Star struck

Why Peru loves Shah Rukh Khan

An academic examines the fan culture that has been built around the Hindi movie star in Arequipa.

The inevitable has happened: a collection of academic essays dedicated to the phenomenon that is Shah Rukh Khan. From SRK and Global Bollywood comprises 14 essays inspired by the conference ‘Shah Rukh Khan and Global Bollywood’ that was held in Vienna in 2010. The list of contributors includes eminent scholars on Indian cinema. Rachel Dwyer writes on Khan’s work with Karan Johar and the impact of their films on the Indian diaspora. Jaspreet Gill examines how Khan reinvented “the Muslim hero on the global stage”. Petra Hirzer’s essay Fandom beyond Borders and Boundaries: Peru in Love with SRK draws from fieldwork conducted in 2012 for her PhD thesis on Bollywood fans in the Peruvian city Arequipa.

Hirzer demonstrates how Khan “provides a feeling of ‘closeness’ to his Peruvian fans—closeness that goes beyond borders and boundaries, and clearly sets him apart from other Indian or international actors”. Here is a clip from a stage show in Lima that was inspired by Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge.

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Among the clips Hirzer refers to during her research is this celebration of Holi in Lima in 2009.

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Here are edited excerpts from Hirzer’s essay.

How Hindi cinema came to Peru

First diplomatic relations between India and Peru were established in 1963, but in 2009 the Indian community in this country amounted merely to 150 families. Nevertheless, the history of Indian film viewing as well as the popularity of Indian songs and dances date back to the late 1970s. At this time, the circulation of Hindi cinema in Latin America and the Caribbean had been influenced by cultural exchange among partners of the Non-Aligned Movement. The NAM was joined by Peru in 1973 and facilitated the distribution and availability of Indian films. Carmen, a 40-year-old Bollywood fan from Arequipa, described her first black-and-white film experiences in local cinemas, including famous productions such as Mother India (Dir. Mehboob Khan, 1957), Mera Naam Joker (Dir. Raj Kapoor, 1970), and Haathi Mere Saathi (Dir. M.A. Thirumugham, 1971), as ‘the beginning of her great love for India and Indian culture’. The 1970s generated a first wave of fandom committed to India and Indian cinema that subsided when major international entertainment groups took over the market in the late 1990s. Since then, the distribution of films in Peru (and other parts of Latin America) was basically limited to Hollywood productions. The majority of smaller movie theatres had to shut down; these cinema halls were often sold to local catholic communities. With a few exceptions, for example, the TV broadcasting of Mera Naam Joker on several local channels, it became rather difficult to gain access to Indian films.

Even though this early phase popularity of Hindi cinema is still visible in my current research on Peruvian fans, the current Bollywood boom did not get under way until the turn of the millennium. The rise of DVDs did not only lead to subsequent piracy, which contributed to the circulation of cinematographic texts all around the globe, but also made countless copies of Indian films/song-and-dance-compilations available throughout Peru. Needless to say, DVDs provide not only affordable access and diversity within cinematographic culture but also better technological quality and repeated viewing possibilities. Ana, a passionate Bollywood fan from Arequipa, remembers: ‘First I saw Haathi Mere Saathi (‘mi familia elefante’) with my family, my Mum and Dad. Then I watched it again and again and again.’

Stories that move, and make you dance

Urban middle-class audiences became attached not only to the portrayed image of India or Indianess but also to family values and, above all, the beat and ‘danceability’ of song-and-dance sequences. Still there is another, quite extraordinary reason aside from a conglomerate of plot, dance, and music—SRK. He served as the central gatekeeper of Peruvian Bollywood fandom and provided the proliferation of an actively engaged participatory spectatorship.

The vast majority of fans in Peru, as in other parts of the world, literally got stuck with Bollywood after watching his movies. This enthusiasm still forms the core of fandom for large parts of Peruvian audience. It is expressed, for example, in the following reaction of a fan to the stars’ performance in My Name Is Khan (MNIK, Dir. Karan Johar, 2010) in the online blog Indicine. The fan weaves English and Spanish into a hybrid, but also articulates a very explicit discourse of love and admiration:

Shahrukh Khan the only incomparable khan the best actor in the universe ... you are the only incomparable khan apoyandote [supporting you] your fans are always waiting for something new you always encounter many movies to do … srk up high … well you’re better world … here in Peru has many supporters including me … I’m number one I love your acting since he first time you saw your movie until today I have 90% of your movies … to continue the successes … shahrukh khan’s the only mundoooooooooooo [world] …

The distribution of Indian popular culture in Peru generated numerous Bollywood fans and film consumers as well as the development of fan clubs all over the country that are connected with a tremendous amount of Bollywood-related web content on social media sites. The wide range of fan activities includes Bollywood dancing (‘danza hindú’) as well as the production and circulation of online fan art. Internet entails numerous new technologies used by diverse people in diverse real world locations. As the turn of the new millennium coincided with various technological changes in terms of globalization and connectivity, the World Wide Web played a vital role in the development of a Peruvian Bollywood fan base.

If we take groups and chat rooms in the Microsoft Social Network (MSN) as a point of reference, this development started sometime in 2003–4. Bollywood enthusiasts began to bond online and initiated the diffusion of Indian cinema by using MSN group acquaintances from Spain and India. Seiya, founder and key player of one of the first communities in Lima named Bollywood-Perú, recalls the early days:

We started with a few movies that friends had brought home from the United States or Spain. We spent hours translating the subtitles from English to Spanish and organized screenings of the great classic Indian films. As we tried to spread the word over the years, we became some kind of non-profit business providing Bollywood fans in Lima with the latest news and stuff from India. We also planned and conducted many local events like Holi and other dance performances or workshops related to Indian culture. Apart from movie screenings, we have never stopped working with various media in Peru and stayed in touch with the local fan-clubs. (from an interview with Seiya, from Lima, 2012)

Almost 100 well-known groups committed to Indian films and stars have mushroomed in the provinces and urban centres of Lima, Arequipa, and Trujillo since 2004. The average number of club members amounts to around 25 male and female active participants between the ages of 15 and 25... Some of the most popular names are Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Bari Dil Se, Bada Ka Dil, Comunidad India-Peru, India-Aqp Hamesha Dosti, Rada Krishna, Grupo Hindustan, Show India Dance, or Barathi Dil, the names being often connected to classic Indian movies or mythology. Liz, founder of India-Aqp Hamesha Dosti and one of the most influential fan clubs in the beginning, explains her dedication to the group:

We practically started with five people. Five people who had this dream and almost went crazy thinking about Bollywood. We started chatting and decided to meet personally to talk about our common passion. We were in love with India. A few weeks later, we started the ‘taller de danza’ and started practicing the songs from our favorite movies. More and more fans came to join us. We were about 60 people admiring Shah Rukh and everything that comes from India. It was like a second family. (from an interview with Liz, from Arequipa, 2008)

Meet Shah Rukh Juan

One of the main activities of Peruvian fans of Bollywood is Bollywood dancing. Since the beginning of the recent boom of Indian cinema, fan clubs and academies dedicated to Indian dance and music have mushroomed all over the country. Ruben, for example, advertises his dance academy Maha Raas with the mantra: ‘Learn to dance the choreographies of Bollywood—closer to all!’

Just like Ruben, however, the dance instructors learn and perform the moves and choreographies from movies or video clips… Choreographies of Indian dance are often merged with local Peruvian (respectively, Latin American) dances and traditions. This results in new cultural performances, such as ‘salsa-hindú’.

When we take a closer look at the reception of stars combined with dancing practices, we detect similar processes: fans actively make use of the star persona to construct their fan identity. ‘If you are dancing, you feel like the star. You are the main protagonist. And if you dance a theme of Aishwarya, you feel her and you feel like her. You feel different’, a member of the fan club Barathi Dil explains.

Club-affiliated fans often ‘play the role’ of their favourite actor. They absorb different roles and portray characteristics of the star’s persona and reinterpret them by adding their own personality and dancing skills. Almost every fan club has its own SRK, always taking the lead and performing the star’s parts of certain choreographies. Juan, member of a popular community in Arequipa, was nicknamed the Peruvian Shah Rukh Juan. ‘To be like him, just a little bit!’ he explains. SRK’s facial features are imagined as familiar to an average Peruvian middle-class guy. ‘Don’t you agree, he just looks like Shah Rukh,’ is a widespread description of male Peruvian youngsters performing Bollywood. Beto, a very talented ‘hindi pop’ dancer, complains about a colleague of his fan club Bada Ka Dil: ‘They call him Shah Rukh. Well, it’s not that he doesn’t look like him. But I am more alike. I am the real Shah Rukh of the group.’

Excerpted with the permission of Oxford University Press from SRK and Global Bollywood, edited by Rajinder Dudrah, Elke Mader, Bernhard Fuchs.

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