'Brangelina' on Steroids: Indian Film Stars to Wed

Jan 17, 2007 — -- This week, Indian movie star Aishwarya Rai, a former Miss World who is also one of the wealthiest women in India, announced her engagement to celebrity co-star Abhishek Bachchan, and all of India was abuzz.

Among the biggest questions: "Will she quit her acting career to become an obedient 'bahu' [daughter-in-law]?"

Though Rai hasn't announced any changes to her career, rumors are rampant and history suggests it's possible.

Female Hollywood stars in the United States make headlines for the lurid details of their private lives -- obscene photos, sex videos and eating disorders.

In India, though, the stars of "Bollywood" -- the term used to describe the Indian movie industry -- generally gain diva status for squeaky-clean, on-screen images and conservative values.

"The moment they get married, their life as a screen heroine is more or less over," said Gyan Prakash, a professor of Indian history at Princeton University.

The thinking, he said, is this: "Once you get married, how can you conduct on-screen romances?"

Bollywood Lights

Rai's relationship with Bachchan has received so much coverage in the Indian media that the couple has earned the nickname "India's Brangelina."

Indians pay even more attention to their stars than Americans do.

"Bollywood stars are revered like gods," said Devika Chawla, a professor at the University of Ohio who researches marriage in India. "People follow them."

Time magazine named Rai one of the most influential people on the planet, and Bachchan hails from the most famous acting family in India.

Rumors of the engagement ran wild in recent weeks after their parents were spotted going to the temple together to seek blessings for the couple, whose horoscopes are said to be a mismatch.

Add to that the fact that Bollywood reaches an estimated 4 billion viewers per year, and the relationship starts to look more like Brangelina on steroids.

Though scrutiny of the Rai engagement has been intense, it is traditionally the on-screen personas of Bollywood stars that fans identify with, Prakash said.

Fans develop almost personal relationships with Bollywood characters, and have traditionally not been as engaged in the private lives of their idols.

"People worship the screen image," Prakash said to ABC News. "That's what they feel intimacy with."

Traditionally, that has meant they worship heroines who demonstrate "wholesome" values. Public displays of affection are generally taboo in India, and on-screen kisses -- let alone anything approaching a sex scene -- are very rare.

Rai has cultivated the image of a wholesome good girl in her real life as well: The 33-year-old still officially lives with her parents, and she's more likely to talk about her latest trip to the temple than her romantic life.

Hollywood Influence

One of her latest movies may be changing Rai's image, though. In "Dhoom 2," released in the fall, Rai does what was once unthinkable: She kisses her co-star on screen.

Though that co-star happens to be Bachchan, the kiss prompted a lawyer in the central state of Madhya Pradesh to file a suit against Rai this week, alleging that the smooch was degrading to the character of Indian women and that it encouraged obscenity among younger Indians.

Experts say the case will likely be thrown out of the court, but it highlights the juxtaposition in Rai's career: one moment she's being traditional, allowing her parents to consult horoscope experts regarding her marriage, and the next moment she's making headlines for an on-screen kiss.

Perhaps that's because the Indian film industry is changing.

Princeton's Prakash says that the traditional roles of heroine and "vamp" (a "heartless seductress") are merging in India, increasingly making room for female leads to play less-than-wholesome characters.

Globalization has brought a lot of Hollywood to Bollywood, and the prevalence of multiplex theaters has made room for segmentation of the industry, allowing more diverse types of films to be made, he added.

Then why would it matter if a married Rai continued to play romantic roles on the big screen?

Prakash said that while married men can play on-screen romances, that change "hasn't quite happened yet" for women.

University of Ohio's Chawla hopes the double standard will change soon. She wants to see more actresses like Rai use their superstar status to educate viewers about the ability of married women to continue making the same career choices.

"I'm not sure that's a good example to set," Chawla said of actresses who end their careers as lead heroines after marriage. "Of course things change, but why change the things that you're doing in your career?"