WASHINGTON (TIP): India’s growing soft power has got a brief toehold in the world’s hardball capital. Madame Tussauds, the famed wax gallery, unveiled on Tuesday the molded likeness of Bollywood’s best in an intensely political city that is more into power than entertainment. For the next few weeks, a cast of Amitabh Bachchan, Shahrukh Khan, Aishwarya Rai, Hritik Roshan, and Kareena Kapoor will rub shoulders with 43 US presidents and dozens of American celebrity journalists and sportsmen at the popular gallery, among the newest of 14 Madame Tussaud’s museums around the world. They will then go to New York, Las Vegas, and Hollywood.
It’s the first time that Bollywood stars have made a waxy entry into the US, although they come here often enough in flesh and blood. America is now the second largest Bollywood market outside India, and gallery officials explained that Indian visitors to their attraction had voted through visitor logs and guest feedback a desire to see their favorite desi movie stars. An in-house panel chose the five most popular stars through such feedback. The Indian movie industry, commonly arrogated to Bollywood, is at the center of India’s muchballyhooed soft power, a term coined by US political scientist Joseph Nye to describe persuasive diplomacy through the arts, culture, entertainment and other “soft” elements rather than hard military power projection.
Although Bollywood’s revenues of around $2 billion annual is a fraction of the nearly $ 70 billion Hollywood rakes in, its footprint is as large as its American counterpart because it sells more tickets worldwide even if revenue per capita is lower. At the surreal Madame Tussauds, a few blocks from the White House, workers wheeled in the Indian stars shipped here after similar appearances in Sydney and Vienna. Two performers from a local dance studio called Rhythmaya swayed to popular Bollywood songs. Attesting to the impact of Bollywood’s outreach, the hack pack from the Afghan press was as large as the Indian media contingent.
Such is the devotion Bollywood inspires that Madame Tussauds’ spokespersons delightedly relate how fans have a meltdown even with the wax models. Apparently, a young lass in Bradford, UK, traveled down to the gallery in London shortly after Shahrukh Khan’s cast was unveiled in April 2007 to propose marriage and present a diamond engagement ring. She is still said to be waiting for a reply. Indeed, the gallery is one of the spookier ones in a city of museums that is Washington DC, as your correspondent found out much to everyone’s mirth. He waited patiently for several seconds to allow a young lady to finish taking a picture of a celebrity so as to not cross her line of vision, before realizing that the photographer was also a wax model.
When the museum opened at noon (entry fee is a steep $21 for adults and $17 for children), visitors milled around posing for photos with their arms around celebrities. “That’s what makes Madam Tussauds unique,” General Manager Dan Rogoski said. “There are no barriers and velvet ropes. Visitors can be all over their idols.” A maintenance team works round the clock to keep the waxy celebrities spiffy, with every hair in place. It’s an expensive and tedious proposition which probably explains the high entry fee. At the aesthetic level, each wax clone — costing around $ 300,000 apiece — involves six months of painstaking work by 12-15 artists. This includes a two-hour sitdown session with the celebrity during which hundreds of photographs and detailed measurements are taken to make an exact replica primarily using fiber glass and bees wax. Just doing the hair and dentures takes weeks, considering they get the exact color and tone down to the last shade. The final product has to meet the approval of the celebrity being cast.