For his starring role in the recent action movie “Ishaqzaade,” the young actor Arjun Kapoor did the prep work expected of an aspiring leading man in Bollywood. He took acting classes. He worked on his dancing. And he spent months transforming his flabby stomach into a gym-hardened washboard of six-pack abs.
In the film, Mr. Kapoor fires pistols, stares down rivals and woos his love interest, keeping his abdomen on reserve until the “item number,” the song-and-dance routine common in most Bollywood movies. Then he lustily pulls up the bottom of his shirt, biting it between his teeth, as he undulates his exposed stomach toward his female prey, the dancer Gauhar Khan. It is the film’s ab moment (with a few more to come).
“The audience likes to see that in a man,” Mr. Kapoor said of his abdominal muscles, adding that he also had a personal incentive, having lost almost 100 pounds for his first big acting role. “I wanted it to be there for posterity, for when I look back. I can say, ‘My stomach looked good in that song.’ ”
India has long defined national well-being by the stomachs of its people. Hunger was once such a national crisis that during the 1970s the Indian government set minimum standards for daily calorie intake that are still used to measure poverty. Malnutrition remains a pressing national problem, and yet after two decades of rising economic growth, India’s middle class is now dealing with rising obesity, including among children.
Bollywood, of course, is India’s dream factory, more interested in fantasy than reality. Beginning in the 1990s, actors like Sanjay Dutt and, most famously, Salman Khan began muscling up, mimicking their peers in Hollywood, Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Men across India were soon mimicking the Indian stars. Fitness centers, once almost nonexistent in India, quickly spread.
Rachel Dwyer, a leading scholar of Indian cinema, said early male stars like Dilip Kumar and Dev Anand never took off their shirts or drew attention to their bodies. Now Indian actors are waxing their legs or chests and posing for suggestive photographs. A fit body, Ms. Dwyer said, has become a status symbol. “The muscular body is very much a class thing,” she said. “The whole fitness cult in India is a marker of upward mobility.”
Prashant Talwalkar, the chief executive of one of India’s biggest chains of fitness centers, said bodybuilding was considered a sport of lower-income men until the 1990s, when Mr. Khan popularized weight lifting and having a muscular physique. Mr. Talwalkar recalled working at one of his Mumbai gyms in 1997 when a teenage boy walked in and placed 10,000 rupees, the equivalent of $182 today, on the front counter.
“Make me look like Salman Khan,” the teenager said. Mr. Talwalkar added: “Salman Khan has been like a symbol, synonymous with the body. People keep saying, ‘I want to look like him.’ It’s like they want a Xerox.”
Today, almost every Bollywood leading man swaggers and flaunts beefcake on-screen. Personal trainers to the stars have become minor celebrities in Mumbai, featured in movie magazines. And the abdominal muscles — known as the six-pack — have become a source of bragging rights for the biggest stars. The megastar Shahrukh Khan recently boasted that he was training to achieve an eight-pack for an upcoming film.
“There’s no other film industry in the world where people are talking about how many packs they have, or their abs,” said Anuparma Chopra, a Bollywood commentator and talk show host.
This rising machismo is not limited to the big screen in India. Scholars note that the body images of some Hindu deities, especially the god of Ram, have undergone a reimagining during the past two decades. Before, Ram was often depicted on ubiquitous wall calendars as lithe and slender, but by the 1990s calendar artists were usually depicting him as a muscular deity. Many calendar artists told scholars that they altered the image to succeed in a changed marketplace.