A former Bluffton High School exchange student hasn't let her success in Bollywood go to her head.
In 2005, Saunskruti Kher came to Hilton Head Island through the Rotary Youth Exchange program. A native of Nasik in Maharashtra, India, Kher spent half a year with Rotary Club of Bluffton member Deb Karambelas and her husband, Nickolas, on Hilton Head. She spent the other half of the year with Allen and Kim Ward in Bluffton. Rotary exchange students often live with two or more families during their yearlong visit to a foreign country.
"It was a huge culture shock," Kher said as she recalled her time as an exchange student in South Carolina. But she added, "It was a good year."
The 23-year-old actress recently returned to the states for the South Asian International Film Festival in New York City, where her film "The Greater Elephant" won the 2011 Jury Prize for Best Feature Film. India is one of the world's largest film producers. Bollywood is the nickname given to the film industry in Mumbai.
"We were all really happy," Kher said about her co-stars. "We weren't expecting it, so it was even better."
Kher played the lead female role in "The Greater Elephant," her first full-length feature film. She said she has also acted in a couple of short films, including "Arranged Marriage," which can be seen on YouTube.
Since Kher was already planning a trip back to the U.S. for the film festival in November, she couldn't pass up a chance to catch up with her old friends in the Lowcountry.
"I was more excited to come here than being in New York," she said. "It's like coming back home."
Kher flew into Savannah on Nov. 17 and stayed in the Lowcountry for a week. She said she noticed a lot has changed in the area since she was here six years ago. The Karambelases took her to lunch at The Cottage in Bluffton and to see the Promenade, neither of which were there the first time she visited.
And the Karambelases said while Kher is still the sweet, pretty girl they knew back in 2005, she has changed since they last saw her. When she stayed with them the first time, she was a strict vegetarian. This time she was much more daring and tried smoked salmon and even raw oysters.
"When she was here as a student, two things really worried me," Nickolas said. "One was that she was going to starve to death. ... The second thing was we took her on a cruise ... and she looked at me with all sincerity and said, 'I am not going to leave this place ever.' "
Kher said her experience as an exchange student gave her more self-confidence and taught her to be open-minded. No matter where her acting career leads her, Kher said she plans to keep in touch with her host families for the rest of her life. The Karambelases, who have an older daughter, share Kher's desire to stay in touch.
"We will always be a very large part of each other's lives," Deb said. "This is my other daughter."