For years Hollywood studios have been targeting movie audiences in India and China. In the past, they'd dub their films into local languages. Now, that strategy is shifting, and filmmakers are beginning to American stories with regional stars.
The new film xXx: Return of Xander Cage opened a week early in India — because it features one of that country's biggest movie stars, Deepika Padukone.
When you arrive in any Indian city, it's very likely that the first face you'll see — and the first voice you'll hear — is Padukone's. Whether it's on billboards, magazine covers or movie posters, her long tresses, smoldering eyes, and megawatt smile are literally everywhere.
"Deepika Padukone is the hugest female star you've had in India for a very long time," says Lata Jha, a film reporter for the Mint newspaper. "She has this incredible combination of box office success and extremely critically acclaimed performances to her credit."
Those award-winning performances range from a London twentysomething with a drinking problem to a medieval Muslim princess in a tragic relationship with a Hindu king.
Padukone made her Bollywood debut ten years ago. She was a 21-year-old model with no acting background or industry experience. "People wrote me off, said she's a model, she can't act," she says. "People had issues with my voice, people had issues with my diction."
Padukone was also facing an industry where most roles for women were superficial and secondary. "There was a certain stereotype of what a female actor should be like, or what type of clothes she should wear, or what type of movies she should do, and even the kind of roles and parts that were written for women were very very specific — and it didn't go beyond that."
So Padukone began pursuing more complex roles with critically acclaimed filmmakers. "I think I came into my own, and that's when I really started enjoying my work, the day I stopped worrying about fitting into the mold and fitting into what people thought was right, and the day I discovered myself and I started doing what I thought made me happy."
Film critic Aseem Chhabra says that shift was visible in her performances. "Modeling led to her acting," he says, "but then she survived it only because she became a better and better actress."
But while her career was flourishing on screen, Padukone was struggling in her personal life. Two years ago she did something unheard of among Indian celebrities: She went on national television to reveal that she was battling depression.
"The whole intention of coming out and speaking was because when I experienced depression, I realized how difficult it was," she says. "There was so much stigma attached. And for people who might be experiencing it, I want them to know that there is hope, and there's absolutely nothing wrong in talking about it, or seeking help."
Padukone became a model for the self-aware, modern Indian woman. And now, with goodwill, respect and commercial success, she's setting her eyes on the ultimate prize: Hollywood.
In the new sequel to the xXx franchise, Bollywood's most serious actress joins Vin Diesel on a globe-trotting race against time to defuse rogue satellites falling from the sky. Babes and bikinis, bombs and beaches — the film almost doesn't need subtitles.
"Yes, the language might be different," Padukone says, "but eventually I feel like today when we make movies, when we make cinema, I feel like we're catering to the world."
But critics aren't loving the world debut of xXx: Return of Xander Cage, and film reporter Lata Jha says the box office results in India haven't been great. "The film has done okay-ish but for a Deepika [film], it's not so good."
This was partly because its initial release was limited to IMAX and 3D. But it may be an uphill battle for Padukone to replicate her reigning status as the commercial and critical queen of Bollywood in Hollywood.
Still, she's hoping to branch out in America. "Drama, love stories," she laughs. "I know I've debuted in an action flick but what I really would love to do is a beautiful drama, love story, even a romantic comedy sometimes — I think, as an audience, that's what I grew up watching, that's what I enjoy watching and today even as an actor that's what I enjoy doing the most."
If you want to find that kind of performance, it's not in xXx: Revenge of Xander Cage. But you can easily find Deepika Padukone's most critically acclaimed roles in Indian cinema streaming on a TV near you.