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.
Gauri 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,” Sussanne Roshan told reporters.
More recently, in a move echoing US lifestyle guru Martha Stewart, she launched The Home Label, an interior decor Web site 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 Adhuna Akhtar now has 17 high-profile salons scattered across India, with plans to open one in Dubai.
The first ladies of Bollywood were not always such a staple of Indian popular culture.
As recently as 10 years ago, few film fans paid them much heed, Mumbai novelist and commentator Shobhaa De said.
“For decades, Bollywood’s star wives were kept in virtual purdah and allowed out for an airing occasionally ... generally at funerals,” De said.
At the time, they were largely perceived as housewives who suffered in silence behind closed doors while rumors 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 workforce.
“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 said.
“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 added.
According to a Gallup poll released last month, only 25 percent of Indian women participate in the labor force, compared with 80 percent 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.”