Despite the fact that Bollywood exceeds Hollywood in film output, Bollywood has a much smaller star system, which means Indian actors appear in far more films than their American counterparts-some doing as many as five movies a year. Luckily, that makes it easier for new fans to figure out who’s who. Nepotism is common in Bollywood and many actors and filmmakers come from family dynasties that have been in the movie business for generations-however, there are many celebrities with the same common surnames, particularly Khan and Kapoor, who are not related. The following, while by no means comprehensive, is a rundown of the biggest and brightest male stars in the Bollywood universe.
Known as King Khan, the Badshah of Bollywood, or simply, SRK, Shahrukh is one of the “big three Khans”-along with Aamir Khan and Salman Khan-who have dominated Bollywood for two decades, although Shahrukh has arguably surpassed the other two in terms of commercial power and global recognition, and unlike the other two, Shahrukh does not come from an established film family. He made his debut in 1992 in Deewana and catapulted to superstardom in 1995 with Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, or DDLJ as it’s know, which is still showing in theaters in Mumbai, making it the longest running movie in history. His character in DDLJ, Raj, became the archetype for the modern romantic Bollywood hero-brash, hip, and Westernized, but Indian at heart. His top hits include Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998), Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001), Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003), and Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna (2006). Despite his age (he was born in 1965), he revealed a surprisingly ripped physique in Om Shanti Om (2007), which became the highest-grossing Hindi film of all-time, proving that he was far from being eclipsed by younger aspirants to his throne (while poking fun at Bollywood’s standards of male beauty). In 2008, Newsweek magazine named him one of the 50 most powerful people in the world. He’s married to his childhood sweetheart, Gauri, with whom he has a son and a daughter.
If Shahrukh Khan is king, then Amitabh is god. His 1975 film, Sholay, the first “Curry Western” (the Indian version of the Spaghetti Western), is one of the most beloved Bollywood films ever. That same year, he appeared in Deewaar, a groundbreaking film that established him as the “angry young man,” a character type that reflected the frustration and disillusionment of the times. Amitabh went on to excel in drama, action, romance, and comedy, making him the quintessential “masala” actor. After he was nearly killed in 1982 from an injury sustained during a fight scene, he made unsuccessful forays into politics and business and then struggled for years to make a comeback in film-but comeback he did. In 2000, he became the host of India’s version of the TV show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and film success-some commercial, some critical-followed, including Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001), Bunty Aur Babli (2005), Sarkar (2005), Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna (2006), Baabul (2006), and Eklavya (2007). He’s married to actress Jaya Bhaduri and their son is actor Abhishek Bachchan, who’s married to actress Aishwarya Rai.
Aamir is considered the “serious” actor of the big Khans and widely regarded as the most talented Indian star in terms of sheer acting ability. While he’s been in plenty of commercial hits, he’s always had an artistic bent, and his projects are usually of the highest quality. He started his career as a child actor in 1973, made his first film as an adult in 1984, and after several nominations, won his first Filmfare Best Actor Award in 1996 for his turn in Raja Hindustani-in which he famously kissed his co-star Karisma Kapoor (kissing was a rare enough occurrence then to cause quite a stir). He received international attention for his role in Lagaan (2001), which was the first film he produced. The movie was critically praised around the world and received an Academy Award nod for Best Foreign Film. (It was only the third time in history that an Indian film has been nominated, and no Indian film has ever won the award.) Mangal Pandey: The Rising (2005) and Rang De Basanti (2006) are also among his best pictures. He debuted as a director in 2007 with Taare Zameen Par. His 2008 film Ghajini became the highest-grossing Hindi film of all time. In 2002, he divorced his wife of 15 years, with whom he has two children, and in 2005, he married an assistant director. He does not attend film award ceremonies.
With bedroom eyes, bulging biceps, and a velvety voice that would make any woman swoon, Salman is the ultimate heartthrob-and his bad-boy reputation only adds to his sex appeal. He’s been in trouble with the law, several fatwas have been issued against him, and his romantic relationships-with ex-girlfriend Aishwarya Rai and current girlfriend Katrina Kaif (who’s 20 years his junior)-have been filled with tumult. His combativeness with the press doesn’t help his image and neither do the well-publicized blow-ups he’s had with colleagues. But he’s also known for his generous philanthropic work. He got started in film in 1988 and appeared in his first smash-hit, Maine Pyaar Kyun Kiya, a year later-and he’s been churning them out ever since, including Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999), No Entry (2005), and Partner (2007). He’s had plenty of flops, too-including an English-language Hollywood production, Marigold (2007), opposite American actress Ali Larter (who currently stars in the U.S. TV show Heroes).
Part action hero with martial-arts skills, part comedian with a knack for farce, part handsome leading man who can dance-like a cross between Bruce Willis, Jackie Chan, Jerry Lewis, and John Travolta-Akshay is simultaneously a tough guy and a goofball-and he always gets the girl. While he’s enormously popular in India for his everyman qualities, he’s an acquired taste for most Americans. His first film came out in 1991 and he hit it big a year later in Khiladi. He’s appeared in nearly 80 movies since then, with a decent track record, but only recently has he been challenging the three Khans for supremacy at the box office. The year 2007 belonged to Akshay with four hits-Namastey London, Heyy Babyy, Bhool Bhulaiyaa, and Welcome. In 2008, his film Tashan failed to do well, but Singh is Kinng (which included a cameo by American rapper Snoop Dogg on the title track) had a record opening. In 2009, his film Chandni Chowk to China became the first Bollywood movie released in the U.S. by a major American studio (Warner Brothers), but it flopped in both India and North America. Later that year, he starred in the successful Kambakkht Ishq, playing an Indian stuntman in Hollywood, and the film featured cameos by Sylvester Stallone and Denise Richards. He has a son with his wife, Twinkle, a former actress.
Hrithik’s 2000 film debut as the romantic lead in Kaho Naa…Pyaar Hai made him an instant star-and his dreamy green eyes and buff bod made him an enduring sex symbol. He’s the son of director Rakesh Roshan, who’s directed Hrithik in some of his most important projects. (Rakesh was famously shot at close range outside his office in 2000 after being threatened by the mob, which has a long history of extorting Bollywood actors and filmmakers, and he survived the murder attempt.) Hrithik received accolades for his turns in Mission Kashmir later that year and in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham the following year. After three flops in 2002, he made a comeback in 2003 with the sci-fi film Koi…Mil Gaya. He took a break from acting and returned in 2006 as a super hero in Krrish, the sequel to Koi…Mil Gaya. His next two big films were the hit action flick Dhoom 2 (2006) and the award-winning historical drama Jodhaa Akbar (2008), both opposite Aishwarya Rai (with whom he shared a passionate and controversial kissing scene in Dhoom 2). He and his wife Suzanne have two sons.
While he’s the son of screen icon Amitabh Bachchan, Abhishek has struggled to prove himself as an actor. And even though he’s tall, dark, and oh-so handsome, he nonetheless catches flak for not being as muscle-bound as his peers. He appeared as the lead in his first film, Refugee, in 2000, opposite Kareena Kapoor in her debut, and then spent the next four years making a dozen abysmal movies. Finally, in 2004, he was critically praised for his performance as a thug in Yuva, and that year he also starred in his first commercial hit, Dhoom. In 2005, he had four hits with Bunty Aur Babli, Sarkar, Dus, and Bluffmaster and two more in 2006 with Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna and Dhoom 2. The following year, he received accolades for his performance in Guru, opposite his then-fiance Aishwarya Rai. He’s had a spotty record since with winners such as Dostana (2008) and losers such as Drona (2008). Abhishek’s mother is actress Jaya Bhaduri and his grandfather is famous Hindi poet Harivansh Rai Bachchan. Abhishek became engaged to actress Karisma Kapoor in 2002, but they broke it off in 2003. He married superstar Aishwarya Rai in 2007.
Sanjay, or Sanju Baba as he’s known, is a man’s man, a John Wayne-type who oozes testosterone-but there’s also an endearing vulnerability in his eyes. Primarily an action hero, he has more than 120 films to his name, going back to his debut in 1981. But his troubled personal life has garnered as much attention as his acting career. He’s struggled with drug addiction, his mother and his first wife died of cancer, his second marriage ended in divorce, and worst of all, he spent nearly 15 years in and out of jail, fighting criminal charges that he illegally possessed weapons purchased from gangsters who were involved in the 1993 terrorist bombings of Mumbai. He was cleared of the worst of the charges, sentenced for lesser ones, and is now free. He continues to crank out films, including action flicks that place great physical demands on his 50-something body. He’s currently married to his third wife. His adult daughter lives in the U.S.
Shahid’s brooding characters have made him the Heathcliff of Bollywood. From Chup Chup Ke (2006) to Jab We Met (2007) to Kaminey (2009), he’s perfected the melancholic hero who finds redemption in love. He made his debut in 2003 in Ishq Vishk, which earned him a Filmfare Best Male Debut Award. But several so-so films later, including Shikhar (2005) and 36 China Town (2006), Shahid still hadn’t lived up to his full potential. He started to come into his own in Vivah-his first hit-in 2006, and he finally blossomed in the blockbuster Jab We Met in 2007. Then he took his acting to a whole new level in 2009 in the edgy drama Kaminey, playing a double role in which he shed his trademark boyishness and transformed into two rugged, world-weary men. Following the amicable end of his three-year relationship with Kareena Kapoor in 2007, he has been linked to actresses Vidya Balan and Priyanka Chopra and tennis star Sania Mirza.
Saif Ali Khan
The son of a nawab (an Indian prince), Saif is the heir apparent to the royal houses of Bhopal and Pataudi (princely states in India). His father and grandfather were captains of India’s national cricket team. And with his devastating looks and solid acting chops, Saif has become prominent in his own right. However, his career was slow to take off. He debuted in 1992 and had some early successes, but he mostly floundered throughout the 90s. He started to gain traction in supporting roles in Dil Chahta Hai (2001) and Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003). His 2005 film Salaam Namaste with Preity Zinta was a huge hit, and he won accolades for his work in Parineeta (2005), Omkara (2006), and Eklavya (2007). He started his own production company in 2009 and its first film, Love Aaj Kal, in which Saif starred opposite Deepika Padukone, was a major hit. At the age of 21, he married a woman 12 years his senior. The couple had two children and divorced in 2004 after 13 years of marriage. He is currently involved with actress Kareena Kapoor. Saif’s mother, a former actress, is head of the Indian film censorship board. His two sisters, Saba Ali Khan and Soha Ali Khan, are also actors.
A model-turned-actor who’s equal parts sexy and sweet, John has long been regarded as Bollywood’s favorite eye candy-a position he seemed to cement in Dostana (2008), in which he famously emerged from the ocean Ursula Andress-style-a shimmering Adonis in tight swim trunks. But John surprised everyone a few months later with his astonishingly strong performance in the terrorist-thriller New York (2009), which proved he could take on serious roles and look good doing it. He made his debut in 2003 in Jism (which means “Body” in Hindi), opposite screen siren Bipasha Basu, and the two became a couple off-screen. They’ve been together ever since (despite rumors that they both have strayed), making them the hottest couple in Bollywood-or anywhere for that matter.
Ranbir is the grandson of the granddaddy of Indian film, actor Raj Kapoor. And he’s the son of actor Rishi Kapoor and the cousin of actress Kareena Kapoor. He made his debut in 2007 in Saawariya, opposite newcomer Sonam Kapoor (no relation). The film featured a racy scene in which he danced in nothing but a towel. His next film was the romantic comedy Bachna Ae Haseeno (2008), which means “Beware, O beautiful ones.” Beware, indeed, because this babe with a mischievous smile is already setting hearts on fire as he scorches his way to the top. He is currently dating his Bachna Ae Hasseno co-star, Deepika Padukone.
The son of actor Suresh Oberoi, Vivek made a promising debut in 2002 in the edgy gangster film Company, established himself as a matinee idol that same year in the romantic drama Saathiya, started dating one of the biggest stars in the business, Aishwarya Rai, and then proceeded to blow his momentum with a string of poorly chosen projects and a growing reputation for being difficult. But perhaps the move most detrimental to his career was his decision in 2003 to call a press conference and announce on live television that he was being harassed and threatened by Aishwarya’s ex, Salman Khan. The stunt received enormous media attention and many industry insiders were angry that Vivek had aired dirty laundry about one of their own in public. He and Aishwarya broke up in 2005. He was praised for his performances in the multistarrers Yuva (2004) and Omkara (2006), but it wasn’t until 2007 that he had a modest comeback as the lead in Shootout at Lokhandwala, in which he delivered an explosive performance playing real-life gangster Maya Dolas. His next big film, Mission Istaanbul (2008), was a critical and commercial failure. But don’t count Vivek out yet-he’s an immensely talented actor with offbeat appeal and he has some interesting projects on deck.
The son of a stunt and action choreographer, Ajay naturally focused on the action genre ater he got into acting in 1991. But he branched out into comedy and romance, and later, serious dramatic roles. In 1998, he starred opposite his future wife, Kajol, in Pyaar To Hona Hi Tha, a remake of the Hollywood hit, French Kiss. One of his notable critical and commercial successes was Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999) with Salman Khan and Aishwarya Rai. He gave astounding performances as the smoldering lead characters in the gangster drama Company (2002) and in Omkara (2006), an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello. He married Kajol in 1999 and they had a daughter in 2003. He starred opposite his wife in his directorial debut, U, Me Aur Hum, in 2008. An intensely private man, he’s known to stay out of the limelight.
Most Americans first got to know him as the sleezy game-show host in Slumdog Millionaire (and now as a new character on the U.S. TV show 24), but Anil has been in show business for decades (he debuted in 1979). He was arguably the biggest star in Bollywood in the late 80s and early 90s, and he has a long list of hits and awards to his name. Of late, he’s been appearing mostly in multistarrers (with mixed success), including No Entry (2005) with Salman Khan and Lara Dutta, Welcome (2007) with Akshay Kumar and Katrina Kaif, Tashan (2008) with Akshay Kumar, Saif Ali Khan, and Kareena Kapoor, and Race (2008) with Saif Ali Khan, Akshaye Khanna, Bipasha Basu, and Katrina Kaif. Anil’s oldest daughter is actress Sonam Kapoor. His two younger children study in the U.S.