Mass appeal of a star said to have 'the best body in Bollywood'

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So who is Shilpa Shetty? Gordon Brown may have come to India keen to advance business ties but the truth is few Indians have ever heard of him or - for that matter - Jade Goody. Mr Brown walked about in Bangalore yesterday without causing any kind of stir. But if Shetty had been there, the place to would have ground to a standstill.

The offence of alleged racist taunting of Shetty goes far beyond her as an individual. One of the reasons Bollywood stars are so adulated in India is they live - by proxy - the lives most Indians only dream of. So, in effect, Goody and her friends are trampling on poor Indians' dreams.

What Goody et al are saying to these Indians is that no matter how rich and successful they become, they can still be called a "dog" by a white person.

Shetty could not be more different from the way the toxic trio in the Big Brother house have painted her. Jackiey Budden, Jade Goody's mother, asked her if she lives in a house or a shack. Neither. She lives on the entire seventh floor of an apartment building in one of Bombay's most exclusive neighbourhoods. And before Budden protests that's only in India, rents in expensive parts of Bombay are as high as they are in London.

She was born into a wealthy family, her father runs a successful chemical business. She lives a life of luxury that is beyond even the millions Goody has made off her Big Brother stints.

To be rich in India is never to have to lift a finger. Shetty is constantly attended by a retinue of servants, including a full-time hairdresser. If that seems excessive, it's worth pointing out she cannot so much as set foot outside her home without being mobbed. Budden may snipily call her "Princess" but the truth is Bollywood stars are royalty in India.

She was educated at prestigious schools: St Anthony's Girls' High School in Chembur, and Podar College. She was famous in India first as a model - she got her break from Limca, a soft drink company. To this day she is known as "the best body in Bollywood", and is considered a style icon for the clothes she wears..

She got her film debut as a supporting actress in 1994, playing the murder victim of a psychopathic boyfriend against star Shah Rukh Khan. That film was a success and she was nominated for an award. But in the years that followed she made a series of flops, though she won praise for her performance as an Aids victim in Phir Melenge in 2001.

Since then, she has become a campaigner on Aids, one of India's fastest-growing problems,and has been committed to dispelling the myths and misconceptions that still surround the disease. She has also become a major campaigner for Peta, the animal rights organisation

Although she has never kissed on screen, Shetty has got in trouble for her pin-up poses. Last year, a court in Tamil Nadu state issued warrants against Shetty and another model for "posing in an obscene manner" in photographs for a Tamil newspaper. It turned out that what had got the court steamed up was that their navels were showing.

"What is obscene about it?" the actress asked dismissively. "If navel-showing is obscenity, then our traditional Indian outfit - the traditional sari - should be banned in the first place."

With her movie career stumbling commercially, she does seem to be looking for new outlets. Bollywood observers believe she was hoping to use Big Brother as a stepping stone into the British entertainment industry.

What she was probably not planning on was ending up being plunged into politics by it.

Yesterday, one of her friends said she will be genuinely upset by her treatment in the house. Hem Tejuja, a financier in Mumbai, said: "Her integrity would be hit... But people are constantly taking pot-shots at Bollywood celebrities here. She has learnt to take it in her stride. I'm quite sure she will cope with it."

Mr Tejuja said that the Big Brother producers came to India to recruit a top actress and convinced Shetty that it would be extremely prestigious for her to appear on the Channel 4 programme. He said that Shetty put three movie projects under way in India on hold in order to clear the time to appear on Big Brother.