King of Bollywood

BY ANDREW MOODY

“Shah Rukh Khan is the face of a glittering new India. He is a modern-day god. On streets in India, his posters are sold alongside those of religious deities. Shrines have been erected in his name. For Indians and the varied non-Indian lover of popular Hindi cinema, Shah Rukh is bigger than Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt combined. Over fifteen years and fifty films, he has straddled Bollywood like a colossus. In the paan-stained studios of Mumbai, Shah Rukh’s story, how a middle class Muslim boy from Delhi became one of the biggest movie stars in the biggest film industry in the world, is legend.”

Like the majority of white, Western audiences, I have little time for Bollywood. When I was younger, the alpha male of our friendship group was a striking Indian whose mother used to dismissively refer to as a “coconut”, brown on the outside, white on the inside. Whilst she loved Bollywood cinema, my Indian friend had no interest in it, preferring Marvel and Star Wars movies.

After reading Anupama Chopra’s adoring biography of Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan, King of Bollywood, I have learnt much about this very specific form of cinema, and if you’re interested, Netflix now has dozens of Indian movies for you to devour at your leisure.

Bollywood form originates in theater: the high classical traditions, Urdu-Parsi theater, and folk forms such as street theater, all of which use music and song as part of the dramatic experience. Music in (Bollywood) cinema is a logical progression.”

Chopra, a master critic of Indian cinema, notes that back in the 1930’s and 40’s, there could be upwards of forty songs in each picture. 1932’s The Court of God Indra had an incredible seventy one songs.

“There are many Indias,” writes Chopra, “the country is the seventh largest globally in terms of size, with the second largest population…In Mumbai, the largest slum in Asia is separated only by a ten minute car ride from a five-star hotel…Both are valid Indian realities…in From Midnight to the Millennium, author Shashi Tharoor asks: “What makes so many people one people?”

One answer is Bollywood.”

The author approached Shah Rukh Khan in 2003 whilst researching a book—published in 2002—about the production and analysis of the 1995 film Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge. Being a “die-hard” fan of Khan, Chopra said that his fascinating personality, his personal life, and his status as the most prominent actor of India were her motivation to write the book. Khan, Chopra noted, “is a complete entertainer, on and off screen. And that’s what makes him endearing. He’s articulate, funny, and surprisingly normal. No starry nakhras (flirtting).” In an interview to the entertainment portal Bollywood Hungama, she described the book as “an attempt to look at Hindi cinema and at India” through Shah Rukh Khan’s life and work. Unlike Hollywood biographies, which often end with the fall of an icon through sex addiction, drugs or alcohol, Chopra’s evident love of Bollywood and for her avatar, the handsome and archetypal Indian movie star Rukh Khan makes her loving narrative far less dark and tragic than your typical Western tale of movie making scandal, from Fatty Arbuckle to Harvey Weinstein.

Refashioning Hollywood was not a novel concept. Bollywood has a long tradition of co-opting and plagiarising Hollywood ideas. Even Raj Kapoor was inspired by Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp figure. He had the talent to infuse Chaplin with an Indian sensibility in films such as Shri 420, but lesser talents are happy simply to steal. There is an entire school of writers and directors who take Hollywood films and “Bollywood-ize” them, that is, they dilute the sexual content and add melodrama and songs.”

 I knew next to nothing about Hindi cinema before I read King of Bollywood, and can wholeheartedly recommend it to both hardcore fans and the curious Western audiences who now have the option to watch examples of Bollywood on their digital apps. For cinema lovers, not just fans of Western movies, it might make a rather interesting stocking filler.