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Bollywood's 'star wives' mean business

December 12, 2012

Staff working inside a display area of the Charcoal Project store in Mumbai.–Photo by AFP

NEW DELHI: Bollywood wives were once expected to stay loyal, discreet and out of sight, but today they forge influential careers as businesswomen, designers and producers as India embraces celebrity culture.

They appear on magazine covers, present television shows, advertise everything from soap to sofas and increasingly head their own budding money-making empires, claiming their share of the spotlight.

The list of “star wives” in the Mumbai-based film industry is headed by superstar Shah Rukh Khan's wife Gauri Khan, a successful film producer and now an independent entrepreneur who is regarded as a pioneer of the redefined role.

Co-founding the Red Chillies Entertainment production company in 2002 with her husband, she has produced eight films to date; including major blockbusters such as last year's science fiction hit Ra.One.

Khan, 42, has since branched out into interior design, launching her own line of furniture in April in collaboration with another Bollywood wife, Sussanne Roshan, who is married to heartthrob actor Hrithik Roshan.

Roshan, 37, set up an imposing interior design store in Mumbai called The Charcoal Project two years ago.

She admits that she had little interest in working when she got married 12 years ago, but then discovered that she had a taste for competition.

“When I got pregnant, it just gave me a certain clarity about what I wanted to achieve with my life,” Roshan told AFP.

(L-R) Hritik Roshan and his wife Sussanne, Shah Rukh Khan with his wife Gauri Khan, Farhan Akhtar and wife Adhuna Akhtar.–Photo by AFP

More recently, in a move echoing American lifestyle guru Martha Stewart, she launched The Home Label, an interior decor website selling products endorsed by her.

Adhuna Akhtar, who is married to actor-director Farhan Akhtar, is another high-profile Bollywood wife, working as one of the country's leading hairstylists.

Her success led to her starring in a makeover reality television show earlier this year in which she offered free haircuts and styling advice to young women.

The 44-year-old Akhtar now has 17 high-profile salons scattered across India with plans to open in Dubai.

Increasing job opportunities for women

The first ladies of Bollywood weren't always such a staple of Indian popular culture.

As recently as ten years ago, few film fans paid them much heed, according to Mumbai novelist and commentator Shobhaa De.

“For decades Bollywood's star wives were kept in virtual purdah and allowed out for an airing occasionally... generally at funerals,” De told AFP.

At the time, they were largely perceived as housewives who suffered in silence behind closed doors while rumours flew about their husbands' alleged affairs with glamorous co-stars.

Since then, a younger, assertive and ambitious generation of Bollywood wives has emerged.

Sujata Assomull Sippy, a former editor of Harper's Bazaar India who put Sussanne Roshan on the magazine's cover, said the trend was “part of a wider female empowerment story in India”, as increasing numbers of women join the labour force.

“When Sussanne married Hrithik Roshan she was just a pretty girl, but the minute she opened her store, her profile shot up. Women want to emulate her because she works,” she told AFP.

“You can't become a Bollywood star at 40, but you can turn a passion for interiors or fashion or whatever into a business, into a career, even after you have had kids. And women are drawn to that when they see Sussanne,” she said.

According to a Gallup poll released last month, only 25 per cent of Indian women participate in the labour force compared with 80 per cent of Indian men.

Analysts expect that figure to grow as India's economy expands; creating job opportunities that can be accessed by larger numbers of women.

Those occupying high-profile senior positions in the corporate sector include Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, founder of biotech giant Biocon, Chanda Kochhar, managing director of ICICI Bank and Shikha Sharma, managing director of Axis Bank.

Being married to one of India's most famous men helps to keep Roshan and her business ventures in the spotlight, as she readily acknowledges.

“It's a huge bonus, no question, but my idea of success really isn't about being married to a movie star,” she said.

“I think it's very important for any woman - especially in India - to aspire to be independent, to be your own person and speak up for yourself. Women today aspire to do much more than just look good.”