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Actors like Deepika Padukone building Bollywood's U.S. fan base

TAMPA — She has been compared with Jennifer Lawrence, a star whose acting can make you forget her bombshell looks.

And if Bollywood succeeds growing its American fan base, it could be on the strengths of actors like Deepika Padukone, a young woman with a big week ahead of her in Tampa.

The United States is Bollywood's second-biggest market, with room for growth. That's a big reason the International Indian Film Academy is bringing its 15th annual Weekend & Awards here Wednesday through Saturday. It is the first U.S. appearance for the IIFA awards, which showcase movies that cook together music, romance, intrigue, comedy, family drama and action — often all in the same picture.

"Indian cinema is very, very different from Hollywood or Western cinema or global cinema," Padukone said Saturday in a telephone interview from Mumbai. It was 11 a.m. here — 8:30 p.m. there — and in the background the car horns of the megacity's evening traffic rose from the street.

"It's the entire experience," she said. "Our films are very colorful. Typically, there's a lot of song and dance, and that is something that we're very proud of."

The industry likewise is proud of Padukone, 28, who has emerged as a huge star. This year's IIFA awards, often called the Bollywood Oscars, feature six nominations in the category of best female in a leading role.

Three of those nominations belong to Padukone.

In Goliyon Ki Rasleela Ram-Leela — or, simply, Ram-Leela — a Bollywood update of Romeo and Juliet, she brings Juliet to the screen as Leela.

In the adventure-romance Chennai Express, she plays Meena, a young woman fleeing kidnappers and a forced marriage who falls in love with a man she meets while running to catch a train.

In a film whose title translates as "This Youth Is Crazy" (Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani, in the original) Padukone is Naina, a glasses-wearing pre-med student and naif who falls for Bunny, a charismatic and adventure-seeking friend of a friend. It is a romance with a push-pull dynamic.

They were three of Bollywood's biggest movies of 2013, and two of them (Chennai Express and Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani) are among the Hindi film industry's highest-grossing movies ever. What's more, Padukone starred in a fourth popular movie, Race 2, last year.

But don't ask which was her favorite, or the most challenging, or the most fun.

"Last year was an amazing year, and all the films are special," she said. "It's like having to choose if you have three children, being asked if you prefer one over the other."

The daughter of a former badminton champion, Padukone grew up playing the sport competitively at the national level before quitting at 16 to go into modeling.

"I wasn't enjoying myself," said Padukone, who also played basketball and baseball in her school days. "You have to enjoy what you do to be able to succeed. There's no point in being bogged down by a profession that you're not enjoying."

As a model, she did ad campaigns for toothpaste, soap, jewelry and a lemony soft drink that Coca-Cola sells in India. She appeared in a swimsuit calendar and was an international cover girl for Maybelline.

At 21, she went into the movies and in 2008 won an IIFA award for best female debut. The late film critic Roger Ebert once wrote of Padukone: "She is breathtaking, which of course is standard in Bollywood, where all the actresses are either breathtaking or playing mothers."

It has not always been easy, though.

After her initial success, she had a couple of movies that sank at the box office.

"That time allowed me to realize what other kinds of films I would like to do as an actor," said Padukone, sometimes known for her party girl attitude. "It allowed me to analyze myself as an actor and understand my strengths and my weaknesses … and also to understand that every film and every experience is going to be different. You have to look at the bigger picture. You can't allow yourself to be bogged down by the failure of a film. You have to pick yourself up and move on."

As a fan, her own list of favorite movies includes Mary Poppins.

"You connect with movies when you're growing up," she said, "and Mary Poppins is one of those movies I could just keep watching over and over again."

As an actor, she said she would be open to working in the American cinema but has no such projects in the works or in discussion.

"From Hollywood, if I wanted to work with any director right now, it would be Woody Allen," she said. "I love the kind of films that he makes."

And when you ask, she says, no, the controversy surrounding Allen wouldn't play into that decision. (Earlier this year, Dylan Farrow renewed claims that Allen, then her adoptive father, molested her at the age of 7 in 1992. Allen, who was investigated but never charged, has said the allegations were "untrue and disgraceful.")

"I don't think that it's fair to judge someone by what one reads in the paper," Padukone said. "All I'm concerned with is the fact that I think he's a great film-maker and the movies that he makes."

For now, Padukone is working on a new movie, Happy New Year, which will reunite her with the director and her co-star from her film debut. In the evenings, she rehearses a song-and-dance number for the IIFA award show Saturday night at Raymond James Stadium. It is demanding, but she looks forward to performing for the first time in the United States and to seeing a lot of friends and family who live here and plan to come to Tampa.

After a year like hers, it's reasonable to expect that Padukone will have her pick of many different scripts and movies. For now, she said it's a little soon to say what she wants to do next: "Right now I'm just reeling from last year. It was a marathon year."

Still, if Bollywood succeeds in the United States as it hopes, the marathon and its prizes will only get bigger.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Richard Danielson can be reached at (813) 226-3403, Danielson@tampabay.com or @Danielson_Times on Twitter.

.FAst facts

IIFA events

Wednesday: IIFA Stomp Bollywood dance music festival at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park. Free and open to the public from 7 to 11 p.m. Food and merchandise. Beer sales benefit the Gasparilla Film Festival.

Thursday: Day one of IIFA Global Business Forum at the Tampa Convention Center. Register at usf.edu/business/iifa/registration.aspx. Also at the convention center: Day one of the IIFA Expo, with Indian goods and services and fashion shows. Free and open to the public, noon to 8 p.m.

Friday: Magic of the Movies & Technical Awards show at the MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre. Tickets at livenation.com. Also, day two of the Global Business Forum and IIFA Expo, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Saturday: Green carpet arrivals from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m., and 8 p.m. awards show at Raymond James Stadium. Tickets at ticketmaster.com. Also, day three of IIFA Expo, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Actors like Deepika Padukone building Bollywood's U.S. fan base 04/19/14 [Last modified: Sunday, April 20, 2014 11:44am]

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