August 18, 2008

Cheetah Girls Do Bollywood

By Mike Hughes

The good news about stardom is that it can take you to new heights.

The bad news? Sometimes, those heights are atop a moving elephant.

"I was so petrified," Adrienne Bailon said. "That elephant was just gi-normous."

That was for the Disney Channel's "The Cheetah Girls: One World," which dares to go against the final weekend of the Olympics.

The movie was filmed mostly in India, incorporating local flavor. That explains why the three Cheetahs were atop Ramu, 73, who got on her belly so they could board.

"She was super, super big," Sabrina Bryan said. "We still had to take a ladder to get up into the basket."

Then Ramu walked. Lurching from side to side, the Cheetahs were supposed to sing.

"We're trying to lip-sync and ... trying to look kind of pretty," Bryan said."

The combination didn't always work, Kiely Williams said. "At one point (director Paul Hoen) stops us and is like, 'Do you guys know the words to your own song?' And we were like, 'Yes, well, we're trying to concentrate and not die.'"

They didn't die. They emerged with stories to tell and with a pleasant-enough movie musical -- one with a predictable plot, bouncy songs and spectacular backdrops.

The idea started with the Cheetah Girls novels, about ethnically diverse friends. For the original (2004) movie in which they became a singing group, Disney hired:

Williams, now 22, and Bailon, 24. They were two-thirds of a New York rhythm-and-blues group, 3LW.

Bryan, now 23, a California actress and dancer.

And Raven-Symone, the only known star in the bunch.

After the first movie came out, the quartet shrank to a trio. "We love Raven, (but she) has her own brand now. ... It's just become hard to merge the two brands," said producer Debra Martin Chase.

Yes, there's been talk of adding a fourth Cheetah, possibly Disney actress Brenda Song. And yes, future films are likely to be in exotic places. "I think we're going to Antarctica for the fourth one," jokes Disney executive Gary Marsh.

The second film (2006) was shot in Spain and the third in India. For 10 weeks, the actresses adjusted to a new world.

"You have never seen anything like this," Williams said. "There are no lanes for driving. People make lanes where they want to."

This lane-free life is appealing, she said. "It's awesome. We had such a good time."

The backdrops were stunning, Bryan said. "The women in the streets had this beautiful clothing, with vibrant colors."

None of the filming was in India's famed "Bollywood" studios, but there were song-and-dance numbers -- including the elephant one -- done in the Bollywood style. There were also key settings.

"When we got to the Monsoon Palace, it was breathtaking," Williams said.

This was new to the Cheetah actresses, but not to their co- stars.

Rupak Ginn and Kunal Sharma were born and raised in the U.S., but have family roots in India. "I grew up going back every year," Ginn said.

Then there's Deepti Daryanani. After growing up in Calcutta, she came to the U.S. to study acting. Instead, she was cast instantly in this movie.

"I just came to the United States and they just sent me back," Daryanani said.

"They were asking me, 'How long have you been here?' So I said, '20 days.'"

Then she was back in her homeland amid a pack of Americans. "She was our personal tour guide," Bryan said.

There was much to adjust to and readjust to, Bailon said. Some of the filming was in Mumbai "and it's like the third noisiest city in the world."

Afterward, she returned to the relative silence of Los Angeles. "I kind of missed all those cars in the streets."

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