Bollywood Rising: India's Biggest Movie Star Shah Rukh Khan

He is the biggest movie star whose name you may never have heard.

Known as the "King of Bollywood" to his fans, 41-year-old Indian actor Shah Rukh Khan evokes hysteria among South Asians from Delhi to Delaware.

The estimated size of his audience is over 3.5 billion, according to BusinessWeek -- and it's growing.

To put his popularity in perspective, in 2002, the Hindi film industry sold 3.6 billion tickets. Hollywood films, on the other hand, sold 2.6 billion tickets.

Bollywood film stars enjoy a huge fan base in Asian countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan, where neither the Taliban nor the Pakistani government's ban on Hindi cinema has stemmed their popularity. Their films may not show at the local cinema, but massive sales of pirated DVDs suggest that official attitudes have done little to dim their appeal.

Bollywood's appeal is widening beyond South Asia, expanding to countries like Germany, Israel, and Gulf nations, where almost every Hindi film is dubbed into Arabic when it releases.

So what makes these films -- largely song and dance extravaganzas -- so popular all over the world?

According to Indian author and film critic Anupama Chopra, "Bollywood films are fairy tales for adults. That's their appeal."

In an interview with ABC News, Bollywood superstar Khan was more succinct. He said simply, "We sell dreams."

And to a country where reality is often grim and filled with unrelenting economic struggle, "the small and simple fantasies" offered by the Hindi film industry are vital, according to Khan.

"The world of Hindi films," he told ABC News, "is fantastical, kitsch, and loud. But at the bottom of it all, there are very simple desires — all the hero of a Hindi film really wants is a house for his family, a happy marriage, children who will listen to him. We are not interested in making Armageddon movies."

Nor, it seems in making movies that will successfully cross over to a Western audience. While his peers like the former Miss World, Aishwarya Rai are busy making films with foreign filmmakers, Khan has no intention of shifting his focus away from Bollywood.

In an interview with ABC News, leading Bollywood director and frequent collaborator with Khan, Karan Johar pointed out that "unless they are going to give Shah Rukh a parallel role to Tom Cruise's in a Hollywood film, why should he bother working there?"

"Quite simply," Johar said, "there is no need for him to cross over. He has a strong domestic base and his audience is already bigger than most Hollywood actors'."

When ABC News asked Khan about his prospects in Hollywood, he was more circumspect and modest.

"I don't know how to answer that," he said, "I haven't had any offers to work there. And anyway, they have plenty of their own actors already, they don't need me to come and work there."

Whether Khan is concerned or interested in crossover fame, Bollywood is making inroads into Western countries. Germany now has three magazines devoted to the Hindi film industry, "Bollywood Rapid Eye," "Indien," and "Ishq."

Reminiscing about his most recent trip to Germany, Khan said, "I asked the people there why they watched our movies, without even knowing the language or the culture necessarily."

He got an interesting answer. "One man said ... that German society is so mechanized, that we have a button for every job, but we have no button to help us cry. Bollywood films allow us to do that," Khan said.

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