The incorrigible bad boy of Bollywood or the benevolent Bhai? Aakash Aggarwal writes about the Salman Khan you know and you don’t
In today’s world of hashtags and headlines, it is easier to prefix an actor’s name with a name given by fans than ever before. Titles like ‘superstar’, ‘heartthrob’, ‘Shahenshah’, and ‘Badshah’ are thrown around and do not carry the weight they once did. Putting an eternal debate to rest, the ever-buoyant Salim Khan, in his foreword to Yasser Usman’s Rajesh Khanna: The Untold Story of India’s First Superstar, acknowledges that “Today, [his] son Salman Khan is a big star”, but stays away from using the term ‘superstar’. He says that given the mass adulation and hysteria that Rajesh Khanna or Kaka once created, he perhaps was the first and only superstar in the Indian film industry.
In the foreword and later in the book, he talks about Dilip Kumar’s superior acting skills and about Amitabh Bachchan’s defining discipline, but is still cautious of using the term ‘superstar’. He should know. After all, he worked with the original superstar and gave Kaka his biggest hit in Haathi Mere Saathi. He later helped co-create the Angry Young Man and the biggest star in Indian cinema in Amitabh Bachchan, with Javed Akhtar as they together penned legendary lines for the then newcomer. And now is the proud father of the 52-year-old actor, who has worked with different actresses across three decades and continues to be among India’s most eligible bachelors. So, if Salim Khan believes that Salman Khan is not a superstar, perhaps he isn’t.
But then who is Salman Khan? He debuted as a young chocolate boy in Biwi Ho To Aisi in 1988 — incidentally the year I was born. His breakthrough came a year later in Sooraj Barjatya’s romance, Maine Pyar Kiya. But as far as I can remember, he never quite commanded the top position in the industry as strongly as he does today. In a time where multiplexes have given life to movies that would never have seen the big screen in the past and given rise to meaningful storylines, new ‘intelligent’ heroes, real-life characters and realistic cinema, this man continues to bedazzle and rake in the moolah. Today, an Eid seems incomplete without a Salman Khan starrer. He is the universal bhai or bhaijaan to emerging young stars and even Sallu, to his fans. At the same time, epithets such as bad-boy, man-child, prince of darkness continue to haunt him.
Whatever the movie, whatever the occasion, the image of a bare-chested Salman Khan gyrating to dance steps that only he can pull off (because nobody else would want to try them) has become almost compulsory in award shows, movies, and anywhere else he is seen. Since much ink and air time has been devoted to the comparisons between the three Khans — Salman, Shah Rukh Khan, and Aamir Khan (Saif Ali Khan was never in the race) — it may be interesting to try and define the fan for these three actors.
The Eternal Lover
A Shah Rukh Khan fan today is most probably a middle-aged woman in her late 30s. Just imagine a 38-year-old, probably married and mother-of-one, high-spirited woman, who must watch the first day first show of every SRK movie as a compulsion. It is a habit. She has imagined her life partner as the Raj or Rahul of the 90s. Hands stretched on the sides, almost like in the middle of an aerobics class, a silly but adorable smile on the face, singing a lovey-dovey song, she has often had this visual of the man of her dreams on their honeymoon in Switzerland (thanks to Yash Chopra) even as she runs in slow motion towards him with open hair and a chiffon saree fluttering in the air (never mind the cold weather). In the heart of her hearts, she perhaps knows that his time as a leading actor, who serenades women around trees, is over. And SRK has tried to move away from that image too as Kabir Khan (Chak De! India), Dr Jehangir (Dear Zindagi), and even as Aryan Khanna (Fan). But those are experiments too few and far in between.
Irrespective of his now limited success in films, he continues to charm one and all. Be it his razor wit, his forever romantic hero image, or the memories that he has given his fans, he continues to be a phenomenon (even though somewhat limited) because as a fan once said to me, “I don’t care about his wrinkles as long as he continues to smile with his dimple.” Important to add: SRK has won ‘Best Actor’ in Filmfare Awards eight times — a record that he shares with Dilip Kumar. He has acted with Salman Khan in 1995 superhit, Karan Arjun.
The year 2018 has given a new word to the Indian cinema lover. Aiyaary that means wizardry to change form as per desire perhaps does justice to Aamir Khan’s dedication in immersing himself into a character. The Aamir Khan fan doesn’t look for defining mannerisms in his favourite star. Unlike the sway of Dev Anand, the one-handed tilted shoulder of Amitabh Bachchan or the “Kkkkkkiran” of Shah Rukh Khan, Aamir Khan doesn’t have one defining mannerism. Instead, he has lived his characters. His fans can range from being a 22-year-old Aditya Singh, who fell in love with Bhuvan from Lagaan (2001), the 41-year-old Ruchika Sharma, who adores Ram Shankar Nikumbh from the 2007 superhit Taare Zameen Par, or the nine-year-old Ayesha Saxena, who can’t forget the portly Mahavir Singh Phogat from the 2016 superhit Dangal.
If there are two things that you need to know about Aamir Khan, they are his repulsion to award shows and his attraction to great epoch marking movie scripts. Aamir Khan, the perfectionist, believes in reinventing himself so much that you sometimes forget that you are watching Aamir Khan on screen. And that perhaps is the biggest compliment that an established actor can get. He has been adjudged as the ‘Best Actor’ in Filmfare Awards three times, including the time he refused to take the award for his performance in Dangal. He has acted with Salman Khan in the 1994 laugh-riot Andaz Andaz Apna.
Misunderstood Muscle Man
In his Rs 100-crore blockbuster Kick (2014 ), Salman Khan says, “Mere baare mein itna mat sochna…main dil mein aata hoon, samajh mein nahi.” (“Don’t think too much about me. I am in the heart, but hard to understand”). Doesn’t that define Salman Khan? Someone who defies all logic and common sense but continues to succeed. His swagger, his ability to call the shots and do as he wants has been the defining characteristic of Salman Khan. After a great start to his career, he sleepwalked through mindless movies and mind-numbing storylines for over a decade. By his own admission, he wasn’t serious about his work and chose many films as favours to somebody he knew. While SRK was building his reputation as the ultimate lover boy and Aamir Khan was working on his one-film-a-year agenda, there doesn’t seem to be much logic to Salman’s choice of films.
One thing that a fan or a non-fan cannot deny is the fact that you can expect the unexpected from Salman Khan. Strange dancing on-stage with an embarrassed Deepika Padukone at an award show, calling himself a ‘virgin’ on Karan Johar’s popular talk show, imitating Katrina Kaif’s ‘My name is Sheila…’, to absurd interviews on news channels — sometimes I feel that either nobody understands what he really wants to show or maybe he doesn’t want anybody to understand what he stands for. There are different Salman Khans I have known over the years.
Even as a non-fan, strongly critical of his work, I was quite moved by an opinion piece I chanced upon in a UK-based daily. Describing Salman as a rare combination of “River Phoenix, Bruce Willis, and Norman Wisdom”, the article is heart-wrenching in its description of the Bishnoi community that worships the blackbuck that Salman allegedly and illegally hunted. But it was the description of Salman Khan that made me read and re-read it. His description as a bare-chested action hero whose “mean streak” came to the fore as he “slit the throat of a chinkara” made me feel as the blurry line that divides the real and reel life had been erased.
This image blends well with the perennial bad-boy image. Salman as the one who shoved and slapped a media photographer. As the one who hit his famous ex-girlfriend on a film set. As the one who called up the then boyfriend of his other famous ex-girlfriend countless times in a night to threaten him. With the one where he allegedly took the wheel of his SUV in a drunk state and mowed down people. As the one who allegedly smashed a bottle on the head of another of his ex-girlfriends. My only submission is that if he has done something wrong as per law, he should be punished. But to correlate his action-hero image, his devil-may-care persona on-screen to his actions off-screen is a dangerous path to tread. This is because like any of us, Salman is not a one-dimensional person. He is many beings.
In his 2003 hit Tere Naam, Salman as Radhey Mohan says, “Main request nahi karta…ek hi baar bolta hun, aur full and final ho jaata hai.” (“I don’t request, I say it only once and it becomes final”). From the roly-poly teddy-bear-like actors of old to the chiseled body of Salman Khan, he has been a revelation. He was among the first actors in Indian cinema to go for the body-builder look that has become somewhat of a norm today. Even as a whole generation of young actors flex their muscles literally and figuratively today, Salman Khan will forever be the one who started it all.
Then is the image of Salman, the mentor. While many believe that actresses like Katrina Kaif, Zarine Khan, Daisy Shah, Sonakshi Sinha, and more recently Athiya Shetty owe their film careers to him, he has also been a mentor to many. Arjun Kapoor, Aditya Pancholi as well as Pulkit Samrat have all been mentored by him. As the large-hearted bhai, who insists on home-cooked food on sets and believes in grand gestures and gifts, he is a friend many would give their right arm for. Remember his popular line from Maine Pyar Kiya: “Dosti ki hai, nibhani toh padegi” (“Now that we are friends, you must abide by our friendship”)
In his 2009 runaway hit Wanted, Salman says, “Ek baar jo maine commitment kar di, phir main apne aap ki bhi nahi sunta” (“Once I make a commitment, I don’t even listen to myself”). That is something that defines Salman, the humanitarian. Donations for good causes, promotions for his charitable trust Being Human, and other humanitarian work that shows his commitment towards providing education and healthcare to the underprivileged is something that he has built a name for over the last few years.
He has been around for 30 years and looks good for another 10. He seems to have found the sweet spot with movies that do not even pretend to be catering to the intelligentsia. The masala entertainer — that is his domain. Even as SRK has moved to the senior actor category and Aamir Khan shows no qualms in playing an old and fat wrestler, Salman has remained Salman, the superstar first and the character later. As Bajrangi whose heart bleeds for Munni, as Sultan who keeps it simple and speaks from the heart, as Chulbul Pandey, who doesn’t like criminals, and as Tiger, who always survives — movies from Salman want you to sit back and enjoy as you feel a very basic emotion. Strangely, his dialogue from the 1994-hit Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! seems appropriate: “He never bites, he only loves.”
The mentor, the boyfriend, the eligible bachelor, the humanitarian, the bodybuilder, and the mega-star, Salman Khan essays different roles in real life. Probably, it would be best if we view him with all his contradictions and eccentricities. You can choose to like him, you can choose to hate him, but you cannot ignore him. Limiting him to one image and forgetting the rest would be unfair and biased. It seems to me that he would want us all to pay heed to his dialogue from 2011 hit Bodyguard: “Mujhpe ek ehsaan karna, mujhpe koi ehsaan mat karna” (“Do me one favour that don’t do any favour to me”).
Salman Khan has never won the Filmfare Award for ‘Best Actor’. He holds the dubious record of having maximum nominations without winning.
The writer is a non-fan of Salman Khan, a movie lover, and communications professional
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