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RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - The pink-walled palaces, shimmering saris and Bollywood dances all scream India. So why are the actors speaking Portuguese and kissing passionately?
Welcome to Brazil's latest soap opera hit, a lavish production that has sparked a mini India boom in Brazil, even while taking liberties with its portrayal of the Asian giant.
The "Caminho das Indias" (Way of the Indias) telenovela, with Hindi phrases thrown into the Portuguese dialogue, has piqued Brazilians' interest in the emerging economic powerhouse that was little-known here before.
Hindi phrases such as the exclamation "Arre Baba" (Oh my goodness!) have entered everyday speech; interest in yoga, meditation and Indian dance is on the rise and demand for Indian clothes and decorations has jumped.
On Rio de Janeiro's beaches, vendors are touting Indian-style sarongs.
"People like it because it's very energetic and very happy," said Samra Sanches, an instructor who has started giving Indian dance classes. "We try to work on moves similar to those in the novela."
The story, which like most Brazilian soaps is told in a grueling 200 or so episodes over more than six months, centers on a forbidden love between beautiful high-caste woman Maya and handsome Bahuan, a low-caste Dalit, a group formerly known as "Untouchables."
Filmed partly in India's Rajasthan state, the action flits between Jaipur and Agra where tradition and religion hang in the air and the beach-side Rio of micro-bikinis.
"The novela shows the respect in India for the elders of a family, which isn't always the case in the West," said Tony Ramos, a 60-year-old soap opera idol who plays the conservative head of the Brahmin Ananda family in the series.
He spoke between takes at Brazilian entertainment giant Globo's studios, where several Indian "towns" have been constructed complete with Hindi temples and a river Ganges.
Ramos and the other leading actors spent three weeks filming in India, on top of a two-month course to get them up to speed on yoga, Indian dance moves and language.
The impact of "Caminhos" on Brazilians' speech, fashion, and interests is the latest example of soap operas' powerful social influence in Latin America's biggest country.
Globo's prime-time novelas, often portraying a wealthy elite in Rio that is far from the everyday reality of most Brazilians, can grab more than 40 million viewers a night.
Indian Ambassador to Brazil B.S. Prakash said his embassy had seen a jump in phone calls and e-mails from Brazilians curious about India. The novela, he said, helped fill a cultural gap between the two nations that remained wide despite stronger diplomatic relations in recent years.
"The novela in that sense has opened many doors, many people are getting to have an impression about India," he told Reuters by telephone from Brasilia.
"Caminhos" has attracted strong ratings and spawned at least one spin-off program on Indian life. But the steamy demands of a Brazilian soap opera have inevitably crossed the line of what would be acceptable in India, where public or on-screen kissing is still taboo.
Some Indians in Brazil are shocked by the sexual encounters between Maya and Bahuan, saying Maya would have been expelled by her family if they had happened in real life.
Some critics also take issue with the portrayal of widespread discrimination against Dalits and a rigid caste system which they say is out of date.
But actor Ramos, fresh from a scene in which he goes head-to-head against a Dalit candidate in an election, defended the portrayal of the caste system as not so far from reality.
"It's the same when you show the Brazil of slums, or the political problems -- many Brazilians will say my country isn't like that," he said.
Additional reporting by Julia Aquino; Editing by Alan Elsner