India Hits the Gym
For Raghu Ghai, the day begins and ends at the same place -- a gym in New Delhi where he pursues his quest for bulging biceps, a "six-pack" stomach and slab-like chest muscles.
Ghai, 28, explains his body obsession was triggered by Bollywood actors who increasingly display toned bodies that send a new message to Indian males: it pays to keep yourself in trim.
"If Indian heroes can now look hot, then I can have a body to attract women too," said Ghai, who works as a marketing executive at an automobile company.
He takes his mission seriously -- cardiovascular exercises, weights, a high protein diet and energy supplements.
"I am not ashamed that I am a gym addict," he said, adding that he often skips late-night parties, alcohol and heavy Indian food to devote three hours a day to working out.
Gyms equipped with sophisticated treadmills, cross trainers and entertainment systems have mushroomed across urban India and are now opening in smaller towns too.
Fitness First, one of the world's largest gym companies, arrived in India only last year and now has branches in Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore, with plans for rapid growth.
Its 22,000 square feet (2,000 square metre) club in Gurgaon -- Delhi's booming satellite city -- boasts 120 state-of-the-art exercise machines, a large free weights area, and studios for yoga, "spinning" (indoor cycling), and aerobics.
"We have a robust plan to expand our business. People join gyms to ape Bollywood, but fitness is also becoming a lifestyle choice," said Fitness First managing director Vikram Bhatia.
Santosh Das, owner of the independent Fitness and Health gym in New Delhi's suburb of Patel Nagar, agrees.
"It is a thriving sector," he said. "Women work out to fit into smaller sizes and men want to sculpt their bodies.
"A pot-bellied man with unkempt hair, dull and dry skin was an acceptable image of men but courtesy of Bollywood, this has changed."
Das's gym opened in 2004 and he has applied for a bank loan to set up three more branches in Delhi.
The potential for profit is clear. Ozone, one of the city's smartest gyms, costs 140 US dollars a month and boasts three floors of exercise rooms as well as personal trainers, steam rooms and a juice bar.
Driving the craze are Bollywood's adored new generation of muscle-bound heroes.
For decades, leading men were measured by the thickness of their chest hair, their gallant treatment of women or their singing and dancing skills.
But -- eyeing the earlier worldwide success of Hollywood action heroes Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger -- Bollywood stars finally got off the sofa and into the gym.
Salman Khan and Sanjay Dutt led the way, before megastar Shah Rukh Khan showed off a much-envied "six-pack" stomach in the 2007 blockbuster "Om Shanti Om" and Aamir Khan beefed up and stripped off for the 2009 smash-hit "Ghajini".
Now millions of young and middle-aged Indian men are striving for perfect torsoes to show off under tight T-shirts.
"Indians men want to have the 'oomph' factor," said Murali K. Menon, fashion and fitness editor of Man's World magazine, adding that his readers also use more male grooming products such as after-shave and even consider cosmetic surgery.
"If gyming and exercise does not give me the required look then I will consider abdominal contouring surgery," Jamsheed Pandole, 32, an entrepreneur who shaves his chest and hero-worships Shah Rukh Khan, told AFP.
Such thoughts are far from the traditional Indian male exercise of gentle outdoor yoga and morning walks, but today's men want fast results.
"Nearly 60 percent of my clients between 35 and 45 undergo liposuction to get rid of stubborn fat and over 25 percent register for procedures to get instant abs," said Sushil Jain, a plastic surgeon at Delhi's Gangaram Hospital.
And the struggle against nature looks set to continue.
"A sculpted body is now essential for actors," said Taruna Sathe, a Bollywood trade analyst in Mumbai. "And, in real life, girls want boys to look the same way as their film heroes."
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