Behroze Gandhy and Rosie Thomas
Early each morning a saffron-robed figure appears on the balcony of a suburban house in Hyderabad. A small crowd gathers to receive the blessings of N.T. Rama Rao, top star of the Telugu cinema, best known over the years for playing the god Krishna. That he was also elected Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh in 1983 points to the complex way in which the relationship between divinity, film and politics is lived-and exploited-in India. While top Bombay stars no longer act in mythological films, 1 as the genre has been in decline there since the 1960s, the parallels between Indian stars and the gods of the Hindu pantheon are frequently remarked upon: both are colourfully larger than life, their lives and loves, including moral lapses, the subject of voyeuristic fascination and extraordinary tolerance, and stars accept, on the whole graciously, an adoration close to veneration.
As in Hollywood, the power of the Indian star developed gradually but the position stars command today-both economically and in the popular imagination-is the result of an idiosyncratic economic system that has accorded them more absolute power than even their Hollywood contemporaries. Not only is it firmly believed in the industry that stars are a crucial ingredient in the success of any mainstream Indian film (the other key ingredients usually cited being songs and dialogue) but also a vast subsidiary industry has grown up, particularly since the 1960s, around the publication of magazines in all languages, including English, which peddle a veritable torrent of salacious gossip about film stars. While every regional language film industry in India has its own stars, it is those of the Bombay-based Hindi cinema who are particularly powerful, known throughout India (and much of the Third World), and are the focus of the greatest popular attention.
Obviously film stars are valued in India for many of the same reasons as in other cultures: they offer audiences whose lives are limited in various ways-materially and emotionally-the vicarious pleasure of identification