'Water' star sets sight on Hollywood


TORONTO -- First there was Aishwarya Rai in "Bride & Prejudice," and now Lisa Ray in "Water," Deepa Mehta's epic drama about 1930s India now in U.S. release via Fox Searchlight.

Both Rai and Ray are L'Oreal cover girls. Both have Bollywood at their feet and Hollywood in their eyes.

But that's where Ray, raised in Toronto by a Polish mother and a Bengali father, parts company with Bollywood divas.

She began modeling in Bombay at 16 before making a name doing Indian commercials, music videos and TV shows. Her Bollywood screen credits include the Vikram Bhatt-directed thriller "Kasoor."

But Ray insists she was never impressed with Bollywood's glitz and flash.

"I felt that I was stagnating in India and had an overwhelming desire to break away," she says.

That break came in 2002 when Ray snagged the role of an escort hired as a bride-to-be for a playboy millionaire in a Canadian film, Mehta's "Bollywood/Hollywood."

"I liked her camera presence," Mehta says of Ray's "Kasoor" performance. "It was a contemporary Bollywood film. She was smart and intelligent, and yet had a lovely camera presence."

"Bollywood/Hollywood" came at an opportune time for both Mehta and Ray. Mehta had seen her first attempt in 2000 to shoot "Water" in India collapse amid political intrigue and personal threats from Hindu fundamentalists, and sought levity in a romantic comedy. And "Bollywood/Hollywood" fell into Ray's lap after she had begun saying no to roles.

"People make you feel you're in a fragile position and should take anything that comes along the way. Instead, I went with my gut and heart," she says.

After, "Bollywood/Hollywood," Ray studied acting at schools in London and performed in a string of independent movies, mainly romantic comedies.

These included Shiraz Jafri's "Arrangement," a U.S.-British co-venture about arranged Indian marriages that was shot in Austin, Texas, and Kiran Merchant's "Quarter Life Crisis," a portrait of twentysomethings adrift in New York's singles scene.

This past March, Ray acted in ThinkFilm's "A Stone's Throw," which lensed in Nova Scotia, and is set to co-star opposite James Gandolfini in Gareth Roberts' upcoming drama, "Kill Kill Faster Faster."

But Mehta casting Ray to co-star in "Water," which opened the Toronto International Film Festival before getting a U.S. rollout in April, has lifted the actress to new heights.

A fan of classic films by such filmmakers as Akira Kurosawa and Satyajit Ray, Ray swears continued devotion to independent filmmaking. She is considering a move to Los Angeles after recently signing with UTA.

"There are interesting scripts coming my way," she says.

Mehta believes Ray has the potential to become Canada's next big star.

"Lisa has sincerity. She really does believe in cinema. It will have to be a special script to bring her on board," Mehta says.