‘Spotlight’ shines again after many weeks to focus on a luminous Sri Lankan star of Sri Lanka who has been illuminating the Hindi cinematic firmament for several years. A beauty queen turned film actress who possesses a flair for promoting culinary commerce as well as retaining a penchant for espousing social and humanitarian causes.
An attractive personality who remains rooted to Sri Lanka despite flying high as a successful film star with millions of fans in India and all over the world. Jacqueline Fernandez is Sri Lanka’s most charming unofficial ambassador to India in recent times and the lovely lady has proved to be a credit to the island nation by winning the hearts and minds of millions there.
Jacqueline Fernandez is a model and beauty queen who has blazed an alluring trail on the Hindi cinema screen. She has acted in 17 Hindi films made in India so far. In two of those Jacqueline made special appearances in song sequences. In a third her’s was a cameo appearance. She has also acted in an English film made in Britain and an English film shot in Sri Lanka by the renowned film maker Chandran Rutnam.
Jacqueline Fernandez has acted with many great Hindi actors such as Amitabh Bachchan, Sanjay Dutt, Riteish Deshmukh, Emran Hashimi, Salman Khan, Saif Ali Khan, Akshay Kumar, Abhishekh Bachcan, Arjun Ramphal, John Abraham, Ranbir Kapoor, Varun Dhawan and Siddharth Malhotra. At least six of her Hindi films have been block-busters crossing the 100 Crore rupees mark in gross earnings. Jacqueline is also very much in demand for advertisements and publicity shows in India. She has truly done Sri Lanka proud in neighbouring India.
‘Sri Lankan of the Year’
Her roaring success in Indian showbiz as well as her well-rounded contribution to uplifting social activism has not gone unnoticed or unrecognised in her home and native land. The finest manifestation in this regard came a few weeks ago when the prestigious journal “Lanka Monthly Digest” (LMD) bestowed upon Jacqueline Fernandez the ‘Sri Lankan of the Year’ award for 2017.
Jacqueline was indeed in an elite group of distinguished Sri Lankans as some of the previous recipients of this award were people such as Lakshman Kadirgamar, Jayantha Dhanapala, Chandra Jayaratne, Indrajit Coomaraswamy, Ken Balendra, Mahinda Rajapaksa, Ranil Wickremesinghe, Sanath Jayasuriya, Muttiah Muralitharan, Kumar Sangakkara, Mahinda Deshapriya, Susanthika Jayasinghe and K.N. Choksy.
In selecting Jacqueline as ‘Sri Lankan of the Year’ for 2017, LMD explained the rationale for the decision in the following manner. Excerpts:
“She has brought radiance to a land permeated with the dull and uninspiring. She is today a leading name in Bollywood and beyond; and despite the untold pressures of being in the spotlight constantly, she has for all intents and purposes maintained an unblemished reputation.”
“Her success comes as a blessing for the country’s image as well – an image that’s been battered for too long by two senseless insurgencies, a protracted civil war and other misdemeanours that have put Sri Lanka in the news for all the wrong reasons.”
“Yes, we can now claim a Bollywood superstar who has not only risen to A-list status in a relatively short time but also highlighted Sri Lanka’s better side through activities that seek to give back to a nation she calls home. Let’s not forget that Fernandez continues to promote Sri Lanka and some of its leading brands with great success.”
“As LMD’s 23rd SLOTY, she is in the company of Sri Lanka’s most eminent citizens over the years, a number of whom have had their names etched in the annals of the nation’s history. Fernandez’s refreshing persona, charming demeanour, broad appeal and inherent resourcefulness ought to stand her in good stead in the years ahead. And at the same time, she is casting Sri Lanka in a positive light at a time when darkness looms.”
The Pride of Sri Lanka
Jacqueline Fernandez is the pride of Sri Lanka in more ways than one. As is well known, Sri Lanka is a multi-ethnic, multi-religious country whose strength is derived to a great extent from diversity. People from all walks of life from many parts of the globe have chosen to make this ‘Pearl of the Indian Ocean’ their home. Persons of multiple hues and different pedigrees have over the years integrated well and blended into being part of the social fabric of Sri Lanka. Jacqueline Fernandez is arguably one of the finest examples of this “Lankanisation” process that has been enriching this Island nation for many, many years.
Jacqueline’s father Elroy Fernandez is a Sri Lankan whose great grandparents had come to this Island from the Konkan coast in India more than a century and half ago when Goa was a colony of Portugal. His ancestors settled on the Western coast and inter-married with others thereby evolving into the community known as Burghers. Her mother Kim is of Malaysian origin with an eastern mother and western father. Jacqueline’s maternal grandfather is a Canadian and her maternal grandmother is of Malay-Chinese extraction. It could be seen therefore that Jacqueline Fernandez is a quintessential embodiment of different ethnic lineages. Jacqueline whose radiant glow is of a cosmopolitan mixture perceives herself as a Sri Lankan citizen of the world.
Jacqueline’s father was a musician who played in several bands in Sri Lanka. The 1977 anti-Tamil violence where he witnessed some ugly scenes upset his sensibilities so much that he decided to move out of Sri Lanka for a while. Elroy relocated to the Gulf state Bahrain where he reportedly met, loved and married Jacqueline’s mother Kim who was an air hostess.
Jacqueline herself was born in Manama, Bahrain on 11 August 1985. She is the youngest in a family of two boys and two girls. The children were born within a year of each other. Life was no bed of roses for the family and Elroy did two jobs to support his family. He did a day job as salesman in a duty free shop and a night job as a Disc Jockey.
Jacqueline who is called Jackie by some of her friends had her primary and early secondary education in Bahrain where she studied in the English medium. She also learnt Arabic. Having an aptitude for languages she also enrolled at the Berlitz centre and followed language courses in French and Spanish. She hosted a children’s show on Bahrain TV at the age of 14. She also dabbled in modelling as a teenager.
Jacqueline had her late secondary and tertiary education in Australia where she obtained a degree in Mass Communications from the Sydney University. Afterwards she returned to Sri Lanka and joined the Young Asia TV as a reporter. Jacqueline also began modelling in Colombo.
Life Changes Overnight
Life however changed overnight when she competed in a prestigious beauty pageant. Jacqueline Fernandez participated in the Miss Sri Lanka Universe Beauty pageant in 2006 and was crowned queen. She went as ‘Ms. Sri Lanka for Ms. Universe’ to Los Angeles for the 2006 Miss Universe competition but failed to win any laurels. Jacqueline was not even in the top 20 list of contestants. However after her return Jacqueline became a much-sought-after model for fashion events and for advertisements.
The turning point in her life was when she took part in a Rotary show. Representatives of the Times of India Group Talent Management Team were there. Impressed by Jackie, they invited her for modelling assignments in Mumbai. They also suggested that she try her luck with the Indian film industry.
Jacqueline made a bold, brave decision with the support of her family and relocated to India’s commercial capital Mumbai formerly known as Bombay. She was all alone in a new land with the intention of breaking into a highly competitive industry.Jackie enrolled at the Barry John acting studio for a diploma course in acting and began applying for film auditions. Jacqueline’s major break came when she successfully auditioned for ‘Aladin,’ directed by Sujoy Ghosh. The film was a fantasy set in modern times and boasted of a star-studded cast including Amitabh Bachchan, Sanjay Dutt, Riteish Deshmukh and Victor Bannerjee. Boman Irani was the narrator. Jacqueline played the lead role of Jasmine.
‘Aladin’ was released on 30 October 2009. I recall going to see the first screening in Toronto on that day. The weather was foul but I went for the matinee show at the Woodside cinema only to see Jacqueline on screen. I had been following the news about Jacqueline’s entry into Hindi films and was very proud of her. In my younger days I used to make it a point to see some of the popular Tamil films on the first day of release itself. Seeing an MGR (MG Ramachandran) film “first day, first show” was the ultimate triumph in those days.
It was with the same sense of excitement and expectation that I went to see the first show of ‘Aladin’ starring Jacqueline Fernandez being screened in Toronto. If MGR was the magnet in my callow period the “draw” in my mellow days was Jackie. There were very few people in the audience presumably due to the bad weather. Even more disappointing was the film. Sujoy Ghosh was a terrific director who went on to make masterpieces like ‘Kahani’ but something had gone wrong in the making of ‘Aladin’. It was a modern fantasy derived from the old Arabian folk tale about ‘Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp’ from the book ‘One Thousand and One Nights’ (The Arabian Nights). In spite of the music, the sorcery, costumes, exquisite sets, elaborate special effects and excellent acting, the film did not make an impact. A few even left the theatre after the interval.
Sujoy Ghosh’s ‘Aladin’ was most disappointing but Jacqueline Fernandez playing a modernised version of the Arabian princess Jasmine did not disappoint. She sizzled on the screen and gave off a dazzling performance. As an avid movie goer I was on friendly terms with the theatre staff at Woodside Cinema which continues to screen Tamil, Hindi, Telugu and Malayalam movies in the Scarborough area of Toronto. We did an oral post-mortem on the film where everyone agreed on one point. Jacqueline Fernandez was a ravishing beauty with commendable thespian skills! And when the inevitable question “She is from Sri Lanka, no”? came, I replied very proudly “YES!”
The film however was a box office disaster. The film had been made on a budget of 200 million India rupees. The returns were only 136 million rupees. The silver lining was the kudos received by Jacqueline. Her Hindi and Urdu pronunciation was not good at that time. So Mona Ghosh Shetty, the well-known Bengali singer and voice dubbing artiste, loaned her voice for the Sri Lankan actress who lip-synched her lines. The singing voice was the popular play back singer Shreya Ghoshal.
Despite the dubbing, Jacqueline did make a mark in her screen debut. This was demonstrated effectively when she received the ‘Stardust’ magazine award for Best Female Debut. More importantly Jacqueline also received the International Indian Film Award (IIFA) for the best female debut in 2009. The icing on the cake was that the IIFA 2010 ceremony where the awards for 2009 were handed out was held in Sri Lanka. Jacqueline received the IIFA honours from India on her native soil to a wildly-cheering home audience.
Jacqueline’s screen debut may have been appreciated but the stark reality was that her debut film flopped financially. This by itself may have resulted in her cinematic journey being cut short in India but for the help of her ‘Aladin’ co-star Riteish Deshmukh. The handsome actor has been acting in films since 2003. Riteish is the son of former Maharashtra State Chief Minister and ex-Cabinet Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh and is married to actress Genelia D’Souza. Riteish and Jacqueline had struck up a close friendship during the shooting of ‘Aladin’.
Riteish Deshmukh was signed on by director Milap Zaveri as lead actor in ‘Jaane Kahan Se Aayi Hai’. The film was a science fiction romance. One of the two main female roles in the film was that of a woman from the planet Venus who arrives in Earth to find true love. The part required a statuesque beauty. Riteish strongly recommended Jacqueline to Milap Zaveri who signed her on after just one interview. Jacqueline played the gorgeous woman from Venus named Tara in the film. Sadly ‘Jaane Kahan Se Aayi Hai’ released on 9 April 2010 too crashed at the box office besides receiving adverse reviews. So bad was the failure that the film released in 2010 has not had a video or DVD release to date.
Even as ‘Jaane Kahan Se Aayi Hai’ was being shot, the Director Milap Zaveri was involved as co-screenplay writer for the film ‘Housefull’. The film with an ensemble cast included Riteish Deshmukh along with others like Akshay Kumar, Arjun Ramphal, Deepika Padukone and Lara Dutta. The film was directed by Sajid Khan while music was scored by the Shankar-Ehsan-Loy trio. The film had a song and dance sequence requiring a special appearance for which Milap and Riteish proposed Jacqueline Fernandez. So Jacqueline made a special appearance as ‘Dhanno’ for the song ‘Aapka Kya Hoga’) sung by Mika Singh, Sunidhi Chauhan and Sajid Khan. The song was a smashing hit and received the Zee cine award for Best Track of the Year. ‘Housefull’ released on 30 April 2010 clicked at the box office too. The film budget was $ 7 million but the box office returns were $ 19 million.
Light at the End of the Tunnel
The budding film career of Jacqueline Fernandez however was facing bleak prospects. With both her first and second films crashing, the “newcomer” from Sri Lanka was seen as box office poison. No new films were forthcoming. The ‘Housefull’ film song success led to offers to perform titillating dances in films known as “item numbers”. Jackie turned them down as she did not want to be labelled an “item girl” in Hindi films. As a result she was virtually unemployed in a foreign country without family or friends for support.
Jacqueline Fernandez was miserable and described her despondent state of mind at that time in an interview given to the journalist Priya Gupta some years later. In that interview Jacqueline said: “I was cast in ’Jaane Kahan Se Aayi Hai’ and then I got to do an item number in ’Housefull’ and after that nothing happened. I would have these long conversations with Sujoy and Milap and doubted myself, considering even going back to Sri Lanka as I was just wasting time. They say that in the film industry you need to be patient as you never know when something can come up. But I had lost all patience.”
Still she clung on resolutely with determination and hope. After many months of no work, there was light at the end of the dark tunnel in the form of a telephone call from producer Mukhesh Bhatt. And there was just no stopping her after that. Jacqueline Fernandez had arrived.
Next: Ascending star of Jacqueline Fernandez
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
This article written for the “Spotlight” Column appears in the “Daily FT” of December 16, 2017. It can be accessed here: