Tuesday, August 28, 2007

King of Bollywood

Anupama Chopra is a well-regarded film journalist with insider connections. Shah Rukh Khan is a charismatic actor who came to Bombay with no money or connections and transformed himself into a superstar. The combination of their sensibilities and talents should have resulted in a memorable book. The intention seems to have been to view the changes in Bollywood from the late 1980s to the early 2000s through the lens of Shah Rukh's career; the jacket copy promises "the first comprehensive narrative of Bollywood published in the US."

Alas, King of Bollywood: Shah Rukh Khan and the Seductive World of Indian Cinema is a bit of a disappointment. We hear what sound like well-worn stories about Shah Rukh's early career, and we get a highly compressed description of the changes in the Indian economy in general and Bollywood in particular in the decade following the economic liberalization of the early 1990s. Chopra's main thesis seems to be that SRK symbolizes a new cosmopolitan Indian identity. His characters often live in or travel to London or New York, and display the consumer tokens of globalization (Pepsi, basketball, designer clothes). At heart, though, SRK's characters retain a deep connection to Indian traditions and culture, easing viewers' anxieties about the loss of a specifically Indian identity under the impact of Western-style consumerism. The original template for this character appears in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995), but similar elements recur in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998), Kabhi Khushie Kahbie Gham (2001), Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003), and Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna (2006); the reawakening of an identification with India in a Westernized engineer is the explicit theme of Swades (2004).

But the book is hardly comprehensive--there's little discussion of other stars or filmmakers outside of Aditya and Yash Chopra, Karan Johar, and Sanjay Leela Bhansali--and apart from DDLJ and Devdas (2002) it lacks detailed analyses of particular films. In particular Chopra gives short shrift to SRK's post-Devdas work, omitting discussion of films like Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003), Veer-Zaara (2004) and Paheli (2005). Large chunks of the narrative are lifted almost verbatim from her 2002 book on DDLJ, and a certain critical distance seems to be missing throughout.

This is understandable. Beth Loves Bollywood recently posted a comment from a friend of hers who participated in a group interview with SRK on the occasion of the London opening of his new film Chak de India (2007). Beth's friend wrote, "I asked him a question about where he sees Indian cinema in 5 years and he looked at me as he spoke. At this point, I began to feel slightly, uh, swoony. He has the most amazing eyes--a sort of liquid amber, like cognac or something. They are mesmerising. I could feel my critical faculties ebbing away as they were directed at me..."

So nothing against Anupama Chopra if her critical faculties ebbed a bit during the research for this book--she's only human. I do think, though, that the definitive book on Bollywood from the late 1980s onwards remains to be written. Meanwhile, I highly recommend her book on DDLJ, and only wish that in King of Bollywood she had discussed more of SRK's films at a similar level of critical detail.

Update 9/12/07: On re-reading this post I realize that it sounds a bit more negative about King of Bollywood than I actually feel. Chopra's book is entertaining and well-written; it just doesn't fulfill some of the promises the jacket copy makes, or meet some of the expectations raised by her book on DDLJ. For another (more enthusiastic) perspective, see Beth Loves Bollywood's review of the book.


  1. I think her book on Sholay is one of the best books I've ever read about film. It's very worthy of the film :-)

  2. Thanks, Memsaabstory, for your recommendation. I saw Sholay recently and I've been thinking about posting on it. But perhaps I should read Chopra's book first, because it seemed to me that many of the scenes that Sholay borrowed from various Westerns were done better in the originals. Chopra, who is indeed an insightful writer, might help me understand what gives Sholay its legendary status in Hindi cinema.