It's Bollywood's worst kept secret. It's also its most difficult to establish truth. Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan, two actors in two very different eras, are also its biggest rivals. One is the Shahenshah, the other the Badshah. One speaks very little, the other a lot. One is the epitome of old world elegance, the other of yuppie charm. One is 64, the other just turned 41. Yet, there is much that is similar: they are both probably the biggest actors in Bollywood-a term both detest-and also perhaps its best ambassadors. They are both exports from Delhi, from neighbouring colleges-Bachchan from Kirori Mal College and Khan from Hans Raj College. Both had acted on stage before they decided to plunge into cinema. The families of both were involved in politics, Bachchan's more publicly, with a well-known association with the Gandhis, a relationship Khan has lost no time in building on now. It is a story that is as fascinating as it is familiar. For over a year now, it has occupied column inches, seized news channel airtime and kept several glossies in business.
Our July 2000 cover
When Star TV announced that Khan would step into Bachchan's shoes as anchor for Kaun Banega Crorepati, it seemed appropriate to examine a clash which has generated such heat and dust. The comparison meters were already ticking furiously when both appeared in Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna, their fifth film together, and then again when Khan decided to reprise Bachchan's role in the 1978 classic Don. Add to it their competing for virtually the same brands and Bachchan's son Abhishek's sudden rise last year, and there's a situation rife for gossip. While Bachchan has maintained a discreet silence on the clash, Khan has not been so constrained, denying it vociferously in two press conferences for KBC and in the relentless promotions for Don.
Could it be that the war exists only in the minds of the media? Are the two men building an elaborate smokescreen where no other Bollywood star can possibly even find a foothold? Do the two men talk in private? Are their groupies creating a mountain out of a mole hill? Our cover story this week tries to analyse this secret world of whispers and straws in the wind. It examines the personalities on the two sides of the divide: from politicians to industrialists, filmmakers to TV producers. It's not a subject the normally quote-savvy Bollywoodian is happy to talk about but Executive Editor Kaveree Bamzai kept her ears cocked and her eyes peeled. The result: a potboiler worthy of a Bollywood debut, with an enthroned emperor, an audacious contender and divided courtiers. Clearly, the person who said life imitates art knew what he was talking about.