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On Saturday, in a show at the Cow Palace called "Wanted: Live," one of the biggest movie stars in the world will perform. He's not Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise or even Arnold Schwarzenegger. This star is so big that he can sell out stadiums from here to London, even when he's merely lip-syncing. People pay $1,000 for front row seats to his shows and weep during his concerts. Who is he? He's Shahrukh Khan, the reigning king of India's film industry.
Not surprisingly, most Americans have never heard of Khan. While Indian cinema is the world's largest move industry, producing over 700 films a year, the films it makes are created in a dizzying array of languages, most of which aren't spoken anywhere but India. Even Bollywood, the largest and rather derogatorily named Bombay section of the industry, shoots films primarily in Hindi and does little to promote its movies outside of India.
So why has "Wanted: Live" already played in 11 American cities to date, most of which were sellouts? What makes the event so compelling? What's Khan got that Pitt doesn't?
For starters, actors play an extraordinary role in Indian popular culture. Their fans form very personal bonds with them, and come to see them not only as stars and icons, but almost as members of the family. Mannu Mehta, the head of Mehta Brothers Entertainment and the Bay Area sponsor for the "Wanted: Live" tour, explains. "Most Indian films are family-type dramas, and people associate the actors with things like weddings, relations between sisters and brothers, and family problems," Mehta says.
And in a culture that is more emotionally expressive than our own, fans aren't afraid to give vent to their feelings. In a concert at the Oakland Coliseum last year, actor Sunil Shetty moved people to tears by exhorting them not to forget their homeland, and to carry India with them in their hearts. They came away from the concert, according to Mehta, dabbing their eyes and saying, "This guy is good. He is a good person."
If Sunil Shetty ranks as a star, then Khan is the Milky Way. Popular Indian movies, which are referred to as masala films, are three-hour-long extravaganzas filled with large amounts of singing (or rather, lip-syncing) and dancing. Khan can dance and even sing -- albeit slightly off-key -- when called upon, and doesn't have to rely on lip-syncing. But more important, he can play every role of the masalas: the comic, the villain, the tough guy, and the emotionally overwrought romantic hero.
And, oh yeah, he's good-looking enough that you wouldn't kick him out of bed for eating samosas.
Khan's best-known role was in the 1998 mega-hit Kuch Kuch Hota Hai(Something's Happening), a film that has come to typify the new style of Bollywood movies. A visually opulent love story with vibrant dance numbers and finely scored ballads, the film tells the tale of a lovesick couple torn apart by the hero's marriage to another woman. In a country in which films rapidly come and go, Kuch Kuch Hota Haiwas so popular that tickets continued to sell out months after its release. Meanwhile, the soundtrack dominated the airwaves for al- most an entire year. Young Nepali men could be heard whistling the theme song in Himalayan villages while Ben-gali rickshaw drivers placed film pos-ters on the inside of their vehicles. The film transcended class, region, and even language.
Recently, Indian films have been making their way out of their homeland. Subhash Ghai's Taal (Rhythm) was a hit in Japan last year, and Yash Chopra's Dil To Pagle Hai (Love Is Crazy) made a splash in Israel the year before. And there have always been traditional outlets for Indian films in other parts of South Asia and the Middle East; many Pakistanis and Afghanis, for example, speak languages closely related to Hindi. In the past few years, the films have even experienced a resurgence in other, less traditional Indian enclaves, so much so that producers are able to finance their films almost entirely by selling the overseas rights.
The films are increasingly popular in the Bay Area as well. While most other parts of the country never get the chance to see Indian films in first-run movie theaters, the Naz 8 in Fremont shows only Indian films. Still, the average American concertgoer might view "Wanted: Live," with its cavorting, lip-syncing actors, as an untantalizing prospect. The very idea conjures up memories of Milli Vanilli or bad high school talent shows. What, exactly, will audiences be getting for their money?
Ten years ago, when Indian actors did shows in America, the venues were extremely small, and stars had to do little more than show their faces and exchange pleasantries with members of the audience. Times, however, have changed. With the increase in the popularity of Indian films and the rapid growth of large localized communities, stars such as Khan command as much as $80,000 per concert. But with the higher price-tags come higher expectations.
"Now they have to dance, they have to sing, and they have to act," Mehta says. "They have to do the scenes that they do in their films."
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