It is 9.30 am at Chhindwara’s Slim and Trim Ladies and Gents Health Club. A few men move hurriedly from the treadmill to the rowing machine; some others lift weights, one eye keenly watching themselves in the mirror. Shantanu Ghosh walks in. Shrugging off his leather jacket, he takes position on the floor, raising his lithe body upwards with his arms, his feet on the armrests of the bench press machine. With the dexterity of a mantis, Ghosh, 31, proceeds to perform push-ups at a 60-degree angle. The rest of the men watch him, muscles and jaws slack with envy. As if on cue, speakers blare out Jumme ki Raat, a dance number from Kick. The Junior Salman Khan of Nagpur has made his “entry”. He grimaces in concentration, sweat dripping down his chiselled chest. On a poster above Ghosh’s head, a shirtless “Bhai” glowers in approval.
“Jai Salman,” says Ghosh into his mobile phone a few minutes later. Plans are made quickly, he is mobilising his friends-cum-fans for a photoshoot for us, the first mediawale to visit him from outside Nagpur. “Tu aa sakta hai? Bas, dus minute ke liye, photo khichenge,” he says. At the bus stop in Chhindwara, a town in Madhya Pradesh with more gyms than restaurants, men start to take notice of him, a small but muscular man sporting a worn-out leather jacket in the sweltering heat. “Kya aap Salman Khan ho?” asks one. Ghosh laughs; the lookalike is flattered and satisfied to have been mistaken for the original celebrity.
This encounter, one of many that take place during the course of a day, is a run-up to his big moment in the sun. Ghosh’s Facebook page has over a thousand “likes”; a local politician recently sent over an Audi to pick him up for a birthday party; and he even has his own fan club, a brotherhood of young men united by the Bhai code of conduct. But for the first time, Ghosh is on the cusp of probable fame. Being Bhaijaan, a documentary film about him by filmmakers Shabani Hassanwalia and Samreen Farooqui, is due for release on September 2 at PSBT’s annual Open Frame film festival.
Ghosh is excited about the role and the possibility that maybe, just maybe, the Bollywood actor will now be apprised of his existence. “Did you watch Kick? Usme Bhai ne 51 social messages diye hai. I want to do social work like him and with him. He is my inspiration and my face is god’s gift,” says Ghosh, not as nonchalantly as he would like. What could have been yet another ordinary, middle-class life spent in Chhindwara changed irrevocably the day Ghosh looked into the mirror and saw a star staring back at him.
“I have big eyes like Salmanbhai but as a youngster, I never thought that I looked like him. I wasn’t even a fan, I liked Amitabh Bachchan. It was only in school that my friends began saying that I resembled him,” says Ghosh, who began going to the gym in his teens but only as a recreational activity.
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By the time Ghosh graduated from high school, Salman Khan was easing himself out of what could be called the Prem School for Loverboys and entrenching himself in Bollywood as a romantic lead with a penchant for comedy. In 1998’s Pyar Kiya Toh Darna Kya, with an “entry” that had him strut onstage in nothing but a pair of ripped jeans and an unplugged electric guitar, Khan debuted the physique that would send thousands of young Indian men scurrying to gyms overnight. “That’s the first time Bhai ne body banaai,” says Ghosh, who names Veergati (1995) as his favourite Salman Khan film but believes nothing came close to the impact Bhai’s body in Pyaar Kiya Toh Darna Kya had on him and his generation. “That’s when I thought of building my body like that,” he says.
After 1994’s Hum Aapke Hain Koun!, Khan did not abandon Prem entirely but began to play romantic leads with a slight twist. In 1999, he played a womaniser who realises the folly of his ways (Jaanam Samjha Karo, Biwi No.1), the thwarted lover (Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam), the friendly ghost (Hello Brother) and the sanskari Prem (Hum Saath-Saath Hain). But it was 2003’s Tere Naam that turned the tide. Radhe was a far cry from Prem, his devotion bordering on madness, the tragic end of his love affair and his determination to help others setting the mould for a hero who would renounce his own needs and rise to change the world around him, flexing one muscle at a time. Here was a role model who was accessible, his style affordable and his “message” irresistible.
“First, I fell in love with his body. Then, the roles he played. Today, I love the human he is. He is being human,” says Pankaj Thool, 25, a private tuition teacher and a die-hard Salman Khan/Shan Ghosh fan. The two recount a long story about how they met — an episode in their lives featuring mistaken identities and Bhai himself. “Salman was driving through Nagpur to promote Jai Ho in January, and we were on bikes next to his car. He looked up and saw me and gave me his signature wave,” says Ghosh. Thool says Khan smiled at them and Baldev Gehani, 25, one of Ghosh’s closest friends and fans, claims that Bhai touched his bracelet.
Their hero’s multiple court cases don’t bother the fans, since “nothing has been proven so far and it’s not like Bhai did anything wrong on purpose. The media has portrayed him negatively, would they have maligned an ordinary man?”
Bhaskar Hedaoo, 18, a fan featured in the documentary, has customised a doorbell for Khan: it rings out five of his famous dialogues, including “Swagath nahi karoge aap humara” from Dabangg. “I like Bhai in the newer roles like Jai Ho and Kick. But my favourite is his role in Maine Pyaar Kiya. The lover he played is shy, he had a simple look. He doesn’t do these roles anymore,” he says.
By 2002, Ghosh had decided that he was going to study jewellery design at Indian Diamond Institute in Surat — Khan’s then-girlfriend Aishwarya Rai was endorsing Nakshatra diamond jewellery. After graduating from the course, Ghosh found work as a designer in Nakshatra, and lived in Mumbai for a few years. “How could I have not gone to Galaxy Apartments (Khan’s residence) in Bandra? I just stood there and looked at the building till it got dark,” he says.
But the move to the big city was fraught with loneliness. “It was a good job but I didn’t like living in Mumbai. People are in a terrible hurry, how was I going to make friends? I was depressed, I went for weeks without talking to anybody,” says Ghosh, who quit his job and the city.
The year was 2009, Khan starred in Wanted, the first of his modern brawn-fests, and unleashed a furore for garish sunglasses and corset-tight T-shirts, the hallmark of masculinity in small-town India. Ghosh returned to the family home, began dabbling in real estate investment in the area and enrolled in a self-development course called “Metamorphosis”. At the end of it, he took another long look in the mirror. It was time.
In 2013, when the makers of Being Bhaijaan, Hassanwalia and Farooqui, found Ghosh on Facebook, the metamorphosis was complete. “A friend of ours told us about a film screening in Meerut where all the men took off their shirts at the exact moment Salman ripped his shirt off in the movie. They went mad, it was like a pagan ritual,” says Hassanwalia, 33, who with Farooqui, began to explore the phenomenon that is Khan’s fandom. They scoured fan pages on the social networking site and stumbled upon Ghosh’s page. The documentary traces a week in Ghosh’s life — who now shuttles between Chhindwara and Nagpur — as he prepares for a dance performance for his brother’s wedding.
For the past four years, Ghosh has cut no corners to get the Bhai look right: he works out six times a week, cuts out carbs and salt days before a show, sleeps less to enhance his droopy eyes and practices dance moves till it is hard to spot the difference. “I slow down every move of his to the second so that I can get it right. Hrithik ka dance bahut accha hai, lekin Bhai ka dance sab kar sakte hai,” says Ghosh, who has also performed in Surat and Kolkata. He charges Rs 25,000 for a show, although he plans to hike the fee soon.
With his gym-honed body, Ghosh is an attractive man but at 5’5” inches, he remains a bonsai stud. “I wanted to insert metal rods into my legs to increase my height but I’ve been told that my bones will grow weak. So I am thinking about shoes with internal and external lifts,” says Ghosh. What about his face? Is he happy with the resemblance? “I have his hairstyle and his eyes. My jawline is different and I have to purse my lips to look like him. At a later date, I’d like to get plastic surgery,” he says. Till that day arrives, he manages to work his face with a little help from sunglasses and jackets bought at street markets.
His mother, Sunita, who works at the Madhya Pradesh electricity board, and younger sister Sheetal are proud of his increasing fame but they have never visited him in his tiny room on the third floor of a decrepit building in Nagpur. His father, also a former electricity board official, dropped by once. Ghosh lives simply, the walls of the room are decorated with posters of Khan’s latest film, shelves above his bed are cluttered with grooming products, face bleach, hair gel etc.
“I’ve had to bleach this goatee because his is a light brown now. This is how I promote his movies,” says Ghosh.
With Salman Khan looks, comes great responsibility. Khan’s recent roles as the patriotic provider of justice or as a vigilante are shaping a code of masculinity for his fans. While bodybuilding elicits respect, standing up for what is “right” is a big draw. Aamir Khan and Shah Rukh Khan are too intellectual and too urban, respectively; Bhai’s brand of goodness requires no college degrees: in Kick, his character says, “Main dil main aata hoon, samajh main nahi.” “Bhai is very simple, the media has portrayed him as a player but he doesn’t have a girlfriend, he is a virgin,” says Ghosh.
Like many in his brotherhood, Ghosh is uncomfortable talking about women. In his recent films too, Khan is not breathless for love but for the greater good. “We can watch all his films with our families. There is no kissing scene because there is no need for it,” says Gehani. In the documentary, the filmmakers ask Ghosh what kind of girl he would like to marry: a modest, salwar-kameez-wearing girl who is not too modern, he says. “Kyun ki main itna modern nahi hoon,” he says.
How else can he be Salman? Ghosh talks airily of the charitable organisation he wants to set up, a Being Salman Foundation for children with special needs and the elderly. “People say I’m copying him but I don’t care about being Shan. I want Bhai to see me, and see that I am trying to take his name forward, spreading his idea of social work. It’s not only that I want to look like him, I want to be like him,” he says. For Ghosh, being Bhaijaan is everything his life has been leading up to.
The story appeared in print with the headline Here’s looking at you, Bhai