The Strange Appeal Of Salman Khan
He can’t act and doesn’t even try to. He has been convicted for a grave crime. He has been known to rough up his women. So why do millions of people still love him?
He has established a charitable organisation called Being Human. His Hindi film industry colleagues cannot stop talking about his large-heartedness.
He is adored by his millions of fans in India and beyond. He is 49, going on 50, but these devotees walk into the theatres, rejecting every other film that gets released on the same day, convinced that he is a sprightly young superstar who can never grow old.
In 2002, he had been arrested for rash and negligent driving after his wayward car killed a man and injured several others sleeping on a pavement outside a Mumbai bakery. The Bombay Sessions Court declared him guilty of culpable homicide not amounting to murder in May this year. Sentenced to a five-year prison term, he is currently out on bail. But what he cannot do is escape imprisonment for eternity. There is also the notorious blackbuck poaching case hanging over his head.
A former superstar-girlfriend had once accused him of physical abuse. She blamed him for hounding her after they had broken up. She is not the only woman in his life who has found his conduct intolerable. If several voices have pointed in the same direction, there has to be some truth in it.
But how do Salman Khan’s fans react?
Homeless people must not sleep on pavements and invite untimely death. If one of his former girlfriends refused to sit next to him during an awards function, trembling as she said, “You don’t know the man,” she must be putting on an act. Pouring a soft drink on the head of another girlfriend in a public place is a media-manufactured lie. So they say, and so they believe.
It is because of their unconditional love for him that Salman sleepwalks through his films and needs wafer-thin storylines to turn them into box-office monsters. All he needs is a film that entertains the viewers, Salman Khan style, with little or no acting and some kind of story to tell. He doesn’t give a damn for critics because his followers don’t give a damn for them.
After the Court had announced its verdict in the drunken driving case came Bajrangi Bhaijaan, an aberration when viewed in the context of the lack of seriousness with which he has usually approached his acting. He discarded his larger-than-life image to play Bajrangi, an innocent devotee of Lord Hanuman, who is shocked to discover that a child he has given shelter to in his house is a Muslim from Pakistan. What follows is a simplistic story with easy solutions after Bajrangi embarks on a voyage to unite the girl with her parents in Pakistan.
The film explored the much-flogged themes of prioritising humanness over living inside the prisons of religious divides and, of course, Indo-Pak relationship cliches. Disturbed by the Court’s verdict, keen to show their support for their “Bhai”, Salman’s fans swarmed the theatres. The film became the second highest all time grosser in Hindi cinema. That it was also Salman’s biggest hit even tells a story of its own.
Some might insist that the film cast a spell because of its theme, which endeared itself to the average viewer. That is a naive assertion, simply because it was just not “any” other blockbuster. It was the biggest hit of Salman’s career, which is studded with fantastic returns. Besides making a statement of their support which they did, the fans saw him as Bajrangi once, twice, thrice, since it could have been the last Salman film for a long time.
The actor is however likely to gift them with Prem Ratan Dhan Payo, a romance from Sooraj Barjatya’s stable, sometime in November. But that was not the reality as it seemed then. Having reconciled to the inevitability of his absence, the fans, therefore, wanted to wish him a long goodbye before he went to prison for a grave crime. The response, a commercial miracle, showed his fans felt that “their” Salman could do no wrong.
What is most mysterious about Salman is how he has been churning out hits throughout his career. On paper, he has three competitors: Aamir Khan, Shah Rukh Khan and Hrithik Roshan, with the last a long distance behind the top three in terms of popular appeal. The difference lies in the manner in which each of them approaches his films.
Shah Rukh is a decent enough actor; yet, he has chosen to hide his acting skills behind his onscreen image to make his films work on most occasions. He has applied himself for non-cinematic reasons, by creating hype, sticking to formulas with very few deviations, and finally, by turning up for each and every television show and giving countless interviews to the media. He has often preferred to work with huge budgets, which has resulted in visual spectacles. At times, his desire to project his larger-than-life image has come across as desperate, resulting in the odd failure (Ra.One) but, usually, big successes like Happy New Year.
Aamir is a player with ideas, who has sprung surprises with his choice of themes and performances. His fans adore the man because he stays away from stereotypes, choosing to play a student (3 Idiots), an alien (PK) or a double role with grey shades (Dhoom 3). Over the last decade, he has been churning out megahits at an astonishing rate.
But, Salman. Ever since he started off as a hero towards the end of the 1980s, any endeavour to search for diversity or effort in his work is largely futile. Intelligent enough to know that he is a mediocre actor, he has continued to play
himself in film after film, year after year. He enjoys playing comic characters and revels in over-the-top moments, extracting some laughter from the viewers. The two best comic films he has acted in are Andaz Apna Apna (1994) in which he performed a fine acting duet with Aamir Khan, and Dabanng (2010) where he played Chulbul Pandey, a lovable crooked cop.
The problem is: should you watch any other Salman Khan comedy released during the huge gap of 16 years between these two films, you will see so much of him and so little of comic ability that the identities of the characters merge into one single image. It is that of Salman, the man, having a smile at our expense. He has a long list of romantic films in which he is more himself than Shah Rukh is in his romantic films. The characters change. So do the
stories, heroines and directors. But we remember his films for a long time only if it is a Maine Pyar Kiya (1989), a Sooraj Barjatya-directed milestone because it began the journey of his career as a successful commercial hero.
Salman as an action star is best known for that signature moment in which he takes off his shirt to flaunt his biceps and abs. Younger heroes with better physiques abound; but, their youth, those hours spent at the gyms and more abs pale into insignificance the moment Salman’s character decides: “Well, enough is enough. I need to take off my shirt and thrash the goons into pulp.” Never in the history of any cinema has the leading man’s bare-bodied look been greeted with such loud cheers.
Nobody can count the number of times Salman has made it work, including, one suspects, Salman himself. If “effortless” means making no effort, Salman is effortless. He has no qualms, no guilt, and hence, no desire to change. His fans go to see the man, who cracks those now-tedious jokes, romances the heroines, and wears tees or shirts and trousers that are a size shorter than he needs on the big screen. If necessary and it frequently is, he takes his shirt off. His fans bond with him like with no other star. Maybe that is the reason they are so forgiving and protective about him. If he is happy BeingSalmanKhan (his Twitter handle), they are happy because he is being himself. That is where the mystery ends.
So does the story.
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