'King of Bollywood: Shah Rukh Khan'

Also out in the U.S. this week: Anupama Chopra's King of Bollywood: Shah Rukh Khan and the Seductive World of Indian Cinema. As the title suggests, King of Bollywood is a full-length book meant for a general readership, looking back at the life and career of Shah Rukh Khan -- aka, the "Badshah". Chopra traces the various changes in the Bombay film industry in the 1990s, and argues that Shah Rukh is in many ways the face of the new, Yuppified, transnational Bollywood. I know that some readers may be a bit sick of Shah Rukh, though I would argue that Amitabh Bachchan has been far more over-exposed in the past few years (Shah Rukh has been only doing about one movie a year). The question Chopra is interested in isn't "is Shah Rukh Khan a great actor," it's "how and why has Shah Rukh been such a success in the Bombay film industry given his outsider status?"

Derived nearly entirely from face-to-face interviews, there's a lot of factual material about Shah Rukh Khan in Chopra's book that I didn't know -- and I suspect that all but the most diehard fans won't know most of it either.

For instance, I found Chopra's account of Shah Rukh's early acting career particularly interesting. This is the period before 1988, when he landed a major part in the TV serial Fauji -- and became a star almost overnight. After graduating from college, Shah Rukh started work on a Master's in Economics, but his real energy was spent working on his acting with a high-brow theater group in Delhi called the Theater Action Group. This drama company was based at the prestigious Lady Shri Ram College, and was led by a British hippie named Barry John. For nearly three years, Shah Rukh played smaller parts in serious, avant-garde plays, while other actors got top billing. Shah Rukh was also somewhat overlooked in Arundhati Roy'sexperimental film, In Which Annie Gives it Those Ones (1988); he tried out for the protagonist role, but was only cast as an extra.

To me all this was surprising because I've always thought of Shah Rukh as a "fun" actor; I'm having a hard time picturing him doing -- or at least trying to do -- all all this highbrow theater work.

One of the strengths of King of Bollywood is the way Chopra casually slips in paragraphs of analysis as she tells the story of Shah Rukh's ascent. Though this is a book aimed at a popular audience, she manages to make many of the points an academic film historian might make -- with a much lighter touch. For instance, take the following paragraph:

A few years later, Shah Rukh would tell journalists that as an actor he had only five expressions but he was a success because his rivals had only two. From the time he started performing professinoally, Shah Rukh's acting was as much about charisma as craft. 'Shah Rukh may not have been the best actor of his period,' Sanjoy Roy said, 'but even then he was a star.' The debate about Shah Rukh's skills started during his TAG days -- when a performance when acutely over the top, his friends joked that Shah Rukh 'had broken the roof.' It continued long after he became a globally recognized actor. If Amitabh Bachchan was defined by a mercurial intensity, Shah Rukh's keynote was innate buoyancy. An energetic determination tinted every role he played.

Here, I like the way Chopra delicately acknowledges that Shah Rukh is, as she puts it, "more charisma than craft" -- that is to say, he's no Lawrence Olivier. But he nevertheless brings something uniquely appealing to the table, a "happy" quality that has carried him from one superhit to the next. At his peak in the mid-90s, Shah Rukh was never sexy (like the relentlessly shirtless Salman Khan); if anything, he was charming. (More recently, I've felt that he's been riding a bit on the fumes of his earlier success, though it looks like he's about to turn the page in his career, and actually act his age in the upcoming Chak De India.)

Another interesting chapter in Shah Rukh's career happened just after he started getting roles in big Hindi films. In 1992-3, Shah Rukh did a sexually explicit scene in an adaptation of Madame Bovary, called Maya Memsaab. The filmi magazines were all over it -- an anonymous article in Cine Blitz even went so far as to suggest that Shah Rukh and actress Deepa Sahi (both of whom were married at the time to other people) were having actual, unsimulated sex in the scene. Shah Rukh was, needless to say, mortified -- he picked a fight with a reporter at the magazine, which went on for months. Since that time, he's never even done a kissing scene in any of his films. To me, this is interesting because it suggests that censorship in Bollywood derives not just from the censor board and the presumed conservatism of the masses, it's also in a sense the media that covers the industry that polices it.

Anupama Chopra also addresses the rather tedious rumor that Shah Rukh Khan is gay. This is something I've heard many straight Indian men repeat, as if it were a known fact -- though as far as I know there's no shred of evidence whatsoever to support it. Shah Rukh isn't even particularly 'femme', in my view, though it's certainly the case that he's willing to be less 'manly' than either of the other two Khans. But there's more than one way of being a heterosexual man, isn't there?

Chopra does acknowledge that there's a special relationship between Shah Rukh and director Karan Johar, but her characterization of it is worth quoting:

This enduring professional and personal proximity led to rumors that Shah Rukh and Karan were lovers, to which Shah Rukh replied with his typical wit, 'So how did I have two children? Heavy petting?' In fact, Karan was closer to Gauri. Karan treated Shah Rukh with a near-fanatical reverence, but Gauri was his mate. Karan helped her navigate the treacherous shifting loyalties in Bollywood and adjust to her newfound status of superstar wife. 'It was easy for me because Karan was there,' she said. 'I didn't miss Shah Rukh at all. With Karan, time just passed.'

Chopra seems to be implying (indirectly, of course) that Karan is in effect Gauri's gay best friend -- and that they both worship Shah Rukh. According to her account at least, Shah Rukh has always had eyes only for his wife, Gauri, whom he married after overcoming her parents objections, as well as her own reticence. He fought to get her, and he's been a fiercely possessive husband and father ever since.

There's more interesting stuff in this book -- including interesting chapters about Shah Rukh's family background (his grandfather was a freedom-fighter), as well as his career after his mid-90s peak era (KKHH, DDLJ), including resounding flops like Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani. But I'll leave off, and let readers get the book...

People may know Anupama Chopra from her various articles in the New York Times and other papers. For one thing, she's director Vidhu Vinod Chopra's wife. Chopra has also written two earlier books on Bollywood-related themes, including a full-length study of Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, and another on Sholay. But King of Bollywood is different, in that it's getting released on a major commercial press; the DDLJ book was on a British academic press, while the Sholay book was on Penguin India.

UPDATE: Check out a great, group interview with Anupama Chopra at Filmiholic. Thanks also to Filmiholic for arranging for me to get an advance copy of the book.