babes

Source:India today

Ambitious, affordable and available, five newcomers who will soon make their debuts promise to add spice to the ranks of Bollywood actresses


COMING SOON IN: Asoka The Great with Shah Rukh Khan; Dir: Santosh Sivan; Shararat with Abhishek Bachchan; Dir: Gurudev Bhalla

Heroines kahan hain?" asks a stressed out Bollywood producer, brows furrowed, cash lined in a briefcase and not a "namkeen" name in sight.

He's right. The heroine ranks of the Hindi film industry are suddenly depleted. There are the mums from past-the-mini-skirt days (Sreedevi, Juhi Chawla), the slipping-down-the-stakes married women (Madhuri Dixit-Nene, Kajol Devgan), and then the legions of girls who haven't quite managed to make the box office ring (Manisha Koirala, Raveena Tandon, Sonali Bendre, Sushmita Sen, Keerthi Reddy). Only a few names generate excitement in the trade: Aishwarya Rai, Karisma and Kareena Kapoor, Preity Zinta and Rani Mukherjee. But with scores of producers pursuing them, dates are difficult and their prices have inflated proportionately. One crore seems to be the lower-end price for a brand name considering even newcomer Kareena is reportedly asking for as much as Rs 60 lakh. So what's a filmmaker to do?

Look around. Because coming up in the next few months is a new crop of heroines young enough to be illegal but focused enough to put veterans to shame. Their steely ambition tempered with modern practicality, they are trained, talented and raring to go. And they are both affordable (under Rs 20 lakh) and available (read bulk dates). Little wonder they've already bagged big banners and are generating much buzz before a single release. Co-stars and technicians are raving about their still-to-be exposed talent. Says superstar Shah Rukh Khan: "The newcomers today are clear-headed. They know what they want and they are much more confident than I am even at this stage."

At 18, Priyanka Chopra stands tall-literally and figuratively. The current Miss World, Chopra can't actually begin shooting till her reign is over in November (she's trying to get special permission to start in July/August) but that hasn't stopped producers from making a beeline to her door. She's already signed five films and is considering a sixth opposite Shah Rukh. It's been a long journey for the Bareilly girl whose parents sent in her photos for the Miss India contest without informing her. "We're still trying to recover from what's happened to us in the past year-and-a-half," she says. While she waits for the cameras to start whirring, Priyanka is finishing her Miss World obligations and putting herself through the "struggler" rigours: acting classes with Kishore Namit Kapoor, Kathak classes, Urdu classes and even training in classical singing. She says, "You have to do your homework before you take the exam."

Unlike Priyanka, Hrishitaa Bhatt has already sat for her cinematic exam. The Liril model began her career by signing for the unconventional role of a Buddhist girl in Shah Rukh's prestigious Asoka The Great being directed by internationally renowned director-cinematographer Santosh Sivan. It's a difficult, deglamourised role but Bhatt has met the challenge with aplomb. Says Shah Rukh: "She is a very professional girl." She's also trained. Hrishitaa has done a speech and drama course via correspondence from the Trinity College of London and learned Kathak for 10 years. But the acting comes spontaneously. "I just get in front of a camera and do it," she says. "Acting is psyching and emoting. You have to talk to the camera like you're talking to a friend." Pundits are also betting on Hrishitaa's traditional good looks. Photographer Rakesh Shreshta, a 23-year veteran of the glam world, predicted at their first meeting that she would make it. "The plastic, synthetic face doesn't work any longer," he says, "the trend is Indian."