When it comes to international phenomena, it often seems like Americans are the last to know. Back in 2000, Shakira had made four albums and sold more than 8 million records worldwide before anyone in the US mainstream batted an eye in her direction. One had to go abroad to realize what a fanatical following the English boy band Blue boasted. Even today, Utada Hikaru just became the world's biggest selling digital single, and one would likely be hard-pressed to find a typical American who knows who she is.
We always talk about international stars "crossing over," whether it be Gong Li in Miami Vice, Aishwarya Rai in Bride and Prejudice, or Rain making his first English-language album. But recently, it seems to be a testament to America's self-indulgence that we assume all international stars need or want to come here in order to "make it big."
While in some cases there might be some truth to the numbers, Indian cinema (more prevalently known as Bollywood) is likely the most prominent example of an international phenomenon that has the power and numbers to trump the ego of Hollywood.
On June 23, 2007, ABC News ran a story about Shah Rukh Khan titled "The Biggest Movie Star You've Never Heard Of." When the question of transitioning to Hollywood comes up, director Koran Johar points out that Khan's Bollywood audience is already bigger than most Hollywood actors could ask for: "unless they are going to give Shah Rukh a parallel role to Tom Cruise's in a Hollywood film, why should he bother working there?"
Churning out over 800 movies a year (in comparison to the roughly 500 films a year that Hollywood makes), Bollywood movies are entrenched in Indian culture in a way that most countries cannot claim of their film industries. Adding an estimated 20 million non-resident Indians across 110 countries plus the numerous fans spanning but not limited to Malaysia, Poland, Germany, Indonesia, South Africa, and the Middle East, Bollywood might not be making more money (movie prices there don't compare to the shameless overcharging going on in the US), but they're selling more tickets around the globe. And eyeballs amount to a certain amount of clout.
Although there have been many books written about Indian cinema, Anupama Chopra's King of Bollywood: Shah Rukh Khan and the Seductive World of Indian Cinema is one of the first Bollywood books picked up by a major American publishing house: in this case, Warner Books. Expecting an international release from the beginning, Chopra had a unique challenge: how do you portray a mega star to an audience where everybody already knows every single minute detail surrounding his being, and also have it translate to readers in another community who may be completely ignorant of his existence?
As a writer, Chopra was very aware of this tight-rope straddle, and her strategy was to look beyond the actor. Instead of purely focusing on personal anecdotes, Chopra recognized the value of analyzing the evolution of the Bollywood film industry through the lens of Shah Rukh Khan.
What does it mean to have a Muslim superstar ruling cinema in a country that is predominantly Hindu? What kind of shift did it bring to Indian cinema when a charismatic, global yuppie figure, shaped by young twenty-something filmmakers, took over the previous dark, gritty, anti-establishment film hero that Amitabh Bachchan embodied? Why did Bollywood actors in the 1990s court commercial advertisements so freely and actively turn themselves into brands? How has the way that Shah Rukh has navigated his career been influenced by the twists and turns of Bollywood, which itself is constantly evolving to fit new market conditions and audiences?
As a result, Chopra assumes a role that is equal parts storyteller and film scholar through her numerous interviews with Shah Rukh Khan and individuals who had instrumental roles in his life.
Much is made out of author Anupama Chopra's family ties: married to director Vidhu Vinod Chopra, sister of director Tanuja Chandra and author Vikram Chandra, daughter of scriptwriter Kamna Chandra. But Chopra is a distinguished journalist in her own right, with over twenty years of experience working in print journalism both in India and the United States. She earned her MA in journalism from Medill, worked at Harper's Bazaar, India Today, and Variety Asia as well as writing for New York Times and Los Angeles Times. She's also authored two other books, including the British Film Institute-published Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge ("The Bravehearted Will Take the Bride"), which incidentally is what inititally inspired her to take on the story of Shah Rukh Khan.
In an interview with her superstar subject, Chopra says: "A journalist asked me, did Shah Rukh Khan do this book because you are Vidhu Vinod Chopra's wife. What is an appropriate response to that?" Shah Rukh Khan jokes "I did this book in spite of the fact that you were Vidhu Vinod Chopra's wife."
Most recently, Chopra taken on a new journalistic challenge: television. Since January of this year, she has scripted and hosted a film review show titled Picture This on NDTV, where she covers Hindi films and Hollywood releases that come out each week.
What she discovered from this experience is the extensive reach that television has. Compound this with the modern online world, with technology bringing easy access to information on a global scale, and one gets to the heart of how the world is getting smaller, and people are starting to take notice of world influences such as Bollywood.
Today, mainstream publications such as The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times regularly make the effort to review Hindi cinema. But Chopra observes that it wasn't until the last four or five years that American papers started writing about Bollywood.
"When I joined India Today [an equivalent of Time magazine in India] in 1993, Hindi film cinema in mainstream coverage was still very restricted," says Chopra. "It was still seen as something that wasn't taken very seriously because there was only one kind of film journalism, which was the more tabloid magazine journalism. It was just not seen as something that was part of mainstream intelligentsia culture."
In July of 2005, The New York Times commissioned a story from Chopra about the evolution of the Hindi cinema heroine -- how she is increasingly becoming less virtuous, as previous tradition had called for, and dabbling in more bad behavior.
"I think that was a sort of an experiment [for The New York Times]," says Chopra. "But that story ended up on the top ten most e-mailed stories list. It was then that they realized there is a huge interest in Hindi film. Maybe it's not from the mainstream American audience, but there is a global audience that is thrilled with the movies. That happened fairly regularly with the stories that I did."
Perhaps it is time for mainstream consumers to take off the domestic blinders and take a look outside of the good ol' American box. One of the reasons Anupama Chopra distinctly chose Shah Rukh Khan as the subject of her internationally-minded book (as opposed to Amitabh Bachchan) was because of Khan's distinctly global appeal.
One point Chopra emphasizes in King of Bollywood is that the character of Shah Rukh Khan that he displays to the masses is an ever-confident, charismatic romancer that is just as home in Indian culture as in Western culture. So it makes sense that a 2003 Neilsen EDI survey reports that seven out of the top ten Hindi films in the UK from 1989 onward starred Shah Rukh Khan. Chopra, and others in the Indian film industry, banks on his ability to reach outside the Indian community through his sheer likability. I mean, this is a man who charmed his way out of being a victim of Abu Salem, a mafia don who had specifically targeted Khan in the late 90s. (But that is a whole other story. Read Chapter 14: Mobsters and Movies.)
In addition to perpetual acting work (next up is his hockey flick Chak De India), Khan is also venturing into producing and setting up a special effects studio called Red Chillies to pursue his passion for science fiction. So even with new competition (Hrithik Roshan) and though Khan might not come out to Hollywood any time soon ("When I land in Los Angeles, Steven [Spielberg] is never there," he jokingly laments in Chopra's interview), the wheels of his twenty-year career are still turning in deliberate directions.
In the end, as Chopra's choice as the quintessential metaphor of Indian cinema's modern fluidity, Shah Rukh Khan -- like the Bollywood movie industry as a whole -- still aims to make a film that has undeniable worldwide impact.