Is it safe to assume you are familiar with the Hollywood star system? It boils down to the fact that the masses love celebrity. To be charitable part of that is a recognition and preference for quality. Others would say it speaks of superficial glamour overwhelming quality. Smugly I like to think quality rules my preferences, but in truth we all tend to act as herd members craving acceptance, but also preferring glamour to ugliness and quality to squalor. Critics seem to feel that the masses poorly appreciate real quality or understand the factors that underly what we should be seeking.
My expertise is certainly limited, but for those not familiar with Bollywood I can point out some of the factors and names of stars to consider. Those who avidly follow Bollywood may champion different stars and might contribute different opinions.
Bollywood is no different than Hollywood in the sense that to keep going they have to operate as a business. That means giving the buying public what they want. Financing a movie can be scary, because although a success can be very rewarding, the odds are not entirely promising. To boost the odds it makes sense to seek out celebrities that help draw in paying customers.
How they got to be celebrities was not always by the same route. Some are physically attractive or have obvious talent and some had a lot of support and some overcame obstacles with determination. Celebrity is also a relative thing. Anyone who has appeared in a popular movie has some glamour, but only a few can really act as magnets to assure (or almost assure) a movie's success.
Hollywood and Bollywood have an international audience in mind. In the case of Hollywood a lot has been in line with economic and political wave of American success. Bollywood is international in major part because of the Indian diaspora, but also with some attention to international interests. With a wider audience there can be many niches, but still the risks are most often dealt with using celebrity. Stars are one of the tools used to break into new markets.
In Bollywood it seems currently there are three male stars that ensure a big enough base they can make a movie a success. Also if they lend their name somehow and/or have a minor role in a movie their glamour will boost it. Those males are Salman Khan, Aamir Khan and Shah Rukh Khan. One thing they have in common is they are all in their forties with proven track records. For women it is a little different, they tend to be younger and only last a limited number of years as a dominant factor. Kareena Kapoor and Katrina Kaif come closest to assuring a profitable picture, ideally with one of the three male stars.
A few reasons people like these stars include that they are glamourous and they attract a strong supporting team. They get the better directors, writers, music composers, make up artists and the bigger budgets amongst many details. As a movie goer you like to think your preferred stars would choose a good script and would attract a good supporting cast and crew. A few times it doesn't work out that way, but nonetheless as true stars they do attract a much bigger base than their lesser competitors.
Yes, they do have competitors, either those on the way up or those on the way down. One on the way up is Hrithik Roshan who is younger, physically attractive perhaps the best dancer and with a good track record. He was actually picked to break into the American market with "Kites", but for a variety of reasons it failed. He has been in a number of big budget films and probably is going in the right direction. Shahid Kapoor has had a kick at the can, but has not a very impressive track record lately.
Saif Ali Khan, Ajay Devgn, Akshay Kummar, John Abrams and Abischek Bachchan each have a significant following, but seem limited in their projection.
There has to be replacements as these old guys are aging and will fade sooner or later. Some promising prospects include Ranbir Kapoor (son of Rishi Kapoor), Imran Khan (nephew to Aamir Khan) and Rajeev Khandelwal. These three have all tried to extend the type of roles they will accept. That will help spread their appeal. Other prospects might be Emraan Hashmi and Ranveer Singh.
For women the fading can start even earlier. Vidya Balan (my favorite), Priyanka Chopra, Anuska Sharma, Deepika Padukone are becoming increasingly popular. Ones that seem to be fading include Aishwarya Rai (may be just a maternity detour), Rani Mukerji, Preity Zinta and Kajol but they could become strong support players building on their current following. Juhi Chawla was a draw many years ago, but gets offered lesser roles now. She has also gotten involved with producing.
Kalki Koechlin is interesting. She is the daughter of French hippies who settled in India. She has taken on non glamourous challenging roles (with a few exceptions). She married Anurag Kashyap, a top producer. She is definitely a mark of a quality movie, although not necessarily a big box office winner.
Character actors can develop a small following. Anupam Kher, Boman Irani, Rishi Kapoor, Irrfan Khan, Paresh Rawal, Naseeruddin Shah, are key support players indicating probably a reasonable movie to watch. Sometimes they are given meatier roles, but usually in a lower budget film.
Farhan Akhtar is mostly a B actor, but because of his other talents, writing, directing and producing is a good indicator of a movie's success artistically and financially.
For me a most interesting actor is Amitabh Bachchan. A big star from the 70's as romancer and action star he has evolved into a strong father figure and still has the ability to be the main star of movies that are actually written and produced for him. He has had a number of flops, but can still command an audience. One of his most interesting roles was in "Paa" where he played the son of his actual son. Obviously marketing concerns entered the decision, but he and his son, Abischek Bachchan both executed it very well.
Producers with low budgets are always hoping to develop a new star and eventually some of them will succeed. The publicity efforts are mainly to boost a movie, but inevitably help actors develop their own fan base. Personal connection is very important.
I have left out many personalities and that is hard to avoid if keeping this post to a reasonable length. The ones I have mentioned are all capable of not only a good performance, but also drawing in some fans.
The photos represent my favorite stars--the ones that I look to provide a stimulating and entertaining movie.
At top is Shah Rukh Khan in my favorite Bollywood movie, "Swades"
Aamir Khan in "Lagaan"
Vidya Balan in" Kahaani"
Farhan Akhtar with Deepika Padukone in "Karthik Calling Karthik"