As IndiaÃƒÂ‚Ã‚Â’s economic growth rate rose beyond 7 percent in the 1990s, the middle classes with their increased spending power came to the forefront. The Delhi-based National Council of Applied Economic Research, which prefers the term ÃƒÂ‚Ã‚Â“consuming class,ÃƒÂ‚Ã‚Â” estimated that in the mid-1990s this consuming class was 32.5 million households or 168 million people. (By 2005, experts estimated that the middle class numbered over 250 million peopleÃƒÂ‚Ã‚Â—that is only 50 million less than the total population of the United States.)
Globalization, and the ensuing consumerism and competition, created an enormous cultural churning. The conventional rules no longer held. Negotiating between tradition and modernity, between new desires and deep-rooted expectations, the middle class was wracked by confusion and insecurity. Stress, depression, divorce, long considered ailments of the affluent West, became more widespread. The Indian family, womenÃƒÂ‚Ã‚Â’s roles, marriage, and relationships were irrevocably redefined.
These shifts were paralleled by various reactionary trends, particularly the rise of a muscular Hindu right wing. In December 1992, Hindu fundamentalists destroyed the Babri Masjid, a disputed religious site in North India. Riots followed. Mumbai, long heralded as IndiaÃƒÂ‚Ã‚Â’s most cosmopolitan city, was torn apart by two spells of rioting. According to the government-ordered Srikrishna Commission Report, 900 people died and 2,036 were injured. Over 50,000 were rendered homeless. The patina of globalization couldnÃƒÂ‚Ã‚Â’t camouflage or quell the religious conflict, poverty, corruption, and violence that simmered underneath. A sleepy society, mired in 5,000 years of culture and tradition, wrestled with the ÃƒÂ‚Ã‚Â“shock of modernityÃƒÂ‚Ã‚Â” and asked itself: What does it mean to be Indian?
Shah Rukh Khan provided one very persuasive answer. In films like Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (The Brave-Hearted Will Take the Bride, also widely known as DDLJ: 1995), Dil To Pagal Hai (The Heart Is Crazy: 1997), Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (Something Is Happening: 1998), Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001), and Kal Ho Naa Ho (If Tomorrow Comes: 2003), he told Indians that an Indian could be a hybrid who easily enjoys the material comforts of the West and the spiritual comforts of the East. You didnÃƒÂ‚Ã‚Â’t have to choose between the two; the twain could meet without friction or confusion. So in DDLJ, Shah RukhÃƒÂ‚Ã‚Â’s character, Raj, is a London-born Indian who drinks beer, wears a Harley-Davidson jacket, and is clearly a European man-about-town; but Raj doesnÃƒÂ‚Ã‚Â’t take advantage of his intoxicated heroine because he ÃƒÂ‚Ã‚Â“respects an Indian womanÃƒÂ‚Ã‚Â’s honor.ÃƒÂ‚Ã‚Â” Shah RukhÃƒÂ‚Ã‚Â’s subsequent characters also reiterated this idea, that the international-designer-label exterior cannot undermine an essential Indian identity. Shah Rukh personified the new millennium Indian who combines a global perspective with local values and is at home in the world.
Shah Rukh became both the face and the catalyst of the new consumerist society; he was one of the earliest Bollywood stars to plunge into advertising. Shah Rukh rarely met a product he could not endorse. He sold everything from Pepsi-Cola to Tag Heuer watches. The commercials accentuated his screen persona and helped transform the actor into a brand. <
A popular song from a film released in 1955, Shri 420 (Mr. 420), puts it aptly:
Mera joota hai Japani
Yeh patloon Englistani
Sar pe lal topi Rusi
Phir bhi dil hai Hindustani
My shoes are Japanese
These pants are British
The cap on my head is Russian
But my heart is Indian.
In 1955, this cosmopolitanism was perhaps a cherished hope for most Indians; today, it is an inescapable reality. Shah Rukh Khan, like Marilyn Monroe, is an icon for an age. This is his story.
Copyright 2007 by Anupama Chopra