Bollywood goes berserk for German actress

After starring in a hugely popular cinematic dance number, Claudia Ciesla has become India's newest sex symbol. But how did a German model steal the show in Bollywood? She talks to The Local's Sonia Phalnikar in Mumbai.

Bollywood goes berserk for German actress
Photo: DPA

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.”

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7 ground-breaking German movies made by female filmmakers

To celebrate the works of women in the German film industry, and at the conclusion of this year's special outdoor Berlinale, we have compiled a list of seven must-watch German films directed by women. 

7 ground-breaking German movies made by female filmmakers
A scene from System Crasher. credit: picture alliance/dpa/ZDF | Peter Hartwig

This year’s Oscars marked the first time in its almost 100-year history that two female filmmakers – Chloé Zhao and Emerald Fennell – were nominated in the Best Director category. Only five women have ever been nominated for this award. Zhao took home the gong, becoming just the second woman ever to do so.

In 2021’s Berlinale Festival, 60 percent of the films in the Generation category were directed by women — with 75 percent of female filmmakers making up the Kplus selection (a category for younger audiences).

Here is a look at seven films by some of the most influential female directors in German cinema.

Never Sleep Again (1992) — Pia Frankenberg

Featured in Berlinale’s Retrospective series, meant to showcase female filmmakers, this film is written, directed and produced by Cologne-born filmmaker, Pia Frankenberg.

The film follows three female friends through post-unification Berlin, who are making their way to a wedding when their car breaks down. They wander through the streets of former East Berlin, roaming in and out of bars meeting men. 

The dilapidated sites of the former Cold War frontier city, still scarred by World War II, become a place for sheer endless personal experimentation where the women begin to reconfigure their lives and loves.

Frankenberg’s impressionistic portrait of three women in the city reflects on the state of the newly unified Germany, where for a moment all possibilities seemed radically open. (Available on Mubi, Binged)

The German Sisters (1981) — Margarethe Von Trotta 

Considered one of the classics of the New German Cinema movement, The German Sisters tells an intimate story of Germany. 

Based on the real-life story of the Enslein sisters, it is an expression of director Margarethe Von Trotta’s combination of the personal and the political. It’s the story of Juliane, a feminist journalist and her sister, Marianne, who is a terrorist revolutionary. The film, which won six awards at the Venice Film Festival including the Golden Lion, was Margarethe Von Trotta’s third film and first collaboration with Barbara Sukowa. The director-actor duo went on to do six more films together. (Available on Mubi, Prime)

Margarethe Von Trotta on set in 1975. Photo: dpa | Bertram

Toni Erdmann (2016) — Maren Ade 

Toni Erdmann is a German-Austrian comedy which was directed, written and co-produced by Maren Ade. The film, which premiered in competition at the Cannes Film Festival, was named the best film of 2016. 

Meant to showcase the intricacies of a father-daughter relationship, the film pairs carefully constructed, three-dimensional characters in a tenderly funny character study. A hard-working woman reluctantly agrees to spend time with her estranged father when he unexpectedly arrives.

As a practical joker, the father does his best to reconnect by pretending to be her CEO’s life coach. (Available on Mubi, Kanopy, Prime, Vudu)

I Was at Home, But (2019) — Angela Schanelec 

I was at home, but (Ich war zuhause, aber) is a 2019 German drama film directed by Angela Schanelec. At the Berlinale that year, Schanelec won the Silver Bear for Best Director. 

The film is a story about a 13-year-old student, Phillip, who disappears without a trace for a week and suddenly reappears. 

It maps the existential crises his mother and teachers are confronted with that change their whole view of life. The film features several plots, which tell the stories of several people who are all connected to Phillip in some way. It has scenes with long silences, to contrast ones with heavy dialogue, which critics believe makes this film a cinematic masterpiece. (Available on Apple iTunes, Google Play Movies, Vudu, or rent on YouTube).

The Audition (2019) — Ina Weisse

This film has been described as a symphonic study of human behaviour. It’s the story of a violin teacher, who takes great interest in mentoring a student for an audition. Anna, the violinist and teacher played by Nina Hoss, shows plenty of compassion toward the boy at first, but their relationship becomes much more strained as the date of Alexander’s audition nears and Anna begins to put him through musical torture. Come the day of the exam, events take a tragic turn. (Available on Amazon Prime Video)

Pelican Blood (2019) — Katrin Gebbe 

Pelican Blood is written and directed by Katrin Gebbe, who won the 2014 Preis der Deutschen Filmkritik (German Film Critics’ Prize) for her first film.

It tells the story of a woman who trains police horses. She adopts her second child, a severely traumatised five-year-old girl. When the girl shows violent and anti-social behaviour, her new mother becomes determined to help her.

The film has been described as raising fascinating questions – how do you draw boundaries for a child who seems to ignore them or even takes a perverse pleasure in overstepping them? What can you do as a parent when you realize that your love and protection aren’t enough? (Available on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime)

System Crasher (2019) — Nora Fingscheidt

Another film about a rebellious child, System Crasher picked up a whopping eight German Film Awards after its release in 2019.

The film has a powerful political message about the inadequacies of the universal child care system. The protagonist, Benni, is a violent nine-year-old girl who suffers from psychotic episodes. Her key social worker, Frau Bafané, tries to get Benni into special schools or facilities; dozens turn her down and Benni is too young to be effectively sectioned as an inpatient.

In an interview with The Guardian, Fingscheidt says, “There’s a very German dimension to the film in the obsession with bureaucracy, with rules that need to be adhered to. Rules like, ‘this child cannot stay in this home because they are getting too emotionally attached,’ when that institution may be the first place where a child has begun to open up.”

The film has received an incredible amount of international recognition, garnering 45 international awards. (Available on Netflix)