Lights flash as the door to a dark sedan opens in front of a low-lit door. The crowd parts as the door opens, revealing the latest “it” couple shrouded with dark sunglasses and shawls. They hurry past photographers and fans into the safety and super-exclusivity of the lounge. Inside, heads turn as they make their way to the bar, enjoying the deep rumble coming from the DJ booth. It sounds like a scene ripped from the pages of Us Weekly, except rather than Brad and Angelina, their names are Saif Ali Khan and Kareena Kapoor, and this isn’t Los Angeles—it’s Mumbai.
Scenes like this are more common than ever in this ever-growing city. Just like Hollywood, Bollywood—the Indian film industry based in Bombay—has produced dozens of big-name stars with a serious following. The influx of multiplex theaters into urban areas combined with a wider international release has allowed the industry to grow exponentially in recent years. The new wealth and globalization that have flooded Indian cinema have also translated to Indian culture. Stars are cult icons with a paparazzi trail, so naturally, they seek and find solace in ultra-exclusive venues that have popped up all over Mumbai.
It hasn’t always been this glamorous. When the Indian film industry was born, in 1913, its mission was to produce socially critical films—and actors in them were hardly big names. But in the 1960’s, the industry shifted gears, producing song-and-dance love-story spectacles. They were something new: gloriously escapist films that allowed the viewer to become immersed in a whirlwind of forbidden love affairs, picturesque landscapes, and unattainable wealth. The public responded—and the performers’ rise to fame began. A decade later, when stars like Amitabh Bachchan were made, a popular tabloid magazine would coin the term “Bollywood,” a name that is now recognizable the world over.
Today Bollywood is bigger than ever, producing more than 1,000 movies in India in 2007 (Hollywood made only 594 that year). It didn’t hurt that in 2000, the government allowed banks to lend to film producers, giving them exorbitant amounts of cash to work with. Now a major Bollywood actor can gross as much as 40 million rupees (almost $1 million) per film—an eye-popping sum in a country where the average salary is less than $15,000, especially since most Bollywood stars make five or more films each year.
And the sheer number of films has made Bollywood an institution throughout urban areas, leading to a stratospheric level of adoration. “Stars are so much bigger there than anything in America,” said Dr. Tejaswini Ganti, associate professor of anthropology of culture and media at New York University. “A film star in India is the equivalent of an American movie star, a TV star, a sports star, and a rock star all rolled into one.”
One star who has hit that level of international superstardom: Shah Rukh Khan, who’s appeared in movies like Devdas and Asoka, the first based on the tragic love story by Sarachandra Chattopadhyay and the second based on a tale from ancient Hindu scriptures. Wherever Shah Rukh goes the paparazzi follow, which is often to Olive Bar & Kitchen, the hottest resto/bar in Mumbai that creates a Mediterranean feel with an Italian menu and a white-and-blue décor. Another target?Karishma Kapoor, who’s been seen shopping for one-of-a-kind jewels at Shobha Asar and trendy duds from the hand-picked designs at Bombay Electric.
It’s been a happy confluence of growth for Bollywood and Bombay. Today, when you want to see a film, the viewing experience is no longer in 2,000-person single-screen theaters with no air-conditioning, but in 300-person luxury multiplexes. And when you want to see the actors off the silver screen, there’s no shortage of hot spots. Here’s where to go when you’re craving a little stardust.