The Seductive Shah Rukh Khan and his Playing Field
Film critic and author Anupama Chopra's book is not just a biography, but also a studied yet entertaining look at a rapidly transforming nation, and an equally dynamic film industry
King of Bollywood: Shah Rukh Khan and the Seductive World of Indian Cinema
Grand Central Books
Reviewed by MARIA GIOVANNA
Many journalists revel in "the get." A "get" can be anything from being the first to interview Martha Stewart after she's released from jail to tracking down someone elusive and vital to the story.
For film journalist Anupama Chopra, her "get" was Bhavesh Sheth of Dalton, Georgia. Chopra knew she wanted to start the book with a description of what she had seen of Sheth in a documentary The Outer World of Shah Rukh Khan. Sheth had volunteered from his seat in the audience, and was selected to dance onstage with Khan when the Tempations 2004 tour came to Atlanta.
Chopra realized she needed to speak with this otherwise nameless and faceless fan, about the half hour he spent with King Khan, chatting and re-enacting a song from Devdas.
But how to locate him? All that was revealed on stage was that he was Bhavesh Sheth from Dalton, Georgia. With the help of research assistant Leo Murani, she feverishly pursued all leads to find this young man who would provide the perfect launch for the rest of her book. At one point, Chopra also enlisted help from her sister-in-law in Michigan, who called every Sheth in the Atlanta area. Someone told them that Bhavesh was in the hotel business, which led to calls to hotel associations, and then success. Almost.
When they finally pinpointed him, it turned out Sheth was in Ahmedabad, and due to fly back to Atlanta the next day. Chopra picked up the hotelier at the domestic terminal in Mumbai, bundled him plus his family and their eight bags into her car, and interviewed him on the drive over to the international terminal.
It's this devotion to detail that Anupama Chopra has used to produce a book that is both a comprehensive primer for those who are new to mainstream Hindi movies, while still containing enough insider details (Khan's father, Meer, traveled to Mumbai in a failed attempt to become an actor) and scoops (Khan's character in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, Raj, was originally supposed to buy condoms, not beer, at the convenience store owned by Simran's father) to keep filmi aficionados enthralled until the very end.
But in reality, King of Bollywood is not just one book, but three. In her seventeen chapters, using Bhavesh and his encounter with the superstar as the jumping off point, Chopra leads her readers through Shah Rukh Khan's family history (with roots in Peshawar) while neatly weaving in the history of the Indian film industry and also folding in the highlights of post-Independence India, with special emphasis on the 1990s. When the story reaches that decade, Chopra artfully intertwines the growth spurt of post-liberalization India with the surge in Shah Rukh Khan's career as a yuppie hero. (When Khan appeared in 1998 wearing an orange Gap sweatshirt in Karan Johar's designer label megahit debut Kuch Huch Hota Hai, the same item in London Gap stores sold out immediately.)
For people who have seen much of Delhi-born Khan on the big screen, and think they know him well as the athletic, hyper actor whose stammering and blinking mannerisms call to mind Hugh Grant, the book offers a revealing look into the human being residing in the brand ambassador shell. Readers learn about Khan's parents' financial struggles, their early deaths and their profound affects on Khan and his sister, the nascent actor's improbable love affair with Gauri, the Hindu girl who would become his wife, and Khan's rapid rise from TV hero on Fauji to the movie star of the 1990s.
Chopra has covered the Bollywood beat at India Today for over a decade. She signed on with them upon return from getting her Masters in journalism at Medill/Northwestern. In recent years, she has also written columns for the New York Times and Variety about the mainstream Hindi film industry. It's interesting to note that King of Bollywood is published by an American publisher.
One previous book of Chopra's was a monograph, published by the British Film Institute, devoted entirely to Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge. King of Bollywood contains a chapter devoted to that film too, as well as one on Khan's production debut flop Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani, and the chapter on the redemptive success of Devdas and Khan's climb back to the top. The book also opens with a helpful who's who of important names in the industry, and closes with a detailed list of references at the end.
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"He has an unflagging energy and charisma. You cannot take your eyes off him on screen."
Says author Anupama Chopra of Shah Rukh Khan, in a conversation with Ashish Kumar Sen. Excerpts from the interview follow.
AnupamaChopra & SRK.jpg
Author Anupama Chopra with Shah Rukh Khan at the launch of the book.
What prompted you to write this book?
This book stemmed out of the second book I wrote: a monograph on Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jeyenge, which the British Film Institute published as part of their Modern Classics Series. While writing about DDLJ, I became very interested in Shah Rukh's story of an outsider who came in and became a superstar. I also became interested in Shah Rukh as the face of a post-liberalized India. So this book is an attempt to tell the story of Bollywood and India through Shah Rukh's life and films.
Hollywood has a galaxy of stars - why is it that one star dominates Bollywood for long periods of time?
I'm not really sure why our stars have longer shelf lives. Perhaps our passion for our superstars is far greater. Also, our stars do more movies than Hollywood stars and that perhaps leads to more hits and therefore an extension of the career.
How do you explain the Shah Rukh phenomenon?
I think he has a great and intimate connection with the audience. He has an unflagging energy and charisma. You cannot take your eyes off him on screen.
In your book you have many interesting anecdotes about Shah Rukh - what was your favorite?
I loved the stories about his parents and their struggle. They both sound like fascinating people.
I believe he was reluctant to do the book. What did it take to convince him? What was the experience like doing this book with him?
He said he was embarrassed that I wanted to spend so much time and energy writing a book on him. But once he said yes, he was wonderfully supportive and warm. He was generous with his time and his emotions.
After writing this book what did you learn about the man that surprised you?
I did not know that his father also came to Bombay to be an actor. I didn't know that his first feature film was In Which Annie Gives it Those Ones, which was written by Arundhati Roy. He also spoke very openly about his harassment at the hands of the mafia and how shattered he was when Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani flopped.
You write - Shah Rukh became Bollywood's biggest romantic icon without ever locking lips with a co-star. Was it really the bad press he got after Maya Memsahib that made him averse to such scenes?
He also says that he feels very shy doing such scenes. He's just not comfortable and he doesn't believe that it's necessary to kiss to convey romance.
He's a man who has everything - has done everything - what is his biggest regret?
I think it would be losing his parents at such an early stage. Not that he could've helped it in any way. But they didn't live to see him soar.
Is there anything that he hasn't done which he now seeks to do?
He wants very much to create a Hindi film which will cross over to mainstream Western audiences and work around the globe. He's also setting up a special effects studio.
Is he still as willing to take risks with acting roles as he was in his younger days - or has he created a niche for himself by doing certain formulaic parts?
I think he is already taking risks with films like KANK, which clearly shattered the romantic Raj/Rahul image and the upcoming Chak De, which isn't part of the candy floss narrative at all.
You talk about him being a Muslim star who is treated like a god in a predominantly Hindu society - has his role in any way helped Hindu-Muslim relations?
I think Hindi films and Hindi film stars are a huge influence on society.
So a much-loved Muslim icon like Shah Rukh Khan can only be a positive influence.
What is your favorite SRK movie?
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