Bollywood: cat fights meet social networking

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The World

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BANGALORE, India — Bollywood sex symbol Mallika Sherawat recently posted a topless picture of herself on Twitter, with tresses of her long hair covering her chest. “Is it too much?” she wrote in a message to accompany the image.

Moderation has never been the hallmark of Bollywood. And, true to form, celebs from India's glitzy movie industry have taken to Twitter in the past few months with reckless abandon.

From top movie icons Amitabh Bachchan and Shahrukh Khan to leading directors Karan Johar and Ram Gopal Varma to newbie stars like Sonam Kapoor, Twitter is becoming the coolest Bollywood celeb accessory. Even the reticent Aamir Khan amassed nearly 50,000 fans within two hours of his first tweet last month.

“Stars are reaching out directly to their fans and holding sway, it is giving them an ego boost,” said Manish Agarwal, CEO of UTV Digital Media, the digital unit of top filmmaker UTV.

Bollywood’s use of Twitter is unscripted and unrehearsed which makes it even more powerful, says Agarwal, who added that his company helps stars manage their digital presence, but doesn't tell them what or when to write.

Some stars are just faddists, riding the latest craze, and some use Twitter to promote their latest films. Others use the social network to shorten the distance between themselves and their fans. But perhaps most compelling of all, are the Bollywood celebs who use Twitter to settle personal scores, outwit and outshine their rivals.

The most outspoken on Twitter has been Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan. He blamed sloppy editing for the lackluster box-office success of the film "Raavan" starring his son Abhishekh and daughter-in-law Aishwarya. On another occasion, the star tweeted his displeasure over a film critic calling fellow actor Akshay Kumar a "jackass."

Trade experts, like Amod Mehra, say the unscripted, anything-goes nature of Bollywood's Twitter presence is a departure from the industry's tightly controlled television interviews. Bollywood stars usually say the same thing again and again on TV — the line "zara hatke," or "a little unusual," all-too-often used to describe an upcoming role.

“Controversies will endure and that is what makes Twitter so gossipy and fun,” said Mehra who recently opened his own Twitter account and counts director Karan Johar amongst his followers.

Actor Sonam Kapoor who acted in newbie director Punit Malhotra’s film "I hate luv storys" was caught in a tweet-spat with writer-columnist Shobhaa De who said she "hates dumb storys" and threatened to "spank" the filmmaker. Malhotra and Kapoor responded by calling De a menopausal fossil who is "getting no action."

The long-standing rivalry of Bollywood’s hottest stars Aamir Khan and Shahrukh Khan has spilled over to Twitter too. Aamir joined and is following several other stars but studiously avoiding the prolific Shahrukh. In pre-Twitter days, Aamir had blogged that his pet dog "Shahrukh" was "licking his feet."

Twitter brings a warts-and-all portrait of Bollywood celebrities to the masses whether it is perfectionist Aamir Khan’s surprisingly bad spelling (he's famous for adding an extra "h" to stars' names) or Shahrukh Khan’s narcissism.

“It is an honest representation of what stars are thinking and feeling,” said actor Vivek Oberoi who recently used Twitter to promote his upcoming film "Raktacharitra." “There is no more, ‘I was misquoted’ after Twitter,” he said.

Though Oberoi says Twitter isn't all about fluff and spin. He uses the site to galvanize admirers around social causes, like a home for the destitute and a girls’ school. “I’m trying to use the power of Twitter to bring in funding and volunteers,” said Oberoi.

Fans like Manika Cherian, a college student in Bangalore, say they love Twitter precisely because the stars let it all hang out. “I thrive on Bollywood gossip and love to follow my favorites such as Deepika Padukone on Twitter,” she said.

But other Twitter enthusiasts are none the wiser that some of the stars they follow, notably Madhuri Dixit or Priyanka Chopra, are fakes. Actor Priety Zinta has had to contend with several sham accounts, each one with thousands of followers.

An exasperated Zinta recently tweeted, “whoever u are pls stop impersonating me! What u r doing is illegal & I expect u to shut this account and quit using my name.”