On Salman Khan: I am not Peter Pan

Salman Khan has intrigued his fans for decades with his capacity to be a brat yet be endearingly human. Here’s the man beyond the fairy dust

September 18, 2010 in Culture, People
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Photo: Shailendra Pandey

If you go by the media buzz around him now, you could believe the measure of Salman Khan is a moustache. He has a big new film — Dabangg — hitting the screens on 10 September: first-time director Abhinav Kashyap, first-time producer Arbaaz Khan, first-time actress Sonakshi Sinha, and first-time moustache, Salman.

There is a lot of excitement about the film though. For 22 years, Salman has been playing the same role again and again over dozens of films to phenomenal success. Now director Abhinav Kashyap believes he’s been able to bend the mould. A bit. “It took me one year to convince Salman to wear a moustache. He kept refusing saying his fans wouldn’t accept it. Till the day of the first shoot, I had no idea he was going to give in. But then he turned up on the sets with many moustaches to choose from. I guess he was testing my conviction.”

There were other small bumps to surmount: Salman Khan never kisses or curses in his movies. He must have a scene where he bares his body. If it’s an action film, he must end up pulping the bad guy. And he’s not good with morning shifts. The myth of the superstar is built on these primary colours. “Once you accept the rules, you can do a lot,” says Kashyap.

At first glance though, there doesn’t really seem an awful lot you can do with Salman Khan. If you watch him on screen — charming smile, cupid lips, shiny eyes eternally brimming goodness, surround glow of fairy dust, great comic timing — you’d flick him aside as nothing more than a bit of a Peter Pan. Good for stress busting from real life. If you read about him in the papers, you’d have the opposite view. Badtempered, brattish, reckless, violent. Peter Pan gone bad. Recently, things have begun to turn around a bit. The air has grown kinder. So 22 years of relentless media attention and here’s the verdict on Salman Khan: he’s a good-hearted but bad-mannered modern- day Robin Hood.

But is that the whole truth about Salman? No one denies he has the incalculable quality that makes a real superstar. The analysts can run hoarse but, like Rajesh Khanna of an earlier generation, when Salman steps into public glare, people are ready to tear their shirts. Of the two other Khans who have dominated India’s populous mind over the past two decades, Aamir by far has the greater gift, but perhaps not the aura. Shah Rukh has the style, but perhaps not the affection.

Been there too Salman is arrested after a hit-and-run that took the life of a pavement-dweller
Photo: Deepak Salvi

So what draws people to Salman Khan? What’s the measure of his legacy so far? Like with any star in this film-obssessed nation, there are stories on Salman Khan. And there is the story of Salman Khan. The whole truth obviously lies somewhere in between.

IT’S EARLY evening on Rakhi day. Salman Khan is sitting at his sister Alvira’s dining table in Bandra Hill, surro unded by family and the remains of a festive gathering. The house is small, the camaraderie is big. Salman is red-eyed and stubbled and has a towel slung over his shoulder into which he periodically blows his nose. He’s been running a fever and it hasn’t been easy to track him down. Now it’s a fresh struggle to get lone time with him. “What’s the difference?” he says. “Isn’t this interview going to be published? Aren’t people going to read it? This is just family.”

Doggedness is not only his domain. “Let me turn the conversation into art first,” I say, “this is like watching someone dress in the green room.” The faintest hint of a chuckle escapes him. The family withdraws into other rooms. Big steaming mugs of coffee appear. (Someone had said, “Everything is open and big-hearted in the Khans’ household: the hugs are big, the coffee is big, the table is always laden with food. It’s a typical Pathan home.”)

Salman’s very first answer presents a man nothing has quite led one to expect. It’s on the legacy question. On what he thinks his years in the limelight have added up to. “It’s simple,” he says. “Some fathers want their sons to grow up to be like me. Other fathers say, grow up and be anything, but just don’t ever be like that man. Either which way, it’s good.”

‘Am I misunderstood? Everyone keeps asking me this. I don’t get it. You can’t be misunderstood over 22 years, can you?’ says Salman

Reserve. Combative, cut-through-thecrap intelligence. A contemptuous awareness of the circus around him. A contemptuous measure of the world at large, in fact. These are not qualities Salman’s reputation rests on. But these are what run through our conversation the most. Salman Khan is not a simpleton. Not a poor rich boy everyone has to save. He is a refreshingly sardonic man who is on to everyone’s game all the time. The interview has been set up through a mutual friend, but there’s no cheap shot at gaining sympathy. No ready-to-mix friendliness. Salman is in no urgency to tell his side of the story. (Later in the week, on the popular Aap Ki Adalat show, he is hectored to reveal stuff about his stormy relationships with actresses Aishwarya Rai and Katrina Kaif. “I would have told you it’s my private life,” he says to anchor Rajat Sharma, “but you already know that. This is all about getting the most TRPs, isn’t it? The next time, just haggle the correct fee with me before the show and I’ll say whatever you want and give the money to my charity.” It is said with a laugh, but Sharma blanches: he’s been caught out. Right through the show, Salman plays to script, then calls everyone’s bluff. “See, I’ve given you your promo shot,” he mocks jovially. Just beneath the mockery though there is an unmistakable current of scorn.)

Freedom walk Salman steps out of the Jodhpur Central Jail after getting bail in the poaching case
Photo: AP

Now, at his sister’s dining table, he muses over another question. “Am I misunderstood? Everyone keeps asking me the same thing. I don’t get that one. I could understand if it was the first year I did my publicity. But I’ve been around for 22 years. What I am is evident. It’s there. I react. So what is this question? A conversation opener? A lack of words, a lack of thought? What is it? You can’t be misunderstood over 22 years, can you?”

Salman has a soft, clipped way of speaking. A sort of blank-eyed, pin-down stare that is difficult to sidestep. It jolts you into taking fresh stock. This is no bathed-inpixie- dust Peter Pan you are talking to. This is a 45-year-old man. And what’s he really saying? Is he dissing your attempt at building solidarity? Is he taking ownership of his chequered reputation? Or is he taking a swipe at journos at large, who come clucking unique understanding then go back to reiterate the stereotype?

SALMAN KHAN is not a stereotype, but stereotypes are a good place to begin piecing together the many stories on him. (“Why are you writing on him,” says one civil rights activist. “Isn’t he a semi-criminal?”) Fittingly, for a cinematic profile, much of those stereotypes arose out of a hunt, a love affair, alcohol and an accident.

In 1998 — a decade into his smash debut, Maine Pyar Kiya (he had one flop before that) and with a string of superhits behind him — Salman was accused of poaching a black buck on 28 September, along with six other people, including co-stars Saif Ali Khan, Neelam, Sonali Bendre and Tabu, who were in Jodhpur for the shooting of Hum Saath Saath Hain.

The black buck is an endangered animal. Salman had already built a reputation for insolence. The incident confirmed everyone’s favourite version of him. Unfortunately, a decade and more later, it is difficult to sift prejudice from proportionate fact. There are thousands of contradictory articles on the incident. None of them quite add up. Few know, for instance, that there are three separate cases against Salman: the Bhavad village case, the Ghoda Farm case and the Kankani case. Still, muddled as the facts are, the stories look bad. According to reports, a few days after the incident, driver Harish Dulani, a key witness, told the police that Salman not only shot the black buck, but also took out a knife and chopped off its head. (Other reports cite Dulani saying Salman chopped off the buck’s legs.) Over the years, Dulani has changed his account several times. In 2002, he went absconding, without being cross-examined. In 2006, he reappeared and retracted his statement on a TV channel, saying he’d been pressured into indicting Salman by forest officials and “others”. But the trial court refused to recall Dulani as a witness. Soon after, Salman was convicted and spent a few days in jail. His co-stars were acquitted. Dulani now claimed he had retracted his statement under pressure from Salman’s family who had alternately threatened and tried to bribe him. A few months later, a sessions court upheld the lower court judgment. Salman spent another few days in jail.

Salman and his family refuse to talk on any of this. (Alvira says, “The magistrate said on record that he’d have thrown the case out if it hadn’t involved Salman, but no one reports that.” “I was told the matter is sub-judice,” says Salman. “It’s obviously not sub-judice for the media.”) It doesn’t help that, on another show, asked the same questions, Salman says — with his irrepressible gift for the defiant tangent — “We saw a wounded deer. I stepped out of the jeep and fed the deer a biscuit. That’s all that happened. Then we drove off.” It doesn’t help either that though there’s a lot of tabloid reports on the case, Salman is obviously not criminal enough for any journalist to sift through the court papers and write the definitive story on it.

In 1999, soon after the fracas over the black buck, Salman famously fell in love with Aishwarya Rai on the sets of Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (a film in which he, prophetically, loses her to a more stable, middle-of-the-road guy). By all accounts, the affair was tempestuous. The couple broke up in 2002. This seemed to drive Salman berserk. There were importunate accounts of him flooding her with calls, beating down her doors, threatening to harm himself, stampeding into sets, roughing her up. At first, Aishwarya denied this. In an interview to Filmfare in May 2002, she said, “For some reason, everyone refuses to believe I fell down the stairs and bruised my face… First the media calls me the woman of the millennium, a woman of substance. Then how can the same media make me out to be such a doormat? I don’t take nonsense from anyone. If I had been accosted or physically beaten, I’d have reacted violently…”

A few months later, though, on 27 September 2002, she told The Times of India a completely different story. “The Salman Khan chapter was a nightmare in my life,” she said and went on to speak in corrosive detail about his “alcoholic misbehaviour, abuse, infidelity and indignity”.

The panicked excesses of a thwarted heart is one thing in private. Made public, it’s something altogether more grisly. It couldn’t have been easy to stomach that interview. In an almost doomed, scripted sort of way, Salman had an accident that night, or rather the next morning — 28 September — driving home drunk from JW Marriott in Juhu, with a singer-friend and police bodyguard. The hurt rage of that drive must have its own sub-story, but it killed Noor Ullah Khan, a pavement-dweller, outside American Bakery. Three others were wounded. As if that were not blow enough, Salman took several hours to surrender to the police and there is now a murky debate in court on whether he was at the wheel or his driver — with all the connotations of shifting blame which that involves.

Pulp fiction The superstar reinvents himself in the role of a tough cop in  Dabangg

THERE WAS worse to come. In 2003, actor Viveik Oberoi, briefly linked with Aishwarya, held a humiliating press conference about how Salman was hounding him with threatening calls for having a relationship with his former girlfriend. And in 2005, the Hindustan Times published the transcripts of an old and theatrically ugly lovers’ tiff between Salman and Aishwarya, which the police had apparently tapped as part of their surveillance of Bollywood and the underworld. Salman was overheard bullying Aishwarya into performing for a show funded by underworld don Abu Salem, and boasting about his connections. The tapes were declared to be false in 2006 by a national forensic lab. In an interview to TEHELKA in 2005, though, breakaway don Chhota Rajan said he had seen Salman lunching with Dawood Ibrahim in Dubai.

Through all of this tumult, Salman himself has never once played ball with the media, retreating only into the warm, “closed fist” of his family for comfort. In fact, he has an uncanny way of making one feel gauche for probing him too deeply. As if you were shopping at discount for the obvious. “You mellow down, you become calmer. But unless you were completely on some wrong track in life, why should you change,” he says with that strange acuity. Ask him how the experience of Indian courts affected him, though, and he irreverently feigns a man nodding off to sleep on a chair. “The energy in these places makes me sleepy,” he says.

Chest up Salman has a shirtless scene in all his movies. He pioneered the cult of gymned bodies
Photo: AFP

For those who play by the rule, this highly incorrigible, almost comic, individuality is probably maddening. (“He needs more system, more order in his life,” says younger brother Arbaaz.) But ironically, these also seem to be his most endearing — most starry — traits. Salman is famously short in attention span. (The friend who put us together actually drafted the exact SMS that is likely to catch his eye.) He is famously immune to conventions of time. (There is no scheduling with Salman. He touches base when he wants to, takes phone calls when he wants to. If you are in trouble, he might devote his entire day to you. But try strong-arming him into anything, and he’ll stonewall you. “When we want him to do something, we have taken to advising him to do the exact opposite,” laughs Arbaaz with affectionate exasperation. “But he’s onto our ploy now.”) He’s also famously generous. (He’s always giving away things: money, watches, cars. “Most people know how to turn two into ten,” says Arbaaz again, “but Salman knows how to turn ten into two. Our father manages his money just to protect him.” The reputation for giving has blown so big, however, one story has it that Salman goes around at night, putting money beneath poor people’s heads!)

RESISTANCE TO convention, in fact, seems to be the sharpest reflex in Salman’s life. In a city of lavish stardoms, he is content to remain the Bandra boy he started as. He still lives in a one-bedroom flat, a floor below his parents, with four dogs, three cats and a sparrow he’s rescued recently. (The dogs are a big deal in his life: a St Bernard called Saintu; a Neapolitan Mastiff called My Love; a Labrador called Mowgli; and a French Mastiff called Veera.) Out of this unlikely citadel — grouted by devotion to parents and childhood memory — Salman either paints reclusively in avid bursts or throws impetuous parties. His canvases are rich with colour and brooding variations of Christ or Islam or Hinduism. His parties are eccentric, full of back-slapping abuse and over-the-top anecdotes.

At other times, when Salman is not belting out films, he quite often cycles to work or loafs around Bandstand, drinking coffee, eating bhelpuri — and as the feel-good stories on him go — sometimes rescuing people from the sea or intervening in accidents. “It’s not put on. He’s just being the pada (neighbourhood) boy he started out as,” says a filmmaker who’s been making a documentary on him. (Salman, in fact, lists his Bandra childhood as one of the biggest influences in his life: fishing, swimming, playing tennis with friends at Sea Rock Club. It is the secure cocoon from which he regards the world. For those who set out thinking here’s a raspy man they can somehow redeem, it’s faintly disappointing to find someone content with life and a firm philosophy of his own. “Be a hero, not a fan,” goes one of Salman’s tweets tellingly. “Command, don’t demand. Grow, don’t climb. Don’t change, realise.” Chided by one of his fans for his spellings, he writes in Hindi, “Kya Twitter school ka principal mujhe nikaal dega kya? Will the Twitter school principal expel me or what?”

‘Salman’s not a regular guy,’ says Aamir Khan. ‘He’s an original. He can be rude but also very charming. He has aura. And lateral thinking’

Aamir Khan, an unlikely friend, who’s known him from the start and has grown to like him more, says, “Salman’s not a regular guy. He’s an original. He can be rude and unpredictable but also very charming. He has aura. Attitude. An unusual, lateral way of thinking. And, shrouded beneath the persona, he is highly intelligent. He may not read and isn’t intellectual in the conventional sense — but there’s high native intelligence.”

The endorsement is odder, given the two stars’ diametrically opposite approaches to life and work. Aamir’s meticulous perfection is legion: Salman’s oeuvre is the slapdash but successful “Factory” a Ram Gopal Varma would covet. He has churned out an average of three films a year for two decades. For him, cinema is formula. “What is it?” he says. “There are seven plots in the world. Good — bad. Hero — villain. Girl — boy. How does it matter? It’s entertainment. If you want to do something more complex, why don’t you write a book?” Salman also doesn’t just do films because they make sense to him as stories: he does them to give others a leg up in life or save someone in a mess or to support a loved one. It’s part of the illogical generosity that makes one admire and despair. As his sister-in-law Malaika Arora says, “There’s this dialogue in Wanted: ‘Maine commitment kar diya toh kar diya. Phir mai apne aap ka bhi nahin sunta. (Once I commit, I commit. After that, even I can’t dissuade myself ).’ It sounds clichéd, but that dialogue is him really.”

So how did Salman Khan, son of Salim Khan, one of Bollywood’s most legendary scriptwriters, come to have this functional view of cinema? The key to Salman’s life story probably lies in that contradiction.

Love torn Salman’s stormy relationships with Aishwarya Rai, Katrina Kaif have regularly made headlines in the gossip pages. Photos: Indian Express Archive, AFP

SALIM KHAN, refined, cosmopolitan — director Raju Hirani calls him a “masterpiece of a man” — was the son of a police officer in Indore. His mother died of tuberculosis when he was nine. She was brought home just before she died. Salim was playing in the courtyard in a black sweater. “Who is that child?” she asked. She could not recognise him. Incarcerated in Bhowali sanatorium, she had not been allowed to see her son for four years.

Salim’s father died soon after, when he was 14. His elder siblings were away, married or working. Salim was brought up by servants in a portion of a 16-bedroom house. As a grown man, he chased many ambitions: to be a cricketer, a pilot, an actor. When he could excel at neither, he took to script-writing, becoming one half of the Bollywood legend: Salim-Javed.

Salim was already married to a Maharashtrian Hindu, Sushila Charak — now Salma Khan — when he fell in love with another Bollywood legend: the dancervamp Helen, a Christian. “I could have just brushed it aside as a private matter,” says Salim, “but I do not understand love without responsibility. So I told my wife about it. Then I sat my children down (Salman was 10) and told them that I had not stopped loving their mother, but had still more love to give someone else. ‘You may not understand now,’ I told them, ‘but when you grow up, you’ll remember the sound of my voice and you’ll know I wasn’t faking anything’.” After the initial devastations of this, the family drew even closer. The women became friends. “There’s no trauma about it,” says Salman, in his matter-of-fact way. “There was a time when we wanted our father and Helen aunty to have kids so we could get more siblings.” The cheery Khan household, in fact, is an unselfconscious microcosm of India: Hindus, Muslims, Christians happily inter-married. Salman famously carries the Ganpati statue on his shoulder for his mother’s puja (he earned a fatwa for this); and accompanies Helen and Malaika Arora for midnight mass on Christmas.

Salim — patriarchal weaver of words, broad visions and essential courtesies — has been Salman’s greatest influence. “Because he is a man,” he says simply. “Because he has all the qualities a man should have.” Close as they are, though, father and son have a tricky relationship. Salim is reputed to have had both a quick temper and high standards. (He whacked the boys sometimes, most often Salman, for burning newspapers in the balcony, for trashing the car, for not living up to expectation.) The youthful Salman seems to have constructed himself in futile oppositions to his father. In a 1990 interview, he said intuitively, “My father and I often don’t see eye to eye. I keep trying to prove him wrong on wrong things and fail miserably. Maybe it’s the James Dean influence in my life. I’m the rebel without a cause.”

(The absence of struggle could really be the big stumbling note in Salman’s life. He’s been thwarted only once professionally, when he was turned away the first time he went to audition. “Unlike many others in Bollywood, I didn’t have to sleep on the streets and survive on channa,” he told a reporter with characteristic wryness. “So I’m very grateful to those guys who rejected me. I turned it into my ‘channa story’, making it a challenge in my head: one day, I’ll succeed and show all of you.”)

At first, Salim is reluctant to discuss his son, displaying all the affectionate prevarications of a father. “It’s not in our culture to praise our own children,” he says. But the writer in him has clearer-eyed assessments. He recounts a scene from Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight. Chaplin’s character helps a talented dancer redeem her career and puts her back on stage. After her first show, the spotlight comes on. People cheer and clap and throw flowers at her. Later, Chaplin asks the girl what she felt. ‘I don’t know,’ she replies. ‘I could hear the noise, but I couldn’t see anyone.’ ‘That’s going to be the tragedy of your life from now on,’ Chaplin told her. ‘You will only be able to hear the noise but you won’t be able to see yourself or the others.’

“It is very, very rare for any actor to protect themselves from this fate,” says Salim. He mostly speaks obliquely about Salman — loath to either praise or criticise directly. But some of the shortcomings of the son come through in other aphorisms, “Salman is a reasonably good boy. He is a talented actor but he is not taxing his full potential,” he says. “To be interesting, you have to be interested,” he adds.

Ask him if his children — specifically Salman — have inherited his wise approach to love and human relationships. “Salman is restless,” he replies. “You can’t fall in love with a woman who is a star in the peak of her career and overnight start looking for your mother in her. Define what clothes she’ll wear and expect her to settle for taking your kids to school one day. It’s not plausible. The goals are different.” (Salman has a different take on it. What sense does it make for women to be attracted to him for certain qualities, then make it their mission to change exactly those attributes?)

Salim has the epigraph that seems to sum up the peculiar mix of recklessness, yet absence of genuine experimentation that has been Salman’s life. “To make a mistake is no mistake. To not make a mistake, may sometimes be a mistake. But to repeat a mistake is the biggest mistake of all.”

WHEN SALMAN was around 10, the principal of Stanislaw School asked the privileged kids in the class to bring an extra tiffin for one other kid in the school whose parents couldn’t afford lunch. Salman asked the principal how many such kids there were in his class. The principal said 10. Salman routinely brought all 10 home. This is an anecdote Salim remembers with great pride. “Salman has always had great compassion,” he says.

It’s a strand Salman seems to be building on. Some years ago, in a more innocent time — before Salman’s high-voltage fallout with Shah Rukh — the three super Khans were having an evening together. Salman, several drinks down, kept lisping about one rupee. “I kept wondering what he was talking about,” says Aamir, “then we realised he was suggesting we start a medical insurance scheme in our names: Aamir, Shahrukh, Salman. If every poor Indian gave us just one rupee every day, he said, imagine what a huge fund we could create. Then whenever anyone falls sick, they can withdraw from the fund.”

The Khan Fund never got off the ground, but another Salman charity trust did. Salman has been funding hundreds of cataract operations; giving away cycles; funding the creation of bone marrow banks. Now he is in the process of launching a clothes and watch brand to fund the trust. “Normally, when you buy high-end products, the profits just go towards making men like Armani or Versace richer. With my line, the money will be going ahead, curing illnesses, making people’s lives better. And the donor gets something in the process too. Jeans, T-shirt, watch, whatever. I am not asking people to just donate to my charity,” he says.

Curiously, Salman’s reputation for heart today is almost as strong as his former reputation for damage. You could suggest the charity is a studied attempt to paper over the reputation of earlier decades, but that would be exactly the sort of sly over-analysis he scorns. His charity, in fact, is marked by characteristic angularity. “What’s my focus?” he says, “I’m having trouble with this. Everyone wants me to have some focus. Focus on children, some say. Children, I say, that’s good, children is good. But what if a child’s parents are going to pop it, should I turn them away because I’m focussed on children?” (In earlier conversations, Salman has spoken vaguely about using his charity to rebuild farmers’ homes.)

Eccentric as it is, Salman’s bullshit detector is hard to refute. How can compassion be divided into neat compartments? And so Salman has come up with a name for his charity that, most expansively, seems to define him: “Being Human”.

Music director, Sajid Nadiadwala, who owes his career to Salman and is one of his closest friends, affirms this, “If there has to be a tag-line for Salman, it would be ‘Being Human.’ Everyone makes mistakes, but Salman doesn’t shy away from his. He is a fakir. A man who never demands anything of anyone. He’s only given things to people, helped them out.” (Giving, in fact, is a quintessential Salman trait. Typically, it has its downsides. “Salman surrounds himself with people he can play Big Brother to,” says a well-wisher. “You’ll never find a real equal in his coterie.”)

‘I keep trying to prove my father wrong. Maybe it’s the James Dean influence in my life. I am the rebel without a cause,’ says Salman

“I hope you write this positively,” Sajid adds as an afterthought. “Are you recording this conversation? Because I am.”

AS THIS story hits the stands, Dabangg will be hitting the theatres. Salman was always deemed a front-benchers’ delight. This film is his sten-gun assault on the polite multiplex crowd. “I want them to whistle and dance on the chairs,” he says. “I want them to cry and clap.”

As you watch the cheeky moves of the police officer in the trailers, you marvel afresh at the oceanic difference in the man on-screen and off. There is nothing in Salman’s tight, aloof reserve that suggests he can — at the flick of a switch — transform into a sunshiny man-boy, full of openbodied mischief. It’s wrong to say he is not much of an actor. “You have to stay young in the head,” he says. “The day you let yourself grow old in the head, the game is over.”

Most people believe Salman’s legacy in Bollywood will be the culture of trim, muscled bodies. And perhaps now, a moustache. But that would be to miss the point of being Salman Khan. His real, lasting legacy is to have ‘been human’. That’s what keeps his fans with him: this alluring mix of fantasy persona and frail vulnerability.

As lyricist and adman Prasoon Joshi says, “Salman’s stardom is unconditional. Even when he signs the worst films, his fans go to the halls to give him a chance. If they’re disappointed, they never blame him. I once heard some men coming out of his flop film, Yuvvraaj. ‘Bhai ko galat film sign kara diya’, they said. (People have got him to sign a wrong film).” This affectionate indulgence — this deflection of responsibility by those who love him — sums up the story of Salman Khan.

shoma@tehelka.com

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