Shah RukhĂ‚Â’s home, a sprawling heritage bungalow in suburban Mumbai, has long been a tourist magnet. Buses carrying vacationers routinely stop in front of the gate. On Sunday evenings, when Mumbai, a frenetic city of 18 million people, pauses for breath, men and women gather for a darshan (sighting). Sometimes, when he is at home, Shah Rukh Khan steps out on the terrace and waves at his devotees.
But Shah RukhĂ‚Â’s life is more than just a dramatic show-biz success story. He is a Muslim superstar in a Hindu-majority country and his life reflects the fundamental paradoxes of a post-liberalization nation attempting to thrive in a globalized world. His story provides a ringside view into the forces shaping Indian culture today.
The rise of Shah Rukh Khan can be understood as a metaphor for a country changing at breakneck pace. During the 1990s, India underwent avalanches of change. In 1991, under the threat of imminent fiscal collapse and facing an inability to repay World Bank loans, the government introduced wide-ranging economic reforms. The centralized socialist economy was dismantled. Several major industries were deregulated and multinational corporations were allowed entry. In the same year, satellite televisionĂ‚Â—CNN, STAR TV, MTVĂ‚Â—arrived.
For fifty years since independence, India had struggled with a stagnant economy. Economist Raj Krishna labeled it the Ă‚Â“Hindu rate of growth,Ă‚Â” which averaged just 3.5 percent annually. IndiaĂ‚Â’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, envisaged a Ă‚Â“socialist pattern of society,Ă‚Â” which would combine the best of socialism and capitalism so that Indians could enjoy both economic egalitarianism and democratic freedom. Instead, the extreme protectionism and state-controlled public sector created the Ă‚Â“License Raj,Ă‚Â” a Kafkaesque maze of regulations and permits that forced businessmen and ordinary citizens customarily to use bribes and Ă‚Â“contactsĂ‚Â” in high places. The License Raj distorted the economy and filled the markets with low-quality, made-in-India goods that were two or three decades behind the West. Factories were forced to produce goods in line with centrally mandated Five Year Plans on the Soviet model; producing more scooters in a year than the annual quota allowed for was as much of an official sin as producing fewer. In this environment, even ordinary American products such as KelloggĂ‚Â’s cereals and LeviĂ‚Â’s jeans were considered status symbols. They implied that one had the money and good fortune to travel to foreign lands. America, with its vast supermarkets groaning with consumer delights, was a faraway paradise.