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Bollywood goes Hollywood, and Toronto is the testing ground

A scene from the new Bollywood blockbuster "Ra.One"


At first, it seemed to be part of the show. Moments after Shah Rukh Khan strode onto the stage at the International Indian Film Academy Awards this summer in Toronto, a portly, bespectacled man walked up to him – and fell at the Bollywood superstar's feet.

"My name is Inder Goyal, and I want to be an actor," he said in Hindi, still clutching Khan's feet in the manner of a supplicant, as security personnel handled the breach. "You are my god."

This sort of wild adoration isn't uncommon for the 45-year-old actor often referred to as King Khan. He's the Indian film industry's biggest star (the only possible rival to his title is Bollywood's patriarch Amitabh Bachchan). So Toronto should brace itself: On Wednesday, Khan returns to town for the North American premiere of RA.One – Bollywood's biggest-budget spectacle to date with a price tag of more than $20-million. (The premiere takes place at the TIFF Bell Lightbox and coincides Wednesday with Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights.)

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Borrowing a little from Hindu mythology and a lot from Hollywood superhero films, RA.One is Bollywood's version of films like Iron Man and Tron.

The story centres on a father-son relationship: In an attempt to become part of his son Prateek's world, Shekhar (played by Khan) designs a video game in which the villain never loses – an entertaining twist, until the characters come to life.

The film's title actually refers to its villain, and is a play on Ravana, the demon-scholar-king from the Hindu epic the Ramayana, whose effigy is burnt every year at the end of the Hindu festival Dussehra to symbolize the victory of good over evil. Model-turned-actor Arjun Rampal plays the baddie. Khan, meanwhile, has a second identity in the film as, of course, a good-guy superhero named G.One, who wears a black-armour power suit and uses his H.A.R.T. (Hertz Advanced Resonance Transmitter) to save the world.

Groan if you will, but the betting is on RA.One to break box-office records, partially because of Khan's charisma.

Cameron Bailey, co-director of the Toronto International Film Festival, got first-hand experience of Khan's celebrity when the festival brought Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna – starring Khan and Bachchan – to the red carpet five years ago.

"I remember that day at Roy Thomson Hall because the night before we had Brad Pitt [there]for a gala," says Bailey. "But the next day was even bigger and crazier.

"There were thousands of fans waiting outside to see him, and … when Shah Rukh Khan got out of his SUV, the place just exploded."

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And it isn't just Bollywood fans who have been fascinated by Khan, says Bailey, who saw the actor work a room during a dinner when his movie Om Shanti Om (2007) premiered at the Berlin Film Festival.

"It was very private affair, very old Europe. Most of the industry people in the room did not know him," says Bailey. "Within a few minutes he had the entire room in the palm of his hand. He has this incredible charm, humility and sense of humour."

In many respects, Khan has had one of the most unconventional trajectories to superstardom in Bollywood. A regular middle-class kid in New Delhi, the actor wasn't part of any of India's typical film dynasties – and was an outsider when he moved to Mumbai in the 1990s. But he had made an impression on Indian audiences playing a commando in a TV series called Fauji. In 1995, he established a global profile with the film Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, in which he played Raj, a Anglo-Indian who goes back to Punjab to woo his sweetheart's traditional family.

"As industry lore goes, Khan is by far the most bankable star for the overseas market," says Aswin Punathambekar, a media and communications professor at the University of Michigan and co-editor of the book Global Bollywood.

He's also a savvy businessman in his own right. Khan has a production house called Red Chillies Entertainment, which is a co-distributor of RA.One.

Khan also sees the film as part of his Bollywood legacy. "I want our cinema to the best in the world. The movie will leave a mark internationally," he told the Indo-Asian News Service in an interview earlier this month. "I got inspired by a lot of superhero movies, but I have made an original movie."

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Certainly, there haven't been many Bollywood superhero movies in the past. The industry just doesn't have the budget for them, says Anupama Chopra, film critic and author of King of Bollywood: Shah Rukh Khan and the Seductive World of Indian Cinema.

This explains why the big talking point around RA.One has been the money – at more than $20-million, it's Bollywood's most expensive film yet, even though that's small change compared with the budgets of Hollywood blockbusters..

"That's like 20 minutes of special effects in a Spider-Man movie," says Chopra. "Bollywood doesn't have $200-million to play around with."

That doesn't mean there isn't demand for a Bollywood superhero. But flops have been as likely as hits: 2006's Krrish – about the son of an Indian man given special powers by a blue-skinned alien – was a box-office success, but two years later, Drona (about a young man who learns he's the latest in a line of ancestral warriors guarding a source of cosmic powers) did poorly. Audiences want the stories, but they want them with Hollywood standards.

"Indian audiences have now grown up for 20 years on satellite TV, and movies like Avatar or Iron Man release here the same time as in the West," says Chopra. "We have an urban movie-going audience that will not accept shoddy special effects in Hindi films."

Nevertheless, they could adore a superhero who grooves to the tune of Chammak Challo, RA.One's hit song sung by Akon, she adds.

"Bollywood has this wonderful ability to co-opt Hollywood," she laughs. "I can't imagine Iron Man will break out into dance, but G.One will!"

And when it's King Khan who's busting the moves, the odds are that his superpowers of charisma can deliver a superhero hit, Bollywood-style.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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