Bollywood’s Hot Boys and Girls

How six-packs became a religion in the world’s largest film industry.

Salman Khan
Salman Khan in "Pyaar Kiya To Darna Kya"

Michaela Stone Cross


August 21, 2019

The year was 1998. In America, Larry Page and Sergey Brin founded Google. In Europe, state officials were planning for the launch of the Euro. And in India, something happened that changed the country forever: Salman Khan took off his shirt to reveal abs.  

The movie was Pyaar Kiya To Darna Kya (1998), the song, “O O Jaane Jaana.” Khan was astonishing the audience not with his ability to play an electric guitar without a chord, but with his throbbing, glistening biceps. 

Uska body,” a woman selling fish told me, explaining why Salman Khan is her favorite hero of all time. Ask women throughout Mumbai and you’ll hear “Salman” again and again. They love his “attitude,” they love his “style,” they love it when he takes off his shirt. 

Salman Khan is the Jekyll-and-Hyde of Bollywood, as well known for his alter-ego “Prem” (“love”) and charity work as he is for killing pedestrians (his driver, in line with Mumbai tradition, took the fall). Ten years before Pyaar Kiya To Darna Kya came out, Khan was one of India’s “chocolate boys,” a term that has nothing to do with skin color and everything to do with sweetness and a slim physique. But over 30 years of bodybuilding — and, rumor has it, steroid use — have transformed not only Salman, but also the whole Bollywood industry. Gone are the days of Raj Kapoor’s double-chin, of Dilip Kumar’s aloo-fed dialogues. (Today's Bollywood actor will lay off potatoes six months before filming.)  

Bodybuilding in India is older than the modern country — it was in 1924 that Manohar Aich, the father of Indian bodybuilding, began lifting weights. Muscle gained widespread popularity when it hit the film industry: Indian audiences were just as impressed by Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s bulging biceps as Americans were. But the craze with muscles didn’t spread to Bollywood immediately. Old-school Bollywood heroes tended to be soft-featured, baby-faced, and mostly covered-up. The old momma’s boy look went out with the arrival of the “angry young man” of the 70s — heroes such as Amitabh Bachchan were leaner and meaner and helped pave the way for the 80s and 90s action-hero type.