Why Salman Khan Is Only ‘Supplying’ His Presence, And Getting Millions For It 

by Gautam Chintamani - Jul 29, 2016 02:43 PM +05:30 IST
Why Salman Khan Is Only ‘Supplying’ His Presence, And Getting Millions For It Image Credit: STR/AFP/Getty Images
  • How a superstar of the 90s became the ‘bhai’ of the 2010s

When it comes to the arts, there are usually two kinds of people – those who blossom at a very young age and those who bloom late. Being a star at the age of 24 and later enjoying one of the best phases of his life at 50 puts Salman Khan in both categories.

Going by the manner in which his career has shaped up, there can be little doubt that Khan was born to be a superstar. Yet Salman Khan fits the description of an unlikely star in more ways than one.

In the mid-1980s, when Hindi cinema was undergoing an overhaul, it never imagined that the stars that would go on to become top draws for the next quarter of a century would be unlike the generation that was on its way out. The persona of the angry young man, the character created by screenwriters Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar – popularly known as Salim-Javed – was so overwhelming that an entire generation of actors such as Anil Kapoor, Sanjay Dutt, and Sunny Deol imbibed some aspects of that persona into their work.

In 1984, when Amitabh Bachchan – the star who embodied the angry young man – momentarily quit films to pursue a career in politics, the seeds that this trio had sowed were all set to bear fruits. With Mashaal (1984), Anil Kapoor had presented himself as the next in line to fill Bachchan’s shoes, and it was hardly surprising that he then became the obvious choice to play the lead in Meri Jung (1985), a film where ironically enough, he was supposed to play Javed Jaffrey’s role with Bachchan as the lead.

With Arjun (1985), written by Javed Akhtar, just like Mashaal and Meri Jung after his split with Salim Khan, Deol had announced his arrival as the new angry young man. Dutt played the ‘Bachchan’ character in Naam (1986), which was Salim Khan’s first solo hit after parting ways with Akthar. Even Bachchan’s subsequent return to mainstream cinema with Aakhree Raasta (1986) and Shahenshah (1988) couldn’t move the spotlight away from the trio of Kapoor-Deol-Dutt.

It was the failure of Dacait (1987) that put popular Hindi cinema in a tailspin of sorts, and the first signs of the way ahead came with the advent of Aamir Khan as the new kind of hero with Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (1988). Dacait had the who’s who of Hindi cinema attached to it – Akhtar had penned it, RD Burman had scored the music, Rahul Rawail (Love Story (1981), Betaab (1983), Arjun) was helming it – and was hoping to reinvent the angry young man with a dash of sensitivity and sensibility and where social realities like casteism were a part of the narrative. Had it succeeded, it could have changed popular Hindi cinema’s approach towards scripts, but its failure simply put an end to any experimentation.

Also, the manner in which Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak’s boy next-door caught the fancy of people suddenly made the angry young man look dated and, moreover, made Anil Kapoor, who with the success of Mr India (1987) and Tezaab (1988) had almost come to be seen as the next big thing, appear from a different generation. Things might not have been so bad for the older lot had Salman Khan not happened with Maine Pyar Kiya (1989). Salman’s film was somewhere cut from the same fabric as Aamir’s, but it became a bigger success, and Salman the biggest star on the anvil.

During the making of Naam, Sanjay Dutt would frequent Salim Khan’s home and see the writer’s eldest born hang around. Dutt was an industry insider, but unlike Sunny Deol or Kumar Gaurav, was comfortable with seniors like Dharmendra and Shatrughan Sinha and pally with industry kids Salman and Aamir and sensed that the young man harboured dreams of becoming an actor. He not only acknowledged Salman but indulged him. He inspired him and even gave him tips to work on his physique and such.

Unlike Dutt, Salim never imagined that his son could become a ‘hero’, and hardly took any interest in moving things for Salman. Writer and filmmaker Johny Bakshi recalls how Salman would ask him to fix a meeting or introduce him to someone, for his father wouldn’t help him.

In an interview with this writer for his book Dark Star: The Loneliness of Being Rajesh Khanna (HarperCollins, 2014), Bakshi said that when he told Khan that Salman could become a hero, Khan laughed and said he shouldn’t be daydreaming, for does he not know what happened to his father.

Salim Khan had originally intended to become an actor, but gave up when things refused to work out in spite of a few notable appearances. By the time Salman got Maine Pyar Kiya, he had had a disastrous debut in Biwi Ho To Aisi (1988) and was practically written off, even though he was a known face, thanks to a few modelling assignments, such as with Limca and Hero Honda.

More importantly, Maine Pyar Kiya, being a Rajshri film, was hardly the kind of film that could make anyone a star; considering that Sooraj Barjatya, the scion of the production house, was making his directorial debut with the film, it was seen as more of a project to revive the production house rather than launch a future star. The success of the film wasn’t surprising, for Rajshri had been associated with good cinema and, while it found a fantastic platform that Mansoor Khan’s Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak had built, the sheer magnitude of the audience response might have come as a shock to many.

The success of Maine Pyar Kiya and Salman’s background suggests that things came easily to Salman. And perhaps they did, for in spite of Salim Khan not promoting his son or launching him like Rajendra Kumar, Dharmendra, Sunil Dutt or Surinder Kapoor did with their sons, sooner or later someone would have given Salman a second shot. But in many ways, Maine Pyar Kiya wasn’t an easy film for both Salman and Sooraj. If Sooraj was burdened by a glorious past that behaved like an impediment for his flight of fancy, being Salim Khan’s son wasn’t an easy load to carry. Even for Sooraj, Salman wasn’t the first choice and, if industry folklore could be believed, then just about everyone from a Deepak Tijori, Vindoo Dara Singh and Faraaz Khan, the son of Yusuf Khan who played the villainous Zabisco in Amar Akbar Anthony (1977), were in the running. But what clicked eventually was how Sooraj got the character of Prem – and by extension, Salman – to become a bridge of sorts between two different generations without disrespecting tradition, and at the same time being modern.

When compared to Aamir Khan, the other young star on the rise, Salman’s breakthrough role was more conventional, and therefore the success bigger as far as stardom went. Unlike Aamir, who tried to be same, same but different, Salman made it all look very easy and seemed to be going with the flow. Unlike Shah Rukh Khan, who would have a sensational debut three years later with Deewana (1992), Salman never pursued the top filmmakers.

If you look at his initial filmography, you’d notice how the first few films that followed Maine Pyar Kiya had directors that one can’t recall now – Deepak Shivdasani (Baaghi), Sawan Kumar Tak (Sanam Bewafa), Deepak Bahry (Kurbaan), Lawrence D’Souza (Saajan), Suresh Krishna (Love), Anant Balani (Patthar Ke Phool), Rakesh Kumar (Suryavanshi), Vijay Sadanah (Ek Ladka Ek Ladki), Esmayeel Shroff (Nishchaiy). In fact, Salman’s first film post-stardom with an A-list director was Andaz Apna Apna (1994), which was directed by Rajkumar Santoshi and had Aamir Khan for a co-star. It was only after films like Karan Arjun (1995), Khamoshi: The Musical (1996), Jeet (1996) and Judwaa (1997) that Salman started to transform into the box office colossus that he was being seen as at the time.

Salman’s rising popularity as a result of the thrust that Maine Pyar Kiya gave him often saw him being compared to Rajesh Khanna. Like the late first superstar of Hindi cinema, Salman also enjoyed a string of hits following his breakthrough film with Sooraj Barjatya. Although the success of a Baaghi (1990) or Sanam Bewafa (1991) wasn’t in the same league as a Do Raaste (1969), Sachaa Jhutha (1970), Safar (1970) or Kati Patang (1970), there hadn’t been a similar success story in popular Hindi cinema.

It’s telling that immediately upon their arrival, Aamir Khan was being seen as the next Kumar Gaurav, who enjoyed a dream debut in Love Story (1981), but couldn’t deliver another hit, and Salman as Rajesh Khanna, the bona fide superstar. But even then, it wasn’t until the 2002 hit-and-run incident that Salman Khan came into a league of his own. The rumours of his irascibility towards the women that he was supposedly romantically involved with – Salman reportedly poured cola over Somy Ali and is said to have physically assaulted Aishwarya Rai – had been doing the rounds for a while, but they never impacted his popularity. Even the 1998 episode of him supposedly poaching black bucks while shooting Hum Saath Saath Hain (1999) never hurt his image.

On 28 September 2002, allegedly under the influence of alcohol, Salman was said to have run his car over a group of persons who were sleeping on a pavement. The case dragged on for nearly 15 years and, as it lost steam over time, Salman’s popularity reached dizzying heights.

This new-found stardom was first seen during the release of Tere Naam (2003), a remake of the Bala-directed Tamil film Sethu (1999) that surpassed all expectations even from a Salman Khan film and set new standards. If the original made southern actor Vikram a star, the Hindi remake laid the foundation of a new phenomenon. The film is a doomed love story about a macho college dude who falls for the daughter of a temple priest, and when she rejects him, he kidnaps her and forces her to ‘fall in love’ with him. The girl has a change of heart, but the boy is attacked by some goons and ends up with permanent brain damage that takes away all his memories.

The film was pitched as the true love story of Salman Khan and, close on the heels of the alleged hit-and-run incident – which by some perverse logic was being conveniently attributed to the actor’s heartbreak caused by his real life lover walking away, Tere Naam assumed greater importance.

Since the release of Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999), Salman had had a bevy of lacklustre releases in the new millennium, such as Chal Mere Bhai (2000), Har Dil Jo Pyar Karega (2000), Kahin Pyaar Na Ho Jaaye (2000), Chori Chori Chupke Chupke (2001) and Tumko Na Bhool Paayenge (2002), and with two cases against him, no one thought Tere Naam would fare any differently. In fact, at a promotion for the film, Salman even told reporters in his lackadaisical style that there wasn’t anything different in this film. But somewhere the fans disagreed and started seeing Salman as Radhe, the character that Salman played in the film.

Suddenly all the reel pathos transferred to the real actor and so did the sympathy. Salman became bhai, someone who is one of them, and being someone who has been wronged, anything that hurt him pained the legions of fans.

Since Tere Naam, Salman Khan has largely played one-dimensional characters that walk the line even when they are doing something wrong. His onscreen image has become a font of hope and a source of deliverance for millions who will ignore anything that could even remotely threaten to disrupt this balance. Salman never bothered about using this fellowship to make statements that otherwise would appear manufactured. He never consciously played a role that could mobilise thousands and strengthen his case. He continued to play the typical Salman Khan character – the bad boy with a goodish heart, such as Mujhse Shaadi Karogi (2004), Maine Pyar Kyun Kiya (2005) and No Entry (2005), which somewhere only enthused the fans more as you got what you saw. At times, he even seemingly transported his off-screen persona to an onscreen avatar, like Partner (2007) and Danbangg (2010), and when he tried being preachy, like in Jai Ho (2014), he fell flat on his face.

With a career that began when nearly 65 percent of this country’s population wasn’t even born, Salman Khan is the only star whose popularity cuts across generations. Intriguingly enough, the older he gets, the younger his fan base becomes. Off late, it appears that Salman Khan might be veering towards a Charles Bronson or a Rajinikanth kind of space, where the film is customised to suit the star’s persona above all. He is a one-man mission and has developed his own brand of feel-good films like Bajrangi Bhaijaan (2015) and Sultan (2016) that don’t really need much besides his presence to hit the mark.

Much like Bronson, who once famously told Roger Ebert that he supplied a ‘presence’ more than anything else, Salman Khan, too, somewhere like Bronson, might be going to a point where, other than his films, he would be as unapproachable as possible.

Gautam Chintamani is the author of ‘Dark Star: The Loneliness of Being Rajesh Khanna’ (2014) and ‘Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak- The Film That Revived Hindi Cinema’ (2016)

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