Little is known about Bollywood - India's counterpart to Hollywood - by the vast majority of Americans. But Belisa Balaban and Ted Skillman, the executive producers behind IFC's "Bollywood Hero" three-night musical miniseries that debuts at 10 p.m. on August 6, are betting on the goodwill generated by best picture winner "Slumdog Millionaire" will intrigue viewers.
"There's an assumption amongst TV buyers, primarily, that Americans aren't interested in shows that take place outside of the States," Skillman says. "We've always wanted to tell stories that are more outward looking, that focus more on the world. And Bollywood, in particular, was interesting to us because it's simultaneously exotic and outward looking and yet has kind of a familiarity to it."
With this notion in mind, Balaban and Skillman came up with "Bollywood Hero," the journey of an actor who is having difficulty landing a lead "heroic" role in Hollywood. After being offered a leading role in Bollywood's "Peculiar Dancing Boy," the actor flies to Mumbai to face romance, societal differences and barriers, and the unfamiliar challenges of Bollywood.
Chris Kattan, made famous by his roles in "Corky Romano" and "Night At the Roxbury" and as a regular on "Saturday Night Live" charmed Balaban and Skillman to play the lead role. "The character has to be a never-say-die Don Quixote figure who has this impossible dream. Very early on Chris said something to us that has always just stuck with me. He said, 'You know, every little boy or girl when they dream of being an actor, they don't think they are going be the sidekick. You always think, 'I'm going be the lead!' 'I'm going to be the center and I'm going be the hero!' And well, what if I just never gave up that dream?' And that sort of became a defining through-line for this character: this kind of optimism."
Kattan had previously traveled to India, felt fit for the part, and became involved early on in the project as one of the executive producers. "They were looking for someone - a physical comedian - who could be trying to break into the movies of Bollywood," he says. "I thought it was a neat idea, but I thought it would be great if I could incorporate some of my life, sort of like a 'Lost in Translation' or like in 'Curb Your Enthusiasm.'"
The timing of the mini-series almost seems planned with the global attention given to "Slumdog Millionaire" - and the two projects share much of the same production team. In fact, "Bollywood Hero" has much of the same production team as "Slumdog."
“Doing an international production, in which it was nearly an entirely Indian crew doing an international production, represented a bit of triumph because it's a fully matured film business [in India]," Skillman says. "So this was kind of cool because this represented, for the crew, sort of a vindication that they could do everything for us creatively. And there really is a trust in the local industry to make a project for a large foreign audience."
Most importantly, to the film and to the actors, was Longines Fernandes, the choreographer for both productions. "He made me look great. So I guess the best choreographers make the dancers look good," Kattan says.
Maya Rudolph, another "Saturday Night Live" regular, plays Kattan's best friend in Los Angeles, and Keanu Reeves makes a cameo as a successful, egotistical Hollywood actor. Other actors in the series include Bollywood veterans Pooja Kumar and Neha Dhupia.
Music plays a big role in "Bollywood Hero" through musical numbers and dance collaborations that Balaban says are a "musical mash up." Michael Penn contributes five tracks to the soundtrack, one of which is the series' original song, and Balaban says Penn's musical style fit "Bollywood Hero's" "weird stew" of inspirations. "So it's a musical, a comedy, miniseries, road trip, adventure, fish out of water story, played kind of naturalistic because he's playing himself, but it's not a mockumentary, so it becomes more and more of it's own thing and that's what we love about it," she says.