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The achiever

Four decades after Zanjeer went on floors,Salim Khan is still busy — in writing pithy columns and film distribution among other things.

Written by Rajiv Vijayakar | Published: April 13, 2012 4:45 pm

Four decades after Zanjeer went on floors,Salim Khan is still busy — in writing pithy columns and film distribution among other things. The man who came to be an actor and emerged as one of Hindi cinema’s greatest scriptwriters,travels through time from the past to the present.

Indore activity

Salim Khan’s father,Abdul Rashid Khan,was the Deputy Inspector-General of Police in Indore for 32 years. But the youngster was never inclined to follow his father’s profession,though he would keenly absorb the stories told by his father about police cases and interesting characters and also mentally store details about policemen and how they looked and functioned. Unknown to the young lad,there was a keen writer waiting within to be (self-) discovered.

“My first ambition was to be a cricketer,” recalls Salim Khan. “But since I was only reasonably good,I gave up the idea. Right from the beginning,I had a great sense of self-assessment and believed that if I could not reach the peak in a profession,I should not even attempt it. I thought of becoming a pilot next. I have a license even today and 100-plus hours of flying to my credit! But again I realised that civilian flying is about going by the book and being bound by rules — there was little scope to soar high in the field. Around that time,filmmaker K. Amarnath had come down to Indore and he saw me at a social function and offered me the option of joining films as an actor. And that’s how I got my break in Baraat (1960),in which I played a supporting role with Ajit and Shakila as the lead pair. Around the same year,Manoj Kumar,Dharmendra,Shashi Kapoor and Joy Mukerji also started out.”

Scripting a change

Salim Khan struck up a great friendship with Ajit that lasted for decades and the older actor helped him a lot. Khan’s acting career,however,was restricted to B-grade films as a supporting actor or leading man and small roles in some A-grade films like Professor,Teesri Manzil and Diwana.

That’s when Khan’s inherent flair for self-assessment came to the fore again. Watching himself in various films,he realised that he could understand a role well,but lacked the art of projecting a character. “An example would be Amitabh Bachchan — he is far from being physically tough,but he can exude a very convincing toughness that means business,” says Khan. “We were in a field that dealt with images,not people.”

Khan went into a phase of introspection. He had arrived in Mumbai at 23. He was already 30,overage for the IAS or IPS. At that point of time,he would be barely shooting for a few days every month and would spend the rest of the time reading books and watching films. “I realised that I actually had a sense of scripting,” says Khan. “Maybe I knew very little,but the rest knew even less,I thought confidently.”

Towards the late ‘60s,Salim Khan sold his first story to Ashok Kumar,no less. But for some reason,the actor-producer could never make the film. In 1969,Ashok Kumar gave the script to Brij,the hit director who was starting out as a producer,and the film,Do Bhai,hit the screens with Ashok Kumar and Jeetendra in the title-roles. It did average business and soon,Salim Khan joined Sippy Films’ story department.

However,it was this actor phase that saw Salim’s first interaction with two names that were to play major roles in his life: Helen and Javed Akhtar. “Helen was in the cast of some of my films as a heroine,like Kabli Khan (1961),” says Khan. Javed Akhtar,who had come here to be a director and not a writer,was assistant and dialogue director on Sarhadi Lutera,in which Khan played a supporting role. Interacting with Akhtar gave him the strong impression that there was a writer within him too,so Khan asked Akhtar to join him in the Sippy Films’ story department,where they worked on a salary of ‘750 a month. Their job was to listen to the scripts that came,give feedback,and work on them if then head honcho G. P. Sippy wanted to turn one of them into a film. They contributed to Andaz (1971) and were later given joint billing for the screenplay and dialogues of Seeta Aur Geeta (1972).

It was Haathi Mere Saathi (1971) that proved to be the turning point. Rajesh Khanna had befriended the duo during Andaz and had signed the Hindi remake of a Tamil film but had problems with the script. He approached both of them and they rewrote the screenplay together before narrating it to producer Devar. It became India’s first film to gross a crore (when the most expensive tickets were priced at ‘2.50!) and an impressed Devar remade the film in Tamil and it proved to a bigger hit than the original on which Haathi Mere Saathi was based!

The actor phase of Khan’s career also saw some popular songs enacted by him. The two songs he remembers off-hand are Mohammed Rafi’s Mujhe tumse mohabbat hai from Bachpan with Menaka,the screen name for Sajid Housefull Khan’s actor-mother as his co-star and Mukesh’s Yeh jhuki jhuki hain palkein from Chhaila Babu,in which he serenaded Preetibala,who later achieved fame as Zeb Rehman.

The Zanjeer of success

Khan recalls the meeting with Dilip Kumar at Mumbai’s Bandra Gymkhana to narrate a story idea he had developed of a police officer seeking his parents’ murderer. A lot of inspiration had come in from his father being an upright police officer and the material Khan had been exposed to in his formative years and teens. Dilip Kumar did not cherish the idea of a psychologically disturbed and taciturn cop and thought that it was too mono-dimensional. The next stop was Dharmendra,who was thrilled with the story and paid Khan ‘2500 as a token signing amount. But somehow he had second thoughts and Prakash Mehra (who he wanted to direct it) brought the story and turned producer. After Raaj Kumar and Dev Anand also turned down the role,Salim (with Javed,who was now a part of the developed script) strongly backed Amitabh Bachchan. “Zanjeer was a complete and perfect script. You just had to get actors and shoot. We were not then in a position to write with a specific top star in mind anyway,” says Khan.

Zanjeer,however,was released without the duo’s name on the posters! The enterprising writer duo hired a driver and painter and gave him paint materials to add their names on every movie-hall poster and hoarding throughout the metropolis. “He stencilled our names wherever he found space,like on Pransaab’s arm or on someone’s body!” laughs Khan at the memory.

The duo was paid ‘55,000 each for the film,but very soon,the track-record was so immaculate that Salim-Javed not only became the highest-paid writers of their time but also got top billing over composers. Yaadon Ki Baraat,Haath Ki Safai,Majboor,Deewaar,Sholay,Chacha Bhatija,Don,Trishul and Kranti led the array,with Kaala Patthar,Shaan and Shakti losing out on the super-hit tag because of the pricing.

“If Don was remade and now Zanjeer is being planned,it is the story that is relevant and saleable even decades later!” says Khan. “It is a compliment to us. The story is repeated,not the actors or director and this is why Javed and I have insisted on the filmmakers giving us credit as well as dues. Zanjeer established Mehra’s banner,Amitabh Bachchan and us too. This new film is also a commercial enterprise made to make money. The material belongs to us,for without the script,there would have been no Zanjeer!”

Cut above the rest

Salim-Javed’s success story was as much about art and craft as dedication. Khan admits to inspirational sources like Mother India for Deewaar and Ram Aur Shyam for Seeta Aur Geeta. “But the original of two identical people switching places was first seen in Scapegoat,” he points out.

Khan was the first writer to sit it on the editing. “Most people then did not like this,but I failed to see why they were upset when we were ready to cut our own scenes in the interest of the film!” says Khan. “Besides,if choreographers and stunt coordinators could sit in on the editing,why could not I do so? A good screenplay writer has to be a good editor,beginning with editing what is on paper.” Salim-Javed also made complete scripts a norm. “Raj Khosla told us that he had never seen a script with the words ‘The End’ on it in his entire career when he made Dostana!” smiles Khan.

At their peaks,the duo always recommended the right actors,lyricists and composers for their films when asked. There was not much of a division in their work,though Javed Akhtar’s flair for dialogues was known,as was Salim Khan’s gift for coming out with story ideas. Khan’s last word on the subject: “A film can be made without actors,shot without directors,but cannot be made without either raw stock (film) or writers! And everyone who watches our films and claps for the dialogues do not get to see the hundreds of pages that were torn and thrown away on the way!”

Parting ways

When Akhtar finally parted ways in the early 1980s,Khan decided to go it alone. “I did not question his decision,” says Khan,who stresses that the duo kept meeting not only to complete their unfinished films but also decide on the fate of scripts that were ready. It was Mahesh Bhatt’s Naam that saw him stage a solo comeback. After the film’s success,a lot of filmmakers came back to him,but after eldest son Salman Khan became a successful star,Khan decided to stop writing completely. “I had begun distributing films,not just ours,since Don. With Salman becoming successful,I had to divert a lot of time to manage his money matters. Later,Arbaaz and Sohail also entered the industry. I found that I was not getting the three months I needed in isolation for one script,” says Khan. An additional important reason was that people would wonder why he was not making scripts with his son (though he wrote a few of Salman’s early films). “I stood to lose whether a film was a hit or a flop!” says Khan. “As a father,I was okay with that. But as a writer,it was not acceptable!”

No longer in the race to speed on to the peak of success and awards,the writer now concentrates on doing social work quietly,and fulfils his writing inclinations with columns on various light and serious topics in various newspapers. “Manoj Kumar tells me,‘Jo izzat aap ko film writing se nahin mili,woh iss kaam se mil rahi hai!’” quips Khan.

Family and commitment

At a mellow 76,Salim Khan would rather be known as a good human being and a fair,honest person rather than a star writer or a superstar’s father. “I take the smallest and most casual appointments very seriously,and I expect and practice punctuality,” he says intensely. “I have a wonderfully healthy and friendly relationship with my children,though with Salman I have to respect his huge standing and tweak my paternal approach to him while remaining an objective father.”

He is also candid about Helen’s role in his life. “I always respected her. When she was in trouble from the mid-’70s,I helped her out with some roles in my films and also as a guide without expecting anything. However,we slowly became very close. I believed in being responsible to someone and not in mouthing ‘I love you’ meaninglessly. I decided to marry her,knowing that in my religion there was a sanction. My family did not like it,but my honesty gradually made them understand,starting with my first wife Salma,born Sushila Charak. Today,by the grace of the Almighty,we are all one happy family.”

Clearly,the powers above have scripted their own memorable innings for the man who wrote some of the most brilliant tales for Hindi cinema.

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