The rivalry hit the headlines again this year when Khan, dubbed "SRK" by his millions of fans, was named host of the Indian version of the quiz show Who Wants to be a Millionaire, a role Bachchan had held for two seasons until heart problems forced him to step down early last year. Or perhaps, as rumor has it, the show's producers balked at Bachchan's steep fee. Whatever the reason for the change of host, the question of whether Khan would be a better question-asker than Bachchan has taken on national importance in recent months with weekly newsmagazine India Today arguing in an overwrought cover story that Bollywood's biggest stars were "locked in a war that has divided politicians, industrialists and advertisers."
In a television interview on February 3, the constant comparisons with Bachchan seemed to get to Khan. "That was your generation, this is mine," he replied, curtly, to one question. "He does his age, I do my age." Bachchan said comparisons were unfair. "I am 25 years older than him. If you want to do an honest comparison, you should wait for him to get to 65 and then see how he fares with the Box Office king at that point in time."
As mild as those comments were, India's gossip page editors have pounced upon them as proof of the widening rift between Bollywood's reigning king and prince. In the past few days both actors have gone out of their way to say that they respect each other's work and remain friendly, but it somehow seems too late: like all the most ridiculous celebrity stories the Big B v. SRK brouhaha has taken on a life of its own. In a wonderful illustration of globalization's reach, even U.S. satirist Stephen Colbert has helped fuel the dispute by featuring Bachchan and Khan "the Indian Robert Redford and Brad Pitt only crank up the handsome and rip the knob off" in his television show's celebrity feuds segment. Khan, Colbert said way back in early January, had failed to turn up to Bachchan's New Year's Eve party. And so the cycle of silliness continues: a comic takeoff of an Indian news story is picked up by Indian newspapers weeks after it aired and cited as international recognition of a feud that may not even exist.
To get to the bottom of this story never let it be said that TIME's Delhi bureau is not at the forefront of investigative journalism's biggest stories I sent a request to the Big B and SRK asking them for comment. Not having received a reply from either, I set out to take the pulse of India's movie lovers. Was there a fight? What was real and what was publicity-driven artifice? Given this is Bollywood, does it even matter?
The staff in Rhythmics, a DVD shop in an incense-filled underground market below Delhi's Connaught Place, were puzzled by my questions. The salesman scanned the walls of DVDs and then turned to me with a forlorn look on his face. "Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan fighting? No, we don't have that movie available. What's it called?" Next door, in a shop stacked high with the very latest movies, manager Kuldeep Singh dismissed the feud as "just newspaper attitude." "They make it up to sell more," he said with smile. "How can there be a fight when Amitabh is the number one? He's an artist. He can do an angry man, a perfect man, a thoughtful man, everything. Shah Rukh Khan is just a playboy, a lover boy. There's no comparison."
To prove his point he reached under the glass counter and pulled out a DVD of the movie Eklavya. "You see, this is real acting," he shouted. When was this released, I asked, surprised to see Bachchan's latest big screen triumph already in the stores. "Tomorrow. No, next week," he replied. "You want it?"