Hrithik Roshan: The star of India

Hrithik Roshan is that rare commodity - a Bollywood idol with real Hollywood potential. But Fiona Sturges finds him reluctant to embrace Western cinema
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The Independent Culture

If you're not yet acquainted with the kitsch, kaleidoscopic song-and-dance extravaganzas that are Bollywood films, you may not know the name Hrithik Roshan. But in India, where 12 million people go to the cinema every day, he is an emerald-eyed, tousled-haired demi-god; a man who, were he to venture out on to the streets of his native Mumbai undisguised, is liable to cause a traffic pile-up. In the past four years he has prompted Elvis-style levels of hysteria among the cinema-going public. While excitable critics have compared his dance routines to those of Michael Jackson, his press release gushingly calls him "the Brad Pitt of Bollywood".

If you're not yet acquainted with the kitsch, kaleidoscopic song-and-dance extravaganzas that are Bollywood films, you may not know the name Hrithik Roshan. But in India, where 12 million people go to the cinema every day, he is an emerald-eyed, tousled-haired demi-god; a man who, were he to venture out on to the streets of his native Mumbai undisguised, is liable to cause a traffic pile-up. In the past four years he has prompted Elvis-style levels of hysteria among the cinema-going public. While excitable critics have compared his dance routines to those of Michael Jackson, his press release gushingly calls him "the Brad Pitt of Bollywood".

That he has two thumbs sprouting from the side of his right hand is considered not a blemish but an auspicious symbol, indicating prosperity and good luck.

Roshan is here to promote the first Sangeet Music Awards, an event celebrating Hindi music, from classical and film soundtracks to commercial pop, which takes place in London at the end of this week and where he will be performing a song from last year's blockbuster, Koi... Mil Gaya. Clearly, it's not just in India that he is a star. On an earlier shopping expedition around Covent Garden, Roshan estimates that he was recognised "at least once every two minutes" and, to avoid being mobbed, resorted to donning the regulation disguise of hat and sunglasses.

"I've yet to adjust to the attention," he says in his hotel room near Piccadilly. "It takes me by surprise every day. I have to remember that I'm this big star. Every time I get recognised it always hits me, which is nice because it means I'm not taking it for granted. I still feel like it's a blessing; to put a smile on someone's face by just being there."

It may be his smouldering good looks that are getting fans hot under the collar, but Roshan is also a darling of the critical establishment. Since the release of Kaho Naa... Pyaar Hai in 2000, when he emerged from almost total obscurity into the glare of the Bollywood limelight, he has established himself as one of India's leading actors. In an industry poll he was recently voted as one the top 10 most powerful figures in Indian film, while his pictures have earned him two Filmfare Awards (Bollywood's answer to the Oscars) - one best male debut for Kaho Naa... Pyaar Hai and another best actor award for 2003's Koi... Mil Gaya ( I Found Someone). He won a special Critic's Award for 2001's Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, a film that broke box office records when it reached number three in the UK charts, beaten only by Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone and The 51st State.

Despite the stream of offers that arrive every month, Roshan strenuously denies rumours that he is about to defect to Hollywood. "Doing an English film is something I don't think I'm suited to," he reflects. "I don't think my acting style would translate well. Besides, if it's not about being the best, then there's no point. I'm the best at what I do in my world and it would almost be like betraying my culture to leave it. I want to take my cinema over there and take it to a level where it's recognised globally. That's the real challenge for me."

It's with visible pride that Roshan notes how Bollywood is reaching an increasingly international audience. 2001's Lagaan, the tale of peasant farmers pitted against the Raj, was the third Indian film to be nominated for an Oscar, while Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham was granted an official entry at Cannes two years ago. The director Baz Luhrmann acknowledged his debt to Bollywood in the multi-coloured song-and-dance-fest Moulin Rouge, while Andrew Lloyd Webber's conversion to the Indian dream led to the hit West End musical Bombay Dreams.

But Roshan is wary of attempts on the part of film-makers to construct crossover films for an international audience. "Curiosity from people who are not part of our culture can only be a good thing," he says, "but we should not try to ape what the West does. With regard to special effects and technical know-how, we can't possibly com- pete. We should be ourselves and let the world accept us for what we are."

There have been Roshans in the film business for three generations. Hrithik's grandfather was a musical director, while his father, Rakesh, who started out as an actor, is now a highly respected director whose last four films have topped the box office charts in India. Initially, Rakesh did his best to discourage his son from becoming an actor. "My father had a very tough time at the start," Roshan recalls. "He struggled for 20 years when he was acting. When I was growing up, I remember my mother breaking down because there was no money in the house. We were once thrown out of a flat because we couldn't pay the rent. When I first took acting lessons, I didn't tell my father; partly out of embarrassment but also because I thought he might try to stop me.

"It was only when I showed him the show-reel that we could really talk about it. I needed him to see what I could do in order that he would understand why I needed to do it."

But there was another reason for his father's reluctance for Roshan to join the film elite. Corruption is rife in Bollywood, with producers and stars frequently facing extortion and blackmail from the criminal underworld. Four years ago, Rakesh narrowly avoided death when he was shot in his car outside his office in Bombay. "They wanted money because he was successful," recalls Roshan. "He had had extortion threats for some time. A week after my first film was released, it was clear that he was making some good money but still he refused to pay up."

Roshan was in the gym when he received a call from his father. "He said, 'Don't move. I'm sending some people over to protect you.' He said he'd been shot and that he was going to the police. When I got to the hospital, I found out he had been shot at six times. He managed to dodge most of the bullets but the last one got him and lodged just below his heart. Even with a bullet in his chest, he had the presence of mind to call me and see if I was OK."

Ever since, Roshan has been accompanied by minders; two of whom loiter in the doorway during our interview. Roshan says his first instinct after the shooting was to quit the business but, instead, he publicly denounced the corruption of the industry at the Filmfare Awards. "I wanted them to know that I was stronger than them and that the industry is stronger than them," he says. "I wanted to carry on and find even more success, just to prove how weak they really are."

True to his word, at 30-years old and with a string of hit films under his belt, Roshan has already helped turn Bollywood into a global phenomenon. He believes that, with his continued assistance, it can become even bigger, if only people would stop comparing him to Brad Pitt. "I don't think it's fair to draw parallels like that," he says. "I consider him to be the epitome of physical strength and perfection. We are working in different worlds and we are very different people." He pauses, chuckles mischievously and adds: "I look forward to the day when Brad Pitt will be compared to me."

The Sangeet Music Awards are held on Friday at the Royal Albert Hall, Kensington Gore, London SW7 ( www.royalalberthall.com)

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