Barefoot and dressed in a skimpy skirt and spangled navel-exposing top, Claudia Ciesla gyrates to the beat amid flashing strobe lights in a nightclub. The curvaceous, long-limbed dancer tosses back her black hair and grinds her hips as famous Bollywood actor Akshay Kumar sways towards her after he's done thrashing some thugs.
The promo video for the song “Balma” from the action-comedy “Khiladi 786” has been watched over four million times on YouTube and has made Ciesla something of a sex symbol in India. Filmfare, a leading Indian film magazine, even dubbed the 24-year-old “the newest sizzler in B-town.”
Though the film has received mixed reviews, it's done well at the domestic box office. And the song “Balma,” which means “oh, beloved” in Hindi, has become a huge hit. The catchy number seems to be playing everywhere in Mumbai – in taxis, malls and at street food stalls.
India’s item girl
With her perfect curves and dizzying dance moves, Ciesla, who was born into German-Polish family that moved to Bavarian Bamberg when she was 17, is the new “item girl” on the block. In Bollywood slang, that's the dancer in a sexually provocative dance sequence added to films in order to generate publicity when featured in the trailers.
She says she's the only German actress in the world's biggest film industry. Sitting on a plush sofa in her apartment in an upscale northern Mumbai neighbourhood, Ciesla was clearly excited about the video's success. “It was an amazing opportunity to do the dance with Akshay Kumar, one of Bollywood's biggest stars,” Ciesla told The Local. “And it's great that the press is calling me 'sexy' and hot'. What else can you want?”
She was also frank about how she's viewed in the Indian film industry. “As a foreigner, you're naturally seen as exotic and different. People do go like 'wow' when they see white skin,” she said in English tinged with a German-Indian accent.
“But it's still a struggle for someone like me to make it because there are just so many talented Indians who come to Bollywood everyday,” she said, dressed casually wearing jeans and a sleeveless T-shirt, no makeup, and her feet in worn slippers.
Nationally televised ‘Namaste’
Ciesla moved from Germany to Mumbai, formerly known as Bombay, three years ago. Her brush with Bollywood began when Indian producer Vivek Singhania spotted photos of Ciesla on the internet. She was then a model who had among other things posed topless for Germany's populist Bild newspaper. Singhania offered her a role in his film “Karma” which was made in English. Soon after, she was invited to take part in the popular television reality show “Bigg Boss,” an Indian version of “Big Brother” hosted by Bollywood acting legend Amitabh Bacchan.
What the producers didn't initially tell her was that she was only allowed to speak Hindi on the show “My first reaction was 'hello, this wasn't part of the deal.' But then it was actually funny,” Ciesla said. “I learned my first Hindi words – 'Namaste' and 'Accha' and a few basic sentences with the whole country watching and somehow managed to survive for ten weeks on the show.”
The experience changed her life. “I was planning to return to Germany after the reality show,” Ciesla said. “But I got so used to India and the people, the food and the lifestyle that I decided to stay on. I believe it was my destiny.”
It's a decision she hasn't regretted. The reality show, she believes, also helped her gain a toehold in an industry where knowing the right people is key. “Luckily, all of India watched 'Big Boss' so everybody knew who I was,” she said. “It was like a debut and provided a great platform for Bollywood.”
Adapting and integrating
For Ciesla, who studied mathematics in Bamberg, acting has been a dream come true. “Ever since I was a child, I wanted to be in front of a camera,” she told The Local. “And after modelling around Europe, acting and dancing seemed a natural next step.”
She signed up for dance lessons, joined a well-known acting academy in Mumbai, made contacts and spent two hours each day learning Hindi. She also works out every day for an hour and a half at the gym and swimming pool at the luxurious gated community fringed by palm trees where she lives - and which is home to several Bollywood stars. She said she had become a dedicated Bollywood fan - watching Hindi films for pointers on acting and speaking.
“I never say no to a challenge,” Ciesla said. “I've made a huge effort to adapt and integrate.”
The hard work appears to be paying off. Ciesla now speaks near fluent Hindi - and as well as the successful “Balma” she's taken part in another reality show, this time with another Bollywood icon Shahrukh Khan, and has starred in a Punjabi film.
Such is her popularity that she hires four bodyguards to hold back the huge crowds of Bollywood fans which often greet her live dance shows around India for promotional events and opening ceremonies.
Making Mubai home
Despite work offers pouring in, Ciesla admitted that living and working in India was not always easy. “I had to change the way I think about a lot of things. For instance, people here communicate differently. They may say one thing but think something completely different. It took me a long time to understand that. In Germany, everyone is so straightforward,” she said.
Mumbai's notoriously gridlocked traffic and aggressive drivers also took some getting used to. Ciesla told how terrified her parents were when they visited her, reluctant to leave the apartment.
“When I finally did convince them to get into the car for a drive around the city, my father refused to sit in the front seat so that he wouldn't see what was happening around the car,” she said. Ciesla is so used to the city that she gets behind the wheel of her Audi herself - particularly after her former driver crashed her car.
If there's one thing Ciesla misses from home, it's German food and her grandmother's cooking – dumplings, roasts and pork chops.
But the German actress has no plans to leave Mumbai any time soon. “I've invested so much here and things are working for me right now,” she says. “India does really feel like home. I even miss it and get restless when I visit Germany. I often can't wait to get back.”