We always talk about Indian actors going to Hollywood looking for greener pastures or to increase their vistas of cinematic experience but what we most of us are not aware of is that it is not a recent phenomenon. Right from the early 60s Indian actors have been trying their luck in the West to some degree of success. It is known to relatively very small number of people who some very prominent Hollywood film personalities were born in India during the colonial era and shortly after independence. Some of them spend their childhood here and left for England and other countries once the colonial rule came to an end. The list compiled below is an exhaustive one which includes actors and film personalities who have their origins in India (both aboriginals and descendants of colonials) and went to shine in the global arena.
Although he is primarily an Indian actor, his breakthrough role was in a British film ‘The Warrior’, which won the BAFTA award for Best British Film of the year. His illustrious film career cuts across geographical boundaries. Impacful roles in Oscar friendly movies like ‘Slumdog Millionaire’, ‘Life of Pi’ and big budget blockbusters like ‘The Amazing Spider Man’, ‘Jurassic World’ and ‘Inferno’ made him the world star that he is today. His upcoming projects include a Bangladeshi film called ‘Doob: No Bed of Roses’. It really has been an amazing journey from Jaipur to LA for Mr. Khan.
His achievement in the field of acting is unique in the sense that he is the first Indian actor to make a mark in Europe apart from working in Hollywood and American TV. His lead role in the super successful Italian miniseries ‘Sandokan’ combined with his dashing good looks made him a much-loved icon from Bombay in the Mediterranean country. He has graced the cover of various magazines around the world – be it Hola! (Spain), Bravo (Germany) or TV Sorrisi (Italy). He is also remembered for his negative role in the 1983 James Bond film ‘Octopussy’. His other significant work includes a starring role in ‘The Bold and the Beautiful’, the second most watched TV show in the world.
20. Terence Alan Patrick Sean Milligan
The Ahmednagar born actor of British-Irish descent was a man of many talents – actor, playwright, comedian, musician, and poet. It is said that he disliked his maiden name so much that he nicknamed himself ‘spike’ after the musician Spike Jones. He was the subject of a Ken Russell film in 1959 called ‘portrait of a Goon’. He shot for a small role in Russell’s film ‘The Devils’ but failed to make it to the final print.
19. Hugh Keays-Byrne
The Srinagar born English-Australian actor begin his career on stage with the Royal Shakespeare Company. His career defining role in the movies came when he was offered the role of the main antagonist in the first and the fourth installment of the ‘Mad Max’ franchise.
18. Aasif Hakim Mandviwala
After being born in the city of dreams Bombay he went on to seek a fortune in another city of dreams – Hollywood. Initially he had to prove his worth as an actor by playing a couple of stereotypical roles written for Indians in Hollywood productions. After being noted for being a correspondent in ‘The Daily Show’ his career took a turn for the better; which meant better roles for him. Today he is one of the most powerful Indian names in the American entertainment scene as the co-writer and co-producer of comedy series like ‘Halal in the Family’ and ‘The Brink’.
17. Erick Avari
Born on April 13, 1952 in Darjeeling, West Bengal, he is a descendant of J.F.Madan, one of the pioneering film producers of Indian cinema. So it won’t be dramatic to say that cinema runs in his blood. His claim to fame in Hollywood includes roles in ‘Independence Day’, ‘The Mummy’, ‘Planet of the Apes’, ‘Home Alone 4’, ‘Daredevil’to name a few. He has also guest starred in several high-profile TV shows like’ X files’, ‘Castle’, ‘Law and Order’, ‘Heroes’, ‘Star Trek – The Next Generation’ and ‘Days of Our Lives’.
16. Milton Rutherford Reid
For Bombay born Milton Reid, a career which started in wrestling eventually graduated to sidekicks and baddie roles in popular James Bond movies like ‘Dr. No’, ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ and ‘Casino Royale’. A couple of more significant roles in big budget movies of 60s and 70s followed until he descended to B movies and pulled the curtains on his insignificant career. However his legacy leaves on as one of the earlier Indian born actors to pursue a Hollywood acting career.
15. Michael Bates
He had the pleasure of working in the best of British sitcoms and stage productions ever produced. His claim to fame in Hollywood includes note worthy roles in films of master story tellers like Alfred Hitchcock (Frenzy) and Stanley Kubrick (A Clockwork Orange). He was born in 1920 in Jhansi, UP. He had a very good command over the Hindi language; the skill which he expertly showcased in the sitcom ‘It Ain’t Half Hot Mom’.
14. Joanna Lamond Lumley
In her capacity as an actress she covered the entire spectrum of acting – be it films, TV or theatre – she made her mark in all the platforms. In her heydays she was considered as one of the sexiest British starlets of the 70s. She made a name for herself in Hollywood with films like ‘The Pink Panther’ series, Ella Enchanted, Corpse Bride and The Wolf of Wall Street. A dedicated human rights and animal welfare activist, she was born in Srinagar, Kashmir. She is also a huge TV star with two BAFTA awards to her name.
13. Nazneen Contractor
Stunning and sensuous Nazneen is a sight for sore eyes. Her most significant roles tilld ate are in the films – ‘Star Trek: Into Darkness’ and ‘The Matthew Shephard Story’ (TV movie). She also appeared in recurring roles in hit TV shows like ‘Heroes Reborn’, ’24’ and ‘Castle’. A complete Mumbai girl at heart she has her eyes set on doing memorable roles in Hollywood.
12. Sabu Dastagir
Mysore born was the original ‘jungle boy’. At the tender age of 13 he made his acting debut with the 1937 British adventure film ‘Elephant Boy’ based on a Rudyard Kipling story which was well received at the Venice Film Festival. The success of the film opened doors for him in American films. He reprises his elephant boy persona in many of his future roles and it almost became his signature style – the wild, untamed man-child of the wilderness. His screen roles might today seem stereotypical but we have to keep in mind the context of the time when those films were made.
11. Suraj Sharma
Many young actors would give an arm and a leg to be in the position of this Delhi born and bred actor. He made a dream debut with Ang Lee’s multiple Oscar winning film ‘Life of Pi’. Based on Yann Martel’s 2001 bestselling novel of the same name, it was literally an author backed role for him which earned him a BAFTA nomination in the category of Rising Star. In his second film role ‘Million Dollar Arm’ he was lucky enough to share screen space with Jon Hamm. The film was well received by the critics. His other noteworthy role was in the hugely popular TV series ‘Homeland: Season 4’. Fun fact: In 2013 he won the MTV movie awards for Best Scared-As-Shit Performance for his role as Pi Patel who gets lost in the middle of Pacific Ocean after surviving a shipwreck. He is open to working in both Hollywood and Bollywood.
10. Persis Khambatta
She was the original ‘it’ girl of India and the first actress to make a mark in Hollywood. A former Miss India and model she went on to become a global sensation through her role as Lieutenant Ilia in ‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture’ (1979). She was daring enough to go bald for her role which earned her a Saturn award nomination and also became the first Indian to present an award at the Oscars. She was considered for the title role in the 1983 James Bond film ‘Octopussy’ but it eventually went to Maud Adams. At one point she was the hot favourite for lead roles in sci-fi/adventure based films.
9. Karen David
She was born in Shillong, the Rock capital of India hence it’s a given that she is musically inclined. Her exotic looks made her the first choice for Oriental princess type of roles in the West. Her film credits include a starring role in ‘The Scorpion King 2: Rise of a Warrior’ and small action packed role in ‘Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit’. However she got her career defining role in TV as Princess Isabella. The ABC fantasy-adventure-comedy series ‘Galavant’ made her a household name in the US. She also had a lead role in the sixth season of ‘Once Upon a Time’.
8. Freida Pinto
Some call her plain lucky while some say she was at the right place at the right time but those close to her know that she has really slogged hard to get where she is today. A bit role in Danny Boyle’s Oscar winning ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ propelled Bombay girl Freida to overnight international fame and since then she has established herself as some sort of style icon and an advocate for girl child education. She has played muse to prolific filmmakers like Woody Allen, Terrence Malick and Michael Winterbottom. She is a sensitive actor who chooses her role keeping in mind the impact that it will have on people. Currently she plays a British Black Panthers member in the 70s inspired miniseries ‘Guerrilla’.
7. M. Night Shyamalan
Undoubtedly the most accomplished filmmaker in the list and also the only one who can boast of critical acclaim, box office collections in hundreds of millions and numerous awards. Shyamalan has achieved cult status through his genre defining horror cum supernatural thrillers and has become a household name in Hollywood. His film ‘The Sixth Sense’ will make it to any top ten lists based on horror films. His trademark style lies in the unexpected plot twists that define his films. His latest release ‘Split’ was the number one film in the US box office for three weeks. Need we say more? He is also one of the executive producers of the popular TV show ‘Wayward Pines’. He was born in the former French colony Mahé, Puducherry.
6. Merle Oberon
She was an Anglo-Indian by birth who began her career with British films. Her decision to go to Hollywood struck gold as she was nominated for Oscar for her role in ‘The Dark Angel’. She added another feather to her cap when she shared screen space with Laurence Olivier in ‘Wuthering Heights’. The film also featured a passionate kiss between the two leads which became the talk of the town back then. She was not only one of the top rated actresses of her generation but was also revered for her beauty and glamorous appeal. She is the only actress of Indian origin to be nominated for a best actress Oscar and was also honoured with a star at the Hollywood walk of fame. She also has a fictionalized miniseries dedicated to her. She was born on 19 February, 1911 in Mumbai.
5. Tarsem Singh Dhandwar
He is a big shot movie director who makes legitimate big budget Hollywood movies with A List Hollywood actors. Although his films always receive mixed reviews but they are more often than not successful at the box office. His most popular films include ‘Mirror Mirror’ (2012) starring Julia Roberts and Lily Collins and ‘Immortals’ (2011) which earned over $200 million at the worldwide box office. He has worked with many top notch actors like Mickey Rourke, Ryan Reynolds, Henry Cavill, Freida Pinto and Jennifer Lopez. The first season of his TV show ‘Emerald city’ recently finished airing on NBC. His films are as grand in scale as his Punjabi roots.
4. Mira Nair
We know the Odhisa born supremely talented filmmaker as the director of ‘Salaam Bombay!’ which was the second Indian film to be nominated for a best foreign language film Oscar. Her next breakthrough came with ‘Mississippi Masala’ followed by ‘Monsoon Wedding’ and ‘The Namesake’. Her films have been praised at various high-profile film events but what makes her works relevant in today’s time is her ability to tell a story from a women’s point of view, without hiding anything behind the garb of gloss and sentimentality. In ‘Vanity Fair’ (2004) she directed Reese Witherspoon and Jonathan Rhys Meyers; it was her most ambitious project till date in terms of budget and scale but was received with underwhelming response. Her latest venture ‘Queen of Katwe’, which released last year, was an escapist entertainer but was also inspiring and it told a story that needed to be heard and seen.
3. Shekhar Kapur
He is arguably one of the most versatile Indian filmmakers of all time; just have a look at his filmography. It was only apt that he tried his luck in Hollywood next, which he did and made a name for himself there too. His shifting bases to Hollywood resulted in two much talked about films ‘Elizabeth’ (1998) and ‘Elizabeth: The Golden Age’ (2007). The former was more successful both in terms of the economics involved and reception by the critics. He was the filmmaker who made an international star out of Cate Blanchett as it was with his film ‘Elizabeth’ that she earned her first best actress Oscar nomination. ‘Elizabeth’ was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar too. So what’s next for the maverick filmmaker? His much anticipated ‘Paani’ has been long in the making. We can only hope he completes the film soon.
2. Julie Christie
She needs no introduction. As an actress she is an Academy award winner and the eternal star of ‘Darling’, ‘Doctor Zhivago’ and ‘Far From the Madding Crowd’. She has won all the four major motion picture acting honours. The lovechild of the swinging 60s, she is a glamour icon with her roots in Chabua, India. She spent her childhood amidst the greenery of tea gardens of Singlijan Tea Estate in Assam. Her personal life came under a lot of speculation when the media got a whiff of the existence of a half sister back in India. Even today at the age of 77 she has maintained her movie star appeal.
1. Vivien Leigh
The huge magnitude of her stardom can be judged form the fact that in 1999 American Film Institute ranked her as the 16th greatest female movie star of classic Hollywood cinema. She is a Hollywood legend who has to her credit two of the most loved movies of all time – ‘Gone with the Wind’ and ‘A Street Car Named Desire’. At the peak of her career she was indomitable and unstoppable. She brought the sincerity and authenticity of her craft of the stage to her film roles; which made her such an unmatchable talent in her heydays. She won an Oscar, a BAFTA and a Tony for her onscreen and Broadway roles.
Read More: Indian Actors Famous in Hollywood