Report Date: Wednesday, March 27, 2002
PREEYA KALIDAS is only 21, but it seems as if her whole life has been a preparation for playing the lead role in Andrew Lloyd Webber's Bollywood musical, Bombay Dreams - ever since she started ballet classes at the age of three and tap at five.
Preeya is the face of the new British Indian girl - very pretty, with glossed lips, lovely hair, an easy personality, nice laugh, an English accent that is pleasing without being too posh, just a touch of street cred and an ability to get her way with men, especially with English men. She is also focused, driven, incredibly hard-working and absolutely determined to get what she wants.
If Bombay Dreams proves a hit when it opens in the West End this June - and Lloyd Webber is putting his reputation on the line with it - she will be a role model for the coming generation of Asian teenyboppers.
Confounding suggestions that Asian parents are reluctant to let their daughters venture into showbiz, no one has pushed harder for Preeya's success than her mother, Nayna. She was born in Nairobi but came to Britain at a young age, while Preeya's father, Kanti, was born in Malawi and arrived in London at 18. The couple's meeting is in itself a bit like the plot of a Bollywood movie.
"My father's parents were saying, 'You've got to get married.' He went to inspect one of my mother's sisters, but saw my mother and said, 'That's the one for me!' They were married within a week," says Preeya.
Preeya grew up in Twickenham, where her earliest theatrical role was as Jack in her primary school's Jack and the Beanstalk. "No one had thought Jack could be played by a little Indian girl," she recalls.
She cut her first record at nine, while on holiday with her father in America. They stopped at a do-it-yourself studio in Wisconsin and she recorded Whitney Houston's I Wanna Dance with Somebody as a present for her absent mother. Back home, a singing teacher who absolutely did not take girls at nine heard her audition and took her on. "I was very serious about it from a young age," she says.
From there, Preeya joined Song Time, a local theatre group, and then tried for the Sylvia Young Theatre School, where Spice Girl Emma Bunton, Denise van Outen and the Appleton sisters of All Saints trained.
"My parents had not even heard of it," she says. "It was very tough to get in, very tough, but I got through."
She was one of only three Indian girls out of 150 entrants that year. Today, when she goes for auditions, "there are so many."
Much of Preeya's early work was in films. When she was 17, she was cast in Sari and Trainers, a short film that has been expanded into a full-length feature, Bollywood Queen. Director Jeremy Wooding plans to take it to the Cannes Film Festival this year. Preeya identifies with its central character, Geena, an East End Asian lass ("a free spirit") who chucks her worthy but dull Indian boyfriend, Dipak, for an English youth. They hit it off when she takes him to see Bollywood films.
She has another part, though not the lead, in Gurinder Chadha's soon-to-be-released Bend It Like Beckham, the tale of a soccer-mad Asian girl to whom the England football captain has given his blessings. All this was not enough to satisfy Preeya. "I am impatient, very impatient," she says.
At home, she pored over a documentary on the making of Miss Saigon. She learnt all the songs and made repeated attempts to get into the show, but failed. Then, one day, she saw a television interview with Andrew Lloyd Webber which contained a passing reference to his new project, Bombay Dreams. Her reaction was: "Oh God, I've got to go for that."
She did, but heard nothing for months. Meanwhile, her mother went to Mount Kailash, a holy shrine in northern India, and made a religious offering on her behalf. On returning, she reassured her daughter: "Preeya, I know you are going to get this."
The call from her agent came through when Preeya was having her costume adjusted for the final take on Bollywood Queen. "She said, 'I want to congratulate you. You've got the part.' I didn't react, I didn't scream. She said, 'Are you on the floor yet?' Everyone looked at me. I just said, 'I've got the lead in Andrew Lloyd Webber's new musical', and they went ballistic."
In the musical, her character, Priya, is a film director who takes over directing a movie when her father is murdered by a gangster - a plot based on the real Bollywood, which is menaced by the underworld. Amid the colourful depiction of the film world there is romance, as Priya falls in love with Akaash (played by Raza Jaffrey, a British Asian actor), a young man from the slums.
Preeya believes Bombay Dreams will benefit from the current craze for Bollywood and that it has a wide appeal. Talking of the Indian film Lagaan, which has been nominated for an Oscar, she says: "Whites, blacks and Asians loved the movie. I have been to Bollywood club nights and the audience is very mixed now."
Although Preeya presents a very English exterior, she is firmly grounded in traditional Indian family values. "I consider myself to be British Asian," she says, "yet the whole culture behind me is Asian. I would never neglect that."
On a personal level, she says, she would prefer to marry an Indian man - but points out a difficulty. "There aren't enough Asian men for Asian women," she says. "Not everyone is going to meet someone Indian who is going to share things with you. But you can meet someone English who is very interested in your culture."
Not that romance is a priority, with rehearsals for Bombay Dreams due to start this month. "It's full on, a lot of pressure. I want to get it perfect. For me, it's an opportunity to show all that talent that has been burning up inside of me," she says.
For Preeya, the future is here. "I am a bit greedy. I want to do everything." She laughs. "Am I ambitious? Oh, completely. Can you not tell?"