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At Vienna, a session on Shah-Rukhology - Academics to analyse superstar

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  • Published 17.01.10
Shah Rukh

London, Jan. 16: Many conferences on Bollywood are held in the West but the one being organised by scholars at the University of Vienna will be different in one crucial respect — it will focus solely on Shah Rukh Khan.

The conference, which is called Shah Rukh Khan and Global Bollywood, recognises that he is not only the undisputed king of the Hindi film industry but probably also has more pulling power than any movie star that can be put up by Hollywood.

“We have invited Shah Rukh Khan and Karan Johar for the opening ceremony,” said the conference’s principal organiser, Elke Mader, who is professor of anthropology and vice-dean in the faculty of social sciences at Vienna University.

In many ways it seems, while Hindi films are merely enjoyed by some Indians, European scholars consider them worthy of serious scholarship.

Contrary to opinion in America, Europe and some other parts of the world, “Hollywood does not dominate (the global cinema scene),” Mader told The Telegraph.

What she found impressive about Shah Rukh was “his ability to do different types of emotion within one movie. He is the global hero of Hindi cinema. For new European audiences, he is the central figure.”

When Shah Rukh turned up for the unveiling of his wax likeness at the Grevin Museum in Paris in 2006, the majority of the screaming “I love you Shah Rukh” fans outside were young white Europeans.

The conference from September 30-October 2 will bring together anthropologists, sociologists, cultural historians and other scholars from across Europe and seek to analyse what Oscar Wilde would probably have called “the importance of being Shah Rukh Khan”.

Two days of learned papers at the University of Vienna will be preceded by an opening session at the Museum of Ethnology that is located inside the suitably grand Neue Burg (Imperial Palace).

Mader, who has been researching Shah Rukh’s fan base among “new European audiences” — this refers mainly to white Europeans in France, Germany, Austria and East European countries — is familiar with Om Shanti Om, Devdas and other Hindi movies. She will be in Berlin next month to witness the special screening of the new Shah Rukh movie, My Name is Khan.

“The conference will focus on the significance of Shah Rukh Khan for the new dynamics of global Bollywood,” Mader said. “It wants to bring together research scholars and representatives from the film industry dedicated to various aspects of his work, his star power, and his embodiment of values, attitudes or emotions.”

“Moreover,” she went on, “Shah Rukh Khan will be discussed as a mode of representation of a post-colonial and globalised India. SRK has the reputation of holding the largest audience in the contemporary world of cinema comprising people from diverse places and cultural backgrounds.”

Shah Rukh would probably concede he could not improve on Mader’s justification for the conference: “The overarching framework is the relationship of Bollywood with post-colonialism, global flows, and transcultural processes that shape cinema contexts today.”

Another participant, Claus Tieber, who teaches Hindi cinema to students at the Institute of Theatre, Film and Media Studies at the University of Vienna, stressed: “This is not a fans’ convention.”

On why the focus was on Shah Rukh and not, say, Amitabh Bachchan, Tieber said: “In Austria and Germany, Shah Rukh is the one Indian star who has become synonymous with Bollywood. Fans here are mostly Shah Rukh fans.”

“Bollywood has changed the western view of India,” explained Tieber. “Today, Bollywood is almost synonymous with the modern, globalised India. Bollywood has arrived in the West not as a cinematic wave, but as a lifestyle. At the time of the conference, an academic society for research on Indian films will be founded. So there will be further conferences, articles and books — a whole academic programme.”

Among the speakers from Britain will be Rajinder Dudrah, head of drama and senior lecturer in screen studies at the University of Manchester.

His view is that Shah Rukh “can be likened to Amitabh Bachchan in the 1970s. There are many other A-listers — Salman, Saif, Aamir — but Shah Rukh Khan is a ‘one-man industry’. He has his finger in a lot of pies, including sports, television, cinema and now blogging. His future western fan base will depend a lot on what happens to My Name is Khan which has been picked up by Fox Searchlight.”

“This conference is very timely,” said Dudrah.