In India's New Consumerism, One Star Has the Most Currency

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, August 12, 2007

NEW DELHI -- Months before I moved here as a correspondent for this newspaper, Indian American friends started cooing about Shah Rukh Khan, the king of Bollywood -- King Khan, as he is known by dreamy-eyed Hindi movie fans from New Jersey to New Delhi, from Bangalore to Bethesda.

"He's the love of my life," one friend said. Khan, short and shaggy-haired, is sort of an Indian Tom Cruise. "He's got camel-shaped eyes and he's so sensitive," another giggled. Another friend put it simply. "He's hot."

I had seen my share of five-hour Bollywood song-and-dance epics -- part escapist fairy tales, part campy Broadway shows.

In the 1980s, I lived in Queens Village, N.Y., where my Indian American best friend and I would travel by subway from our elementary school to the Hindi movie theater in Jackson Heights.

We were mesmerized by the melodrama: elaborate extravaganzas that unabashedly mixed romance with science fiction and, say, a private detective theme -- all of which made Michael Jackson's then-pioneering "Thriller" video seem under-acted.

Later, as a correspondent in Nairobi, I would climb into Land Rovers with expatriate and Kenyan Indian friends and head to the Indian-owned drive-in theaters, which sat in the middle of the savannas ringing the capital.

But I had to admit that even after all those hours, I still wasn't totally clear on who the big stars of Bollywood really were. I think I once mixed up Khan, known as "SRK" and a young-looking 41, with Amitabh Bachchan, or "AB," who is equally handsome but way past 60. That was a really big mistake.

I knew I'd better learn as soon as I unpacked. Not knowing the difference between SRK and AB would be like landing in the United States and confusing Brad Pitt with Robert Redford. Clearly two different generations.

So the very weekend my husband and I arrived in New Delhi, I started paying attention, reading Page 3 -- the gossip and glitterati pages of the Indian newspapers -- and trying to get a glimpse of the VVIPs. It's not just VIP, which describes a fairly routine upper-class person; it's VVIP when it comes to Bollywood.

I asked some friends to draw me a chart of the heroes and heroines of Bollywood, the largest film industry in the world, producing hundreds of movies each year and selling 3.6 billion tickets, compared with Hollywood's 2.6 billion. But there are only a handful of Indian superstars, and day-to-day it was Shah Rukh Khan whose name and face kept appearing.

That's why I was intrigued and thankful when I heard King Khan now has his own unauthorized biography, "King of Bollywood: Shah Rukh Khan and the Seductive World of Indian Cinema," released by Warner Books earlier this month. It's a lyrical and fascinating portrait of Khan. But it's also a window on a changing and increasingly consumerist India that is leaving behind its socialist and isolationist leanings -- a shift Khan embodies.

I had noticed that Khan was not only in Bollywood films and the hundreds of spinoff song-and-dance videos. It seemed that the down-to-earth Khan was selling everything from banking to biscuits. His face beamed from rice ads, Tag Heuer watch billboards and Pepsi commercials.

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