Who Wants to Be a Bollywood Star?

The first international Bollywood acting school opens its doors... in London?!

December 16, 2008, 12:54 PM

LONDON, Dec. 16, 2008 — -- It's the world's biggest film industry and it's based not in Los Angeles, but in the heart of India.

Bollywood, India's billion-dollar film industry, attracts more fans worldwide than its American counterpart.

The latest example of its growing reach: the opening of the world's first Bollywood acting school…in London.

The British capital has long been a popular destination with Bollywood filmmakers, many of whom have set their films here. The most famous of these films -- "Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge" translated as "The Brave-heart ll Take the Bride" -- has been running for more than 13 years in a cinema in Mumbai, the center of India's film world. The name "Bollywood" is a take-off on Bombay, the old name of India's largest city.

Now, Anupam Kher, one of the actors in that film, has set up a branch of his Mumbai-based acting school, An Actor Prepares, in London. Kher is familiar to Western audiences from his roles in the English films "Bend It Like Beckham" and "Bride and Prejudice."

Lured by his name and by the promise of glamour, fame and a lot of money, students from as far afield as Karachi and California have come to London to learn to act, to dance to popular Bollywood songs and to make their mark in India's film industry.

One of the students, 21-year-old Anu Singh from Mountainview, Calif., said she simply had to try her luck at a film career because she had "grown up on Bollywood films."

"I just love the fact that our culture and our roots are included in the film. They are still there," she said. "Exposing too much or having really intimate scenes, you don't find that as often in Bollywood."

Although the films have gotten racier with time, there's still a lot you won't see in your average Bollywood film: kisses are permissible, but sex scenes are a red flag to various local groups and political parties claiming to protect Indian culture.

As part of their course, Singh and other students will be offered the opportunity to go to Mumbai to meet producers and studio heads and to network within the industry.

It's a dream for the young students at this school to become part of Bollywood and the recent success of foreign-born stars like Britain's Katrina Kaif -- one of the most popular actresses in India -- has made them hopeful that they can do it too.

The story of Kaif -- a 24-year-old model with an English mother and an Indian father -- inspires many of these newcomers. Like her, they too will have to learn to speak Hindi, the lingua franca of Bollywood films, to say nothing of the elaborate song and dance sequences that punctuate most of these movies.

Why do Hindi films have so many songs? Hemendra Bhatia, the school's international dean, said, "Singing and dancing is a part of our culture. In India, any occasion you will see people singing and dancing, and that's why most of the films have songs and dances."

Like Singh, most of the students have grown up watching these films and are familiar with the grammar. Some even have biographies to rival the plot of any Bollywood film.

The daughter of a Pakistani politician, 28-year-old lawyer Pirah Palijo told ABC News how she had to fight her family's expectations to pursue this new career.

"For me it was really against the norms," she said. "I defied all the odds."

"It's a bold step for a Pakistani girl," she said. "Deep down I know I have made the right decision."

But Bollywood is notorious for its tendency to promote the sons and daughters of movie stars over other newcomers.

Although there are notable exceptions like Kaif and Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan, a quick glance at a list of the industry's top actors and actresses reveals a firm bias toward debutantes with celebrity lineage.

For its part, the school's Mumbai branch has nurtured movie stars like Deepika Padukone, but Padukone was a well-established model before getting her big break in "Om Shanti Om," featuring mega-star Khan.

Watching the students at the London school, one wonders whether these young hopefuls stand a chance, even with the backing of a Bollywood star like Kher.

The students and the school's staff certainly think so. Bhatia told ABC News that "about 40 [percent to] 45 percent of the [graduate] actors are working. They have already got work."

Kher's connection to the Indian film industry is crucial to getting these newcomers noticed, but even so, finding that big break won't be easy. And what if it doesn't happen?

Singh, Palijo and the school's other students are unperturbed.

"There's always a plan B but I am thinking that when I am here, I want to live in the present, make the most of it," Palijo said.

If the gamble pays off for the school and its students, Bhatia revealed that talks are now on to open a branch in Los Angeles, taking Bollywood to Hollywood.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events