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Crime, Celebrity, and Kissing On Screen: A Q&A on The King of Bollywood

Anupama Chopra knows first-hand about Bollywood, India’s burgeoning film industry. As a former film writer for India Today magazine and the wife of famed Indian writer/director Vidhu Vinod Chopra, she’s spent more than 15 years watching from the inside as the industry weathered widespread social change, rapid expansion, and economic globalization. Her new book, King of Bollywood: Shah Rukh Khan and the Seductive World of Indian Cinema, examines the role films have played in shaping India over the past two decades, focusing on one of the industry’s biggest success stories, actor and mega-celebrity Shah Rukh Khan. From her home in Mumbai, Chopra kindly agreed to answer our questions about her book.

Q: India has seen tremendous economic growth in the past 15 years, competing with China for the world’s fastest-growing economy. How have modernization, Western influences, and the influx of trade been reflected in the film industry?

A: The Hindi film industry in Mumbai, or Bollywood, has been completely overhauled in the last 15 years or so. When I first started writing about film in 1993 for India Today, Bollywood was, generally speaking, a large cottage industry. It was hugely disorganized and chaotic, and run by a handful of powerful and independent film dynasties. Stars were power centers, but they were filming two to three pictures at a time and running from one studio to another (back then, a studio meant only “a space in which to shoot,” not a film-making entity). Filmmakers raised money from varied sources — which sometimes included shady men with mafia connections. The mainstream press rarely covered the industry; urban, educated, affluent India saw it largely as an anarchic space, run by crass people making low-brow fare for the masses.

But a combination of factors transformed Bollywood. A key event was the arrival of multiplexes in 1997. Prior to that, Hindi cinema usually played in 1000-seat halls, leaving no outlets for smaller, niche films — if you couldn’t fill a hall that large, you were, financially speaking, dead on arrival. Multiplexes offered filmmakers a chance to speak exclusively to educated, urban Indians who, thanks to liberalization and the ensuing affluence, didn’t hesitate before spending 200 rupees ($5) on a movie ticket. The high ticket prices (single-screen theaters, by contrast, only cost 40 to 80 rupees, or $1 to $2) then made smaller films financially viable. This created what we call “The Multiplex Film” (essentially the equivalent of the Hollywood Indie film).

At the same time, the overseas market (the 20-million odd non-resident Indians residing outside of India) also became a source of revenue. Now, if a film was successful in urban India and overseas, it made far more money than if it was a success in the Indian heartland, where the ticket prices were still comparatively low. At the same time, a new generation of younger, slicker filmmakers entered cinema and started to cater to these new, more sophisticated markets. The result was a more polished Bollywood product. Films were better crafted, and directors no longer tried to appeal to the lowest common denominator.

Today, Bollywood is a corporate entity. The industry is overrun by educated, thirty-something filmmakers who are attempting to redefine what makes a Bollywood film. Since the returns on movies have increased tenfold, legitimate investors are no longer hard to find. Many Bollywood studios are listed on the Bombay Stock Exchange, and several large corporations have bought into them. Even Hollywood wants a piece of the action — Sony Pictures Entertainment and Warner Bros. are currently co-producing Hindi movies.

Q: You discuss the cultural divide that played out in 1990s India, in which Western culture, wealth and lifestyles were both coveted and rejected in favor of traditional Indian values (a conflict that was exacerbated by growing wealth and class disparities). How was this shift reflected in the film industry?

A: The shift was reflected in the content of the films themselves. One of the landmark films of the decade was a movie called Hum Aapke Haain Koun…! (Who am I to you?). The film was essentially about two weddings and a funeral, with 14 songs crammed in. It was an unabashed celebration of the Hindu joint family, in which aunts, uncles, cousins, hired help and even the pet Pomeranian live happily together without any clash. Critics savaged it as a “wedding video,” but it created records at the box office. At a time, when the urban Indian family was in a tumult, with changing gender roles, increased spending power, and changing aspirations, this film provided a Technicolor fantasy.

One year later came the Shah Rukh blockbuster Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jeyenge (The Braveheart Will Take the Bride). Popularly known as “DDLJ,” the film once again celebrated the joint family, Indian culture, and tradition. In it, two young, affluent, educated Indians raised in London fall in love, but when the girl’s father disapproves, the couple decides not to elope. Instead, the hero (Shah Rukh) slowly and strategically wins over every member of the girl’s family. Through it all, he is the perfect blend of East and West — he wears a Harley Davidson jacket and is always cool, despite the fact that the pair never kisses. The film’s message is that love isn’t enough — you must also have parental approval, essentially saying that a love marriage must also be arranged. “DDLJ” became the longest running film in the history of Indian cinema — it is still running in a Mumbai theater called Maratha Mandir.

The success of these films inspired a slew of spinoffs celebrating Indian culture and tradition, as filmmakers rushed to provide an escape in the face of massive cultural and economic churning.

Q: How do Bollywood mega-stars like Shah Rukh compare to Hollywood A-listers in terms of earning power and cultural influence? (You mention that Shah Rukh made just 35 million rupees, or $750,000, per film at the height of his career — a tiny sum by Hollywood standards.)

A: In terms of cultural influence, I believe Bollywood stars are far bigger than Hollywood stars. Indian moviegoers have a unique, almost devotional relationship with their stars. Superstars like Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh are modern-day Gods.

In the course of writing this book, I traveled to Jaipur and Chandigarah with Shah Rukh. The hysteria he incites is remarkable. There are fans (educated, adult fans included) who actually believe that he is a version of God. His posters are sold on streets, alongside those of various deities. As big as Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise are, I doubt that fans in the U.S. treat them as semi-divine.

Of course, in terms of earnings, there is no comparison. Though earnings here have more than doubled since I wrote the book, they still don’t compare to the $20 million contracts handed to lead actors in Hollywood. Currently, Bollywood doesn’t have the markets to sustain $200 million films and $20 million stars; but, as the industry continues to flourish financially, I’m sure that will change.

Q: You discuss the ethnic tensions that divide India’s Muslim and Hindu populations. Is Bollywood affiliated with a particular ethnic group? Do Muslim directors refuse to work with Hindu actors, etc.? Have stars like Shah Rukh crossed ethnic lines and created a de-stratifying effect?

A: The Hindi film industry [referring to the Hindi language, not the Hindu religion] has never been affiliated with a particular ethnic group, and Hindus and Muslims have always worked together closely. In terms of religion, Bollywood is a neutral oasis — perhaps because the biggest God here is the box office. Currently, the three biggest stars in Bollywood — Shah Rukh, Aamir Khan, and Salman Khan — are Muslim. Shah Rukh never had to cross lines because there were no lines to cross.

Q: Bollywood films have successfully crossed over in Europe, generating huge fan bases and revenues, but the industry hasn’t made an impact on the American mainstream. Why not? Have any members of the industry successfully crossed over?

A: Mira Nair and the late Ismail Merchant have had great success in America; but, strictly speaking, they are not “Bollywood” filmmakers. No one from the Hindi film industry has managed to cross over — yet. Aishwarya Rai is perhaps our best known export. You do have flashes of Bollywood in the American mainstream — Hindi film songs are played during American movies (recall Moulin Rouge) or Bollywood dance/exercise classes become all the rage. I believe that the impact is growing — just the fact that a publishing house like Grand Central would do a book on Shah Rukh is an indication that things are changing. There is greater interaction between the two industries than ever before, and hopefully this growth will show some concrete results.

Q: How do Bollywood actors and directors view Hollywood? Is there a desire to keep their industry separate? What kind of American films and stars do well in India?

A: Hollywood is unquestionably the most powerful film factory in the world. I believe most filmmakers and actors here would love to participate in it. There is no desire to keep the industry separate — filmmakers here are very clear that they want the two to meet, and I think Bollywood craves the technical finesse and action skills of Hollywood actors, directors, and special effects teams. But at the same time, Bollywood filmmakers will not dilute their unique form and storytelling to appeal to a Western audience. They will not short-change their primary audience, a group that comes to see Bollywood movies for their special qualities.

Still, all sorts of American films and stars are popular here. And, just like in the U.S., mainstream films are more widely released than smaller, indie cinema. The current rage in theaters is The Bourne Ultimatum.

Q: You mention that India produces up to 800 films a year. How do the costs of filmmaking compare to those in the U.S.? Do directors outsource for locations, etc. to save on costs?

A: This is a common misconception: India makes about 800 films a year, not Bollywood. The Mumbai film industry (where Bollywood is based) produces only around 200 of these. The most expensive films in India (such as Devdas and Sivaji) cost between 500 million rupees ($12.5 million) and 750 million rupees ($18.5 million) to make. As such, the total budgets of the most expensive Bollywood films are the equivalent of a few special effects-loaded minutes in the $200 million comic book behemoths that Hollywood is currently producing.

Most of the A-list Bollywood films include some foreign locations — Switzerland used to be all the rage, but it became so overused that directors started looking for more exotic pastures, such as Egypt and Norway. These days, Hindi films are just as likely to be based in New York, Sydney, and London as they are in Mumbai or New Delhi.

Q: Does Bollywood follow India’s very strict traditional views about sexuality, and particularly premarital sex? Have modernization and the influx of Western culture led to a relaxation of what can and cannot be depicted on screen?

A: Absolutely. There never were any censorship guidelines regarding kissing on-screen. But earlier stars and directors refused to do it. They were just too uncomfortable, and so sexuality was sublimated in what were sometimes seriously vulgar song-and-dance sequences that often involved heaving, thrusting, and rain.

But the new generations of stars and filmmakers have fewer qualms about kissing and sexuality. Many of the multiplex films even depict extramarital affairs. Last year, a film called Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna (Never Say Goodbye) had Shah Rukh, the nation’s romantic icon, falling in love with another man’s wife. The two were even shown checking into a hotel room together. This was a big step for Bollywood. Shah Rukh still refuses to kiss on screen, but most other stars have no such hang-ups. Of course, nudity is not permitted in Bollywood, because the censors won’t allow it; but Hindi film heroines have lifted their hemlines and dropped their necklines quite furiously in the last decade.

Q: Do female A-list stars command the same respect, earning power and cultural influence as their male counterparts? If they get married, do their status and celebrity standing change?

A: Female stars do command the same respect, but they don’t have the clout of their male counterparts — financial or otherwise. Like Hollywood, Bollywood is a male-centric industry. Traditionally, Bollywood heroines quit showbiz after marriage. In the last decade, that has begun to change. There are now a slew of heroines such as Juhi Chawla and Madhuri Dixit who have continued to act after getting married and having babies.

Still, the true test case will be Aishwarya, who did not take a break after her marriage this year. If her films continue to succeed at the box office, they will break the industry norm that married women are not accepted as romantic leads — though Rai recently refused a major studio project, saying that it was too risqué for her married status.

Q: You discuss the mafia killings of several prominent industry figures in the late ’90s, and how the mob went on to conduct extortion schemes in Bollywood, threatening stars and directors with violence unless they forked over cash. Did the crime wave have a chilling effect on the industry? Were there any direct ties to organized crime inside Bollywood?

A: The mafia years were extremely scary. A leading music industry baron was murdered, and then Rakesh Roshan, a major filmmaker, just barely escaped death — he was shot several times, and one bullet just barely missed his heart. My husband, Vidhu Vinod Chopra, is an A-list filmmaker here in India, and we faced threats ourselves, and chose to live with armed bodyguards for several months. The violence was bewildering. What made it so scary was that it was so childishly simple — anyone could call your cell phone and demand money, or else threaten you. At one point, whenever a major party or film preview was taking place, there would be more bodyguards in attendance than industry folk.

As for inside connections, there were a few people inside the industry with direct links to organized crime, but mostly they were fringe players.

Q: You discuss how Shah Rukh, despite his status as an international superstar, remained addiction-free, stayed married to his childhood sweetheart, and kept perspective on his fame — a sharp contrast to U.S. headlines announcing the drug use, divorces and arrests of American celebrities. Is the culture of celebrity any different in India? Are stars treated with more, or similar respect by the Indian media? Is Shah Rukh simply an exception to the rule?

A: The culture of celebrity is different in India. Post-liberalization, there has been an explosion in the media coverage devoted to the industry. Current conventional wisdom states that in India, only two things sell: cricket, and Bollywood. So the industry, and especially its stars, have become fodder for mainstream magazines, newspapers, and, of course, television programs. Actors — what they wear, how they exercise, etc. — are routine news material.

Nevertheless, the Indian media is still not as hard-core tabloid as the U.S. media. The Indian media is more respectful — there are certain lines which reporters will hesitate (if not always refuse) to cross. Also, celebrities here simply aren’t as messed up as their American counterparts … yet. Divorces, affairs, and arrests are becoming more common (Shah Rukh is the exception, not the norm). Drug use has made Indian headlines in the last few years, but we haven’t seen the likes of Mel Gibson‘s drunken rant or the Paris Hilton sex tape. India, even the post-liberalized, urban, affluent India, is still far more conservative than America.