Hello everyone and welcome to [this transcript of] our virtual, multi-country, multi-continent event to discuss Anupama Chopra’s latest book: The King of Bollywood: Shah Rukh Khan and the Seductive World of Indian Cinema.
The book – which traces Shah Rukh Khan’s career from his young days in Delhi to his pervasive success in 2007, while also examining the growth and changes in the Hindi film industry – is published by Warner Books and has been available for pre-order on Amazon.com for a while now, and will be published very shortly (in the US on August 2, in India on August 9, and in the UK on September 6).
Anupama began her film journalist career in 1993 at the magazine India Today, and since then has also written for the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and Variety, among others. In addition, she has already published books about Sholay and Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge.
Participating in today’s discussion with the author are:
* Babasko, a.k.a. Barbara, who blogs about Bollywood from Austria at Baba aur Bollywood,
* Maja, SRK enthusiast based in Slovenia, who blogs here
* Michael, lawyer and blogger who writes from Germany about Hindi and Tamil movies here,
* Jo, Bollywood fan and owner of the funky London fair trade shop Ganesha,
* Darshana, who participates frequently from NY in Hindi movie discussion forums at Bollywhat.com. (She also worked as a background extra on Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna),
* Beth, who resides in Illinois, USA and blogs at Beth Loves Bollywood,
* and me, Filmiholic
Maria: Anupama, let me get the ball rolling and say that I think you’ve managed to write a book that is informative for people who are new to these films and who might be curious to learn more about them or Shah Rukh Khan, while also containing many interesting details for long-standing fans of mainstream Hindi movies and SRK, which can’t have been an easy balance to achieve, so congrats for that.
What I do find fascinating is that this book is being published by an American house. Can you share with us how they decided to go ahead with a book on an actor who, while recognized worldwide, and within the US, though by only a segment of the population, but who is not a household name here? They must feel confident that there is, and will be, a market for a book on this subject, right? Can you tell us about this?
Anupama: Hi Everyone. Firstly, thanks for taking the time to read my book and participate in this event. I think it’s incredibly exciting that all of us, separated by thousands of miles and time zones and borders have connected over Bollywood and Shah Rukh Khan. So thanks, Maria, for making this happen.
Regarding, how Warner Books (actually they have been renamed Grand Central Publishing), decided to go with this book:
I was very clear that I didn’t want to write a book only for the Indian market. Book writing is a lonely, long, arduous journey with usually a miniscule pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. You do it because you love to do it. So I figured if I’m going to spend a few years of my life writing a book, I at least want it to be available in book stores in countries in the world. I wanted to write for an American publishing house but as you point out, not many in mainstream American publishing had heard of Shah Rukh Khan. I think it happened largely because of my agent Anna Ghosh (Scovil, Chichak and Galen). Anna helped me to put together a 60 page proposal, which included a marketing plan, which she then shopped out to publishers. Anna, very smartly, sent out proposals to several Indian editors. This way, at least we were speaking to the converted and didn’t have to start from scratch. The proposal was picked up by Devi Pillai at Warner (she has since left). Devi wasn’t a big Bollywood fan herself but she knew what this whole universe is about. If I remember correctly, Devi’s niece was a big Shah Rukh fan. Devi convinced Warner that this was a book worth doing and they bought it. But it is a leap of faith for them. I hope it works.
Maja: I haven’t read any other books about SRK before and I didn’t know much about his life, so I really enjoyed finding out more about him in this book, but I was wondering – considering that quite a few books have been published about him already, how did you decide to write another one? Also, I like how the book is not only about Shah Rukh, but also about the history of Bollywood, and I even learnt something about the history of India from it. How did that come about – that it’s not strictly just a biography, that it includes so much other information too?
Anupama: The idea of writing about Shah Rukh Khan grew out of my second book Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jeyenge (British Film Institute). When I wrote a monograph on DDLJ, I found myself becoming more and more fascinated by Shah Rukh’s story, his incredible ascent and how he became the face of a post-liberalized India. King of Bollywood was never meant to be a biography. It was written as a portrait of Bollywood as seen through the life and films of Shah Rukh Khan. I hope that I’ve managed to create a picture of Bollywood with Shah Rukh in the foreground and many, many other things in the background. The ambition was to create a window to a superstar’s life, Bollywood and India.
I think in so many ways this book is so different from the other book on Shah Rukh. I believe that I have added to the conversation on him and on Indian culture and films. So I wasn’t worried at all about the other books.
Beth: I really enjoyed – and benefited from – the descriptive background information about what Hindi popular films and the film industry were like in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as well as the context you give for particular people (Yash and Aditya Chopra, for example), particular films, styles of filmmaking, etc. The book feels almost as much like a biography of Hindi filmmaking in the last few decades as it does of Shahrukh Khan. Did you assume that most of your readership would not already know much of this information, or was it included in order to emphasize the relationship that exists between Shahrukh’s career and its setting? Are you hoping to attract readers who are relatively new to learning about Hindi cinema?
Anupama: I’m happy to hear that you found the non-Shah Rukh material interesting. I wanted to trace the evolution of the film industry and also give a context for his career. I think it’s so much more interesting that way (I hope you all agree). And yes of course, we are hoping to attract readers who are new to Hindi film. Warner is marketing this book to the mainstream American market so it isn’t purely an Indian or Bollywood lover thing. This balancing of information and details was the most difficult thing to achieve in the book. It had to speak to both — the American reader who knows very little about Bollywood and the Indian reader who even knows that Shah Rukh Khan eats chicken everyday. I hope I’ve managed to make it interesting for both. It was a tall, ambitious order but that’s what made it challenging and fun.
Darshana: First, thank you to Maria and Anupama, this is a precious opportunity for me as I am an admirer of Anupama’s writing, enough to have hunted down her NYT articles and printed them out.
I see this book as one that can be read by the kind of person who reads good movie writing in the Times, The New Yorker, etc. — it’s clear, interesting, intelligent but non-academic writing on popular culture. I look forward to recommending it – well, handing it to — my friends who are not immersed in Hindi cinema.
My question is related to these remarks: I love this kind of popuIar culture analysis (I love Shah Rukh, too), and I find surprisingly little journalistic writing about Indian mainstream movies that is on the level of Anupama’s writing or takes the movies as a serious subject. So I would love to know: how did you get here? How did you come to write about the popular movie world? Did you have to overcome any kind of disapproval — real disapproval, or a worry about meeting it? Has your attitude toward Hindi movies gone through changes over time, or have you always liked, loved, appreciated them? Or of course anything you might think of on this general subject.
Anupama: Thank you Darshana. It’s always thrilling to know that people read and appreciate your work (I think all writers are haunted by the questions: does anybody read this and does anybody care!!).
My love affair with Bollywood started after I finished my undergraduate degree at St. Xavier’s college in Bombay. I majored in English Literature and didn’t really know what I wanted to do after that. A professor suggested that I do a few months at a magazine called Movie. She was doing freelance work there herself. So I became a film journalist. My mother was so embarrassed that she didn’t tell anyone that her daughter, who had just scored the highest marks in English Literature at Bombay University, was now roaming far-flung studios and asking heroes about their new projects. But I loved it. I loved Hindi films and the studios and the chaos they were created in. But I was also sure that I didn’t want to write about films in the way it was usually done — Stardust style reporting on stars and their love lives rather than cinema. So I got a graduate degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.
I worked in the US for ten months (at Harper’s Bazaar magazine) and then moved back to India.
Most people were totally shocked — no body came back from America then. But all I wanted to do was write about Hindi films. Editor-publisher Aroon Purie gave me a job at India Today magazine. But I think even he was puzzled that I had come back with a journalism degree only to write about Bollywood. He didn’t quite understand what I wanted to do but he gave me the space in his very respected publication to do a different sort of writing about Hindi films. I never looked back. I never encountered any kind of resistance. I’ve always loved Hindi films and I’m thrilled that they are finally getting the global respect they deserve.
Barbara: Good morning to everybody from Vienna. I also want to thank Anupama and Maria for this great opportunity. And thank you Anupama for already spreading some light into questions that I wondered about ever since I read the Sholay book.
What I ´d like to know how much input/ feedback did you get from SRK himself for this book? I guess you knew him from before from your work as a journalist and on the DDLJ book?
Anupama: Good morning Vienna. I have interviewed Shah Rukh for the last 10 years. He’s always been a fascinating, charismatic, unfailingly entertaining subject. But when I first broached him about the book, he was hesitant. He said that he didn’t think he deserved it. It took me a little while to convince him. But once, he agreed, he was incredibly supportive and totally non-interfering. I chatted with him for over two years. I emailed him in all corners of the world. I checked and re-checked facts and generally hounded him. But he was incredibly patient and very forthcoming. He spoke to me very openly about many things like his experiences with the Mumbai mafia and the death of his parents. He’s also been incredibly supportive in the marketing and promotion. Last month, he spent five hours in London doing interviews for the book. And what is really incredible is that he has never once tried to shape the angle/tone/matter of the
book. He’s never asked me to change a single line or even put in a full stop. I don’t think I could have asked for more.
Barbara: I take the opportunity to squeeze in a question that is mainly important for the legions of German SRK fans. As you know, I guess, SRK is the face of Bollywood for Germany and one reason for that is for sure that a big part his films that are dubbed into German here. So there are a lot of people that even without being fluent in English became fans. And for them a German version of the book would be the only way they would be able to read it. Are there plans for a translation?
Anupama: Hi Barbara, I’m happy to tell you that in fact there will be a German translation of King of Bollywood. The publishers are Rapid Eye who distribute many of Shah Rukh’s films in Germany and also publish the Rapid Eye Bollywood magazine. In fact, the German version is likely to be launched at the Frankfurt Book Fair in October. I might be there for a reading on October 10.
Barbara: Oh how great, I can hear the happy outcry from here already.
One completely other thing. With your obvious connections to a film company, have you even considered turning one of your books into a documentary?
Anupama: No, I’ve never thought about turning any of my books into a documentary
though I think it’s a great idea. I hope somebody does it
Jo: hello to all from London. I’m delighted to be a part of this global talk. Thanks to Beth + Maria, + of course Anupama. (+ hello to Darshana, I am a long-lapsed Bollywhater. *sniff*.)
I really enjoyed Anupama’s book on DDLJ, (one of my favourite films – probably my favourite SRK film) so naturally I was excited to read her new book on my favourite superstar, Shah Rukh. I read the book twice; once in a single sitting with my pagali fangirl brain, then again, in a more leisurely fashion.
There is a lot of fascinating detail in this book. I loved the anecdotes from his childhood – what fan could not be charmed and chuckle at the image of the baby Shah Rukh banging away for hours at his pink plastic piano?! And Anupama manages to be insightful, but never remote and academic when she discusses the greater cultural context of the rise of King Khan. I like her turn of phrase. I imagine this was a book that did not come easily (if any book ever does!), that a lot of toil has gone into crafting those easy-sounding sentences.
However, as I read this book, + thought about it as a product, I was not completely sure about who it is aimed at. Is there much I didn’t already know? This might be because India and Indian culture loom large in my life, and I am also an SRK devotee. Given that it is being published by a US publisher for a mainstream market, my first question is: does this book anticipate greater global fame for Shah Rukh, and has it been written on that premise?
Anupama: Hi London and welcome to the chat. The book is aimed at both, a mainstream American market and the Indian market, which was what made the task doubly tricky. I wanted very much to make it interesting to people who know everything about Shah Rukh and to people who know nothing at all. I’m sure as an SRK devotee you knew a lot about him but did you know that his first film role was In Which Annie Gives it Those Ones, in which he plays a fey college student. That was new information for me. Also, I wanted to give his career and rise a context. I wanted to show his rise against the rise of Amitabh Bachchan, the superstar of another era. I hope the book works in some way for both markets. It is an ambitious task but as the poet said: a man’s reach must exceed his grasp or what’s a heaven for!!
Maja: What do you personally think about Shah Rukh as an actor? Do you have a favourite movie of his? Also, did most of the information for the book come from him or from other sources?
Anupama: I think Shah Rukh is an incredible star. He is hypnotic on screen. While doing research I saw a lot of his earlier films and no matter how badly he was hamming (and in some he was painful), you can’t look away. His charisma is inborn. He has a larger-than-life charm, which is perhaps why he is usually Shah Rukh Khan playing the character and not the character itself. But I think he is underrated as an actor — look at the water scene in Swades or the death scene in Devdas. He is formidable. But he is, mostly, too much of a star to escape into the character. My favorite movie is DDLJ.
The information in the book came both from him and from other sources. If you look at the list of people I interviewed, there’s about 80 in all. So there was lots of info from other people. But Shah Rukh and I talked several times over two years. I have over 30 hours of taped conversation.
Maria: You mention that Shahrukh declares upon arrival in Bombay that one day he’ll conquer the city. When I read it, I thought, “What a filmi comment!” Did he really say that?? And did he tell you this himself, or did someone else quote him?
Anupama: It is a hugely filmi comment but I have a witness: Benny Thomas who was there with him on the trip to Bombay.
Maria: You mentioned that Devdas (that was one of my favorite chapters in the book) was filmed mainly at night – why was that?
Anupama: A lot of Devdas takes place at night–all the scenes at Chandramukhi’s kotha and Devdas’ drunken speeches. And of course her stunning mujras, which is probably why it was shot at night.
Beth: In the chapter on Shahrukh’s years in tv, there’s a great quote by Ashutosh Gowariker about Shahrukh’s acting in Circus: “If there was an emotion given to him, he would multiply it twenty times. What was amazing was his attitude: ‘This is the way I act. Is there any other way to do it?'” (p. 83) For me, this sums up a lot of what I felt I saw in his acting when I first started watching Hindi films…and I’ll admit that at the time I would have used those words perjoratively…but now it’s one of the things I love most about his performances. Your book strikes me as very affectionate (while also placing him in the history of the industry – I’m thinking particularly of when you point out that Indian audiences were ready for a new star at the time he started appearing in movies – and noting the circumstances that were favorable to him) and I found many passages that resonated with me about why I like watching his movies. Is there one particular description, either of himself or stated by others, that sums up his appeal for you? Of the talents he displays, is there one that you would highlight that has been most important to his career?
Anupama: I agree that the book is affectionate. I like and admire Shah Rukh. I think he’s an amazing success story and he’s done it without the traditional Godfathers and other Bollywood baggage. And I also like him because he remains, despite the God-like status, amazingly down-to-earth. When we sat down in his house or office or make-up van and talked, I had very little sense that I was talking to a superstar. He is polite and unfailingly courteous. It’s rare. As I said in the book, his energy and charisma is his strength. He’s the Energizer Bunny — he just goes on and on and on. I think what sums up his appeal for me is the idea that he’s not a superstar on a pedestal but simply the most charismatic member of your family.
Darshana: I am wondering if you, Anupama, encountered anything about Shah Rukh that surprised you, either in the course of getting to know him better, or in the many talks you had with people from the different parts and times of his life.
I’m thinking of what surprised me or was new to me, beyond the level of delightful details (like the pink toy piano Jo has mentioned). Strongest impressions left by:
–The mobster harassment: the extent of it surprised and horrified me – I am amazed that he and the family could tolerate and survive it. If that was happening around the time of his back problems in fact I’d connect them, myself — I think if you told me the story I’d almost predict them!! Did the Indian audience/readership know about this at the time? do they know about it now? (i.e. before they read your book)?
That story to me is like a flash reminder of other realities of India that are right next to the new dreams and realities we see in the Chopra/Johar movies. Right there in Shah Rukh’s own life, too.
–His aggression toward the journalist he thought had crossed one line too many – I wasn’t surprised he has that in him (and I was glad he did, too), but I didn’t know the story. I liked the detail of his getting arrested and using his one phone call to call the same guy and harangue him again.
Anupama: I was actually surprised to hear that he was a face in the crowd in a low budget English film called In Which Annie Gives it Those Ones. I was also amazed at the details he remembered of his father’s death — the trickle of blood coming from his ear, the way his sister collapsed. And yes, I was also horrified by the mafia harassment. I have lived through some of it myself: Vinod had a death threat and we lived with armed guards for a year. But Shah Rukh’s stories of the continued assault were even more frightening.
Maria: I was wondering, what sense do you get from the majority of film industry people you know about the word “Bollywood”? What does Mr. VVC feel about it for example? And SRK? Others? Is there a strong feeling of people one way or the other, or is it mixed? Have you heard any proposed alternatives, aside from the usual “mainstream Hindi movies” or “popular Hindi movies” or “mainstream Indian movies” (the last which I think can be confusing, because it should include not just Hindi movies) ? What do you personally feel?
Anupama: I think many people in the film industry dislike the word. Shah Rukh does. Amitabh Bachchan has also been vocal about not liking it. Recently, Naseer and Om also voiced their disapproval. I think 15 years ago it was a derogatory term. It suggested the poor Third World country cousin of Hollywood. But not any more. I think Bollywood is a globally recognized brand. And now I think we protest too much!!
Maria: Shah Rukh is in great shape and still does so much dancing and active things in his roles, but I’m wondering…in all your conversations, did he ever mention what he sees ahead for himself as he gets older and maybe slows down a bit? (Granted, given the roles that Amitabh is being offered and accepting in his early 60s, SRK could keep going in “Raj-Rahul” mode ’til that age too.)
Anupama: Shah Rukh never talks of slowing down. He talks instead of having abs to rival his 9 year-old son’s. He dreams now of creating a world-class studio and a special effects facility and a Hindi film that will cross over to Western audiences. But slowing down, never!!
Michael: Why should someone like me, not a die-hard Shah Rukh Khan fan, read your book?
Anupama: Welcome Michael. You should read my book because it isn’t just about Shah Rukh. It’s about Bollywood and India and how both the film industry and the nation have evolved. So it is a glimpse into a country and a culture seen through the life and films of its superstar.
Michael: Why another book about the person everybody speaks about?
Anupama: Because I think that this isn’t like every other book or article about Shah Rukh Khan. You will find connections and links and stories that are new and surprising.
Michael: Wasn’t it hard to find a personal, special view for your book with unknown events, unknown personal sides about the king of bollywood? So much is written about him, each details his fans know and like…
Anupama: Yes, Shah Rukh’s fans do know almost everything there is to know about him but I don’t think other articles or books put him in a context. At one point, I was stressed about this exact thing: that what I can say that hasn’t been said. How can I add to the conversation. And a friend simply said: Dig Deeper. That’s what I’ve done. Not in the sense of unearthing any great scandals but in the sense of going for details and making connections.
Jo: Shah Rukh says ‘I live in an unreal world, my persona is unreal, I myself am unreal’ (apart from the fact that there is something really sad, tragic even, in this comment), how does he keep man and myth apart do you think? Does it ever begin to take a toll? It seems a weird and schizophrenic existence. Does he really manage to stay sane with such a surreal life?! I just have this idea that he must be raving mad really (!)
Anupama: I think he’s managed to stay sane by effectively splitting himself into two. As he says: I’m just an employee of the Shah Rukh Khan myth. I’m sure somewhere it does take a toll. He has often said that he can’t tell anymore when he’s acting and when he’s not. But in all these years of interviewing him, I’ve never got a sense of delusional superstar. He’s incredibly grounded and more “real” than many of the stars I’ve interacted with. Karan Johar attributes
Gauri with keeping everything normal. Within their home, she’s managed to retain their middle-class sensibilities (I mean this in the best way). They’ve been together now for over two decades so that must be a big influence.
Jo: Here are a couple of questions from Glenda (big SRK fan) in London: I’m interested to know what you think Hindi films need to do to go global but preserve their Hindi-ness? Is there a danger the US studios will just move in and buy up the Hindi studios and turn out a kind of pappy HollyBolly? And have you seen Marigold?
Anupama: Actually Hindi films are already global. Perhaps what you mean is what they need to do to crossover to Western audiences? I don’t think too many filmmakers here really want to cross over. They are already talking to an estimated 3.2 billion people around the globe. And I think many are keenly aware that if they dilute their Hindi-ness, they will no longer speak to their core constituency. Shah Rukh Khan wants to speak to a Western audience but only on his
own terms. He wants to make a true blue Hindi film which will be seen by everyone. I don’t think there is any immediate danger of US studios moving in and changing how we work. Sony Pictures Entertainment has come but produced a full blown Bollywood film – Sanjay Bhansali’s Saanvariya. I think they also recognize the power of Bollywood lies in its uniqueness. And as Karan Johar says: “We are a fully functioning film industry. We don’t need them.” There is
enormous strength in that position. And finally, no I haven’t seen Marigold.
Barbara: Is there an aspect of SRK ´s life the way you know it now that you could pinpoint as being cruical for him being where and what he is today?
Anupama: I think he’s incredibly focused, hard-working and driven. He also has an amazing belief in himself. I was amazed by stories of how confident he was that he would be great even when he started. He wasn’t particularly good-looking or even considered a fabulous actor and yet he believed that he was going to be a superstar. And there’s no letting up. Even now, when he’s in a position to take it easy, he goes at everything he does with a superhuman energy. Besides he’s an insomniac so he has way more working hours than the rest of us
Jo: One last random question that I have really wondered about for ages: What is Shah Rukh’s first language? From your book, I infer it is Urdu? PS: I know this isn’t Anu’s department, but can’t resist the opportunity to say that Lage Raho Munna Bhai was my favourite film of 2006.
Anupama: Thanks. I’ve really enjoyed it too (and will forward the Munnabhai compliment to the appropriate department). Shah Rukh’s parents were Urdu speakers. Actually his father spoke several languages but I think Urdu-Hindi was the predominant language at home. Which is why, unlike many of the younger English-speaking stars who struggle with Hindi, Shah Rukh has a great command on the language. He’s also done Hindi theater.
Barbara: Everyone and especially Anupama, thank you for a great experience from my (also very stormy) part of the world. I too thoroughly enjoyed reading your book (as I did with your other ones) and wish you all the best for it.
And at the risk of just sounding like a copy of Jo.. Lage Raho was my favorite film of 2006 too.
Anupama: Thank you all. Again, I’m amazed and excited that all of us could connect so well. Thank you for taking the time to read my work. I wish you all lots and lots of happy Bollywood viewing.
Maria: Anu, thank you for giving us an opportunity to read the book before it hits the shelves and to hear more about the industry and Shah Rukh Khan from you. Given how tech savvy he is, I hope you’ll let him know about our day once the event is online.
Best of luck with the multiple launches globally and we’ll be watching the book’s progress.
Anupama: I will email Shah Rukh the link as soon as it’s online. Thank you again everyone. I had a great time.