Obviously pre-empting unflattering critical reviews to the much-awaited new release Tubelight, Salman Khan who shares an adversarial relationship with film critics brashly declared in pre-release interviews that his films are “critic-proof.” That may be so, because the Kabir Khan film, primed for Eid, is taking a familiar route we had all expected. Critics will thumb it down while Khan’s millions of followers, irrespective of the reviews, will march up to the theatres in a ritual of fan-worship to turn Tubelight into yet another money-killing machine for a star whose rising profile is unrivalled in mainstream Bollywood.
For quite some time now, Salman Khan has officially been India’s biggest superstar, save for Rajinikanth and Baahubali – the latter changed the way we see our movies and munch our popcorns at the big screen. Khan has been questioned in interviews if he feels pressurised by the mammoth precedent set by Baahubali and even, Dangal which conquered the unsuspecting Chinese audiences and the superstar responded coolly that he isn’t looking at breaking records.
Words like ‘breaking records’, ‘numbers’ and ‘box-office’ have become just as much of the key phrases when discussing Salman Khan as “Bollywood’s favourite Bhai”, “man-child”, “man with a golden heart”, “Peter Pan who refuses to grow up”, “bad boy of Bollywood” and plenty others. A simple search of ‘Salman Khan nicknames’ on Google yields 20 results in the first box itself while the same in the case of Shah Rukh Khan, Khan’s nearest rival, throws only three.
How and when did Khan become so big? The short answer is that he was always big. He was big through the 1990s and 2000s. Just that he lacked the box-office muscle of the two other Khans, Aamir and Shah Rukh. Of the two, while Aamir is still going strong, SRK is in need of a reinvention. Now, the long answer. Though Salman Khan has been described by friends and collaborators as always being “serious towards his work” and “disciplined” he was never serious about being a star. Even today, he wears his stardom and celebrity lightly. In an excellent Open magazine profile on the star last year, friend Ashley Rebello described him as: “The difference between Salman and the other stars in India is that while all of them are respected and have huge followings Salman is loved.” There’s no doubting that he is loved but just as equally victimised by the media and public.
To recall: India’s answer to Stallone, Khan started the gym-toned body trend but ironically, he never did become a big action star. Instead, he excelled in romantic comedies. And though his films were moderately successful (besides the occasional record-breakers like Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! and Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam) he was never counted among the top earners at the box-office.
Prem, the character that Salman Khan epitomised in a series of hits, was loved for its ideal boy qualities but he lacked the cool appeal of Raj (Shah Rukh Khan). Explaining his resurgence post Wanted (2009) and Dabangg (2010), Salim Khan, the star’s scriptwriter father, told Open magazine, “There was a time when he did films for emotional reasons—to bail out friends or support people who’ve been with him in his difficult times. He didn’t take up films for reasons that most actors usually do, like the script, character, director and the studio. He has given breaks to a number of people, be it producers, music directors or lyricists. But when those films started flopping, he realised their survival also depends on his own survival. That’s when he reassessed his career and decided to take things more seriously.”
Soon enough, the David Dhawans, Nadiadwalas and Barjatyas were out. Salman Khan who grew up hearing about script, story and ideal casting from his father who wrote Zanjeer, Deewaar and Sholay eventually came to realise the power of storytelling. By common consensus, Khan began taking his career and celebrity-hood seriously immediately after the success of 2010’s Dabangg in which he played a desi Robin Hood. It somehow corresponded to his off-screen do-gooder, Being Human image. Since then, the star has grown from strength to strength – on one hand, playing a desi Bond in Ek Tha Tiger and on the other, a wrestler in Sultan (the closest he’ll ever come to the Stallone fantasy). Some of his simpleton characters in Bajrangi Bhaijaan and even, Tubelight (and Baghban, if you want to go that far back in time) are a variation on Prem.
In them, you see the man-child that the 51-year-old Salman Khan actually is. Like Khan, Prem is a family man devoid of any larger-than-life heroism. In all these films, you also see a vulnerable, ordinary man who demonstrates a moral niceness that upper-class Prem would reveal. Kabir Khan, who specialised in documentaries, saw the Prem in Salman Khan that many had forgotten. The maker of Bajrangi Bhaijaan and Tubelight also introduced a vital aspect into Khan’s cinema that must have taken some convincing – realism. No offence to Kabir Khan, but these almost look like Raju Hirani films not made by Raju Hirani. Would it be wrong to say that what Kabir Khan is doing to Salman Khan is exactly what Hirani did to Sanjay Dutt – which is to say, bring out the good in the bad? If Khan has any precursor, it is in Sanjay Dutt. Both bad boys with golden hearts. Both had their careers marred by negative press. Both controversy’s children. Both, when young, showed a capacity to be most ill-quipped to deal with sudden fame and its tantalising temptations. Of course, in both real and reel life, men like Khan and Dutt fascinate because they are unpredictable. They are also more real because they are vulnerable. Watch any of Khan’s interviews and you will realise he’s just as much of a moralist as eccentric. There’s a bit of Prem in him and vice versa.
(Shaikh Ayaz is a writer and journalist based in Mumbai)