The `Tom Cruise of India' hits his stride after 16 movies

WITH his boyish good looks and top salary - up to $160,000 per film - Aamir Khan is known as the Tom Cruise of Bollywood.

But does Tom Cruise spend most of his hours on the set lip-synching love songs, wiggling his hips to music, and coyly chasing starlets around trees?

``Since childhood I've been watching films with songs so I don't find it odd,'' he says. ``That's what actors do in India.'' In fact, Mr. Khan says he finds Hollywood musicals strange. ``In our films, the songs are carefully worked out. In Hollywood, they just suddenly start singing.''

Khan came from a film-industry family and from the age of 17 was determined to be an actor. After three years as an assistant director, he landed a leading role in a 1988 movie called ``Qayaamat Se, Qayamaat Tak,'' which was a megahit. But his next three films bombed. ``I was being called a one-film wonder by the press, and rightly so.''

Khan had fallen into a trap common in Bollywood. Bankable stars are in short supply, and most of them work on a slew of films at once - sometimes 25 to 30. After Khan's successful debut, he signed contracts for 10 films. ``When I started shooting them, I realized I was in the soup,'' he recalls. ``I might shoot one film one day and then wait eight months to shoot another scene [in the same film]. Everything was haphazard. I wasn't getting things right.''

HE made a decision to sign up for only a few films and, when his career recovered, he demanded that his films be shot over a shorter period of time. The entire industry has followed his example: A producer's rule made two years ago says actors can't be committed to more than 12 films at once.

Khan is known in the industry for his seriousness. After 16 films, he says the biggest trial is becoming a national figure overnight. ``If your film flops, the whole country knows about it. And you know they know.''

Nowhere is this truer than in movie-mad Bombay, where, according to popular myth, the public can tell a smash from a bomb simply by looking at the poster the day it's plastered on the bus stands.

``When I'm driving,'' Khan says, ``I find a real difference depending on how my latest film has been received. If the film is a hit, the people in the surrounding cars seem very excited. If it's been a bomb they barely look at me.''

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