Everyman’s Hero

Ram Gopal Varma’s tweet read,“Salman Khan has become such a big star that even Aag 2 might have become a hit with him.”

Written by PriyankaPereira | New Delhi | Published: August 26, 2012 9:40:44 pm

Ram Gopal Varma’s tweet read,“Salman Khan has become such a big star that even Aag 2 might have become a hit with him.”

Two days after the release of Ek Tha Tiger,Ram Gopal Varma’s tweet read,“Salman Khan has become such a big star that even Aag 2 might have become a hit with him.” His acerbic humour aside,the filmmaker had quite aptly summed up the actor’s cult status at the box office. Consider this — in September 2010,Dabangg made Rs 215 crore at the box office worldwide,in June 2011,Ready made Rs 184 crore and in August 2011 Bodyguard made Rs 230 crore. Ek Tha Tiger broke previous box office records to become the fastest film to reach the Rs 100 crore mark and distributors are already looking forward to December,when Khan returns with Dabangg 2. What makes the actor the phenomenon that he has become at the box-office?

Critics may run him down with each release,but Salman,like Rajesh Khanna in the ’70s,has an easy connect with his audience. Of the two other Khans,Aamir scores high on talent and technique,Shah Rukh has charisma and unbridled energy,but Salman is everyman’s hero. He is over-the-top,but not entirely far-fetched,bratty yet charming,but always keenly aware of his audience. And his formula is deceptively simple — an action-oriented script laced with comic interludes,chartbuster numbers and easy-to-replicate dance steps. “With Salman,there is a little bit of everything,” says producer and close friend Sajid Nadiadwala. “His films are more about pleasing the masses and not about building his reputation as an actor,” says producer Boney Kapoor,who has worked with him in Wanted and No Entry.

This unpretentious tending to his audience is probably the reason Salman Khan movies are such a knockout at the box office. The opening day of Ek Tha Tiger saw a record collection of Rs 33 crore,beating the previous best,the Karan Johar-produced Agneepath,by a margin of almost Rs10 crore. Khan himself professes indifference to the number crunching and dismisses talks of Rs 100 crore achievements. “Theek hai yaar (It’s alright). All this is not going to last forever. The day you see yourself as a star who cannot be touched,you are finished. A day will come when a director or producer will cross you and go to the star seated next to you. All you need to do is handle that well,” he says noncommittally.

With most other actors,this would sound like a glib publicity statement,but people close to the actor say that stardom was never his goal,neither were all the perks that came with the star status. In an industry where the size of a bungalow and the make of a car define stardom,Salman breaks the mould several times over. He still lives in a one-bedroom apartment in Galaxy Apartments,a floor below his parents. He cycles to shoots because he thinks it is an “asaan (easy) way to remain fit”,and when he is not doing the studio rounds,he can be spotted at Bandstand,loafing around with his dogs,drinking coffee at Barista or as fan stories go,rescuing people from drowning at sea. “What works for Salman is that he has remained Salman Khan over the years. There’s little pretence and no false charm. You may see his mood swings and bad temper too. What you see is what you get,he is as human as all of us,” says Nadiadwala.

It’s probably why court cases,controversies and drunken brawls are so much a part of the Salman Khan persona. He was arrested for poaching a blackbuck in 1998,accused of running over pavement dwellers in Bandra in 2003. His tumultuous relationships with his girlfriends — from Sangeeta Bijlani to Aishwarya Rai to Katrina Kaif — have garnered more newsprint than any analysis of his acting skills. But Khan is unapologetic about who he is. “The one on the screen is created by the director,the technicians and co-stars. People relate to him. I am not the guy on the poster. This is the way I am,” says the 46-year-old actor.

If the tabloids find his bad boy act easy fodder,Salman also has a group of friends and fans in the industry who swear by him. Actor Preity Zinta,who has roped him in for a song in her upcoming film Ishkq In Paris,calls him hukum ka ikka (winning ace). “He is a friend in need and if he considers you a friend,he will always stand by you,” she says. Newcomers Sonakshi Sinha and Arjun Kapoor are full of stories about his benevolence. While he was instrumental in helping Kapoor shed weight and get a toned physique ahead of his debut film Ishaqzaade,Sinha,who co-starred with him in her debut film,Dabbang,spoke on how Salman would rehearse for hours to put her at ease. “Bollywood is a very insecure place,bsut you will not find a more secure person than Salman. If he believes in you,he will make sure you do your best,” she says.

In his family too,Khan fulfils the role of an anchor. His step-mother Helen and sister-in-law Malaika Arora Khan count on him to take them to midnight masses on Christmas,while Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations at his mother Salma’s place is incomplete without his active participation. He makes sure that he spends at least Eid together with his multi-cultural family. “It is very rare to find an actor who lives life on his own terms,yet finds the time to do things for people he really loves. He is very secular in his approach. Even on a film set,he makes sure everyone,from a spot boy to the director,is comfortable,” says a senior actor,who has acted with him in a hit film.

Film writer and professor of Indian cultures and cinema at SOAS,University of London,Rachel Dwyer,deconstructs his stardom when she says,“While Salman has taken on a wide variety of roles from Prem (Maine Pyar Kiya) to Chulbul Pandey (Dabangg),his personal image has stayed the same. He is seen as a loyal and regular guy who is kind and generous to his friends and family. His reputation is built on childlike qualities,such that his public misdemeanours are seen as part of this innocence. His screen roles fit well with his star persona.”

Khan,over the course of his career,seems to have worked this image to his advantage. He insists on wearing simple,even garish,clothes in not just his films,but also in real life. Director David Dhawan talks of how the actor always wanted a look that is easy to clone. “Right from his early days,he would say,get me something that regular guys wear.”

Suneil Wadhwa,a Mumbai-based distributor,says the reason fans never give up on Salman is because their expectations are met each time there is a release. “They are sure he will give them what they want,” he says. It’s a trait he carries over in real life as well. Satish Kaushik,director of Tere Naam,reminisces the time when the actor was shooting for the film in Rajasthan. “His hairstyle had become a rage there even before the movie was completed. So many young boys would come to meet him,asking him for bodybuilding advice. Salman met them graciously,and offered them tips,” he says.

Abhinav Kashyap,director of Dabangg,narrates a similar anecdote. During a shooting schedule at Wai,in Maharashtra,a group of young boys came to meet the actor,waiting the entire day for the shoot to finish. “After the shoot,when Salman met them,he learned that they had walked for three hours just to meet him. He immediately summoned his team to buy them bicycles,” he says. His Being Human foundation has funded bone marrow banks,provided equipments to hospitals and computers to orphanages. A close friend of the actor says,“On any given day,you will find at least 30-40 people outside his apartment,some to catch a glimpse of him and others to seek help. He always helps those who really need it.”

Salman’s choice of television shows — 10 Ka Dum and Bigg Boss,which he has anchored — and the brands he endorses — the travel portal Yatra and Wheel washing powder — all speak of a carefully thought-out audience that he is catering to. “Salman’s superstardom was not an overnight phenomenon. The TV shows became the stepping stone to the mass fanbase that followed,” says Nadiadwala.

The actor himself refuses to intellectualise his star appeal. “Mujhe chaand pe thodi jaana hain (I am not going to the moon),that I need to research on this and draw a conclusion. They love me,I also love them. As a gesture,I want to give them good entertainment. The only reason why it hurts me when my films fail is because I feel I have cheated my fans,” he says.

For an actor,whose life’s ambition was to “earn Rs 10 lakh” Salman does seem to have come a long way since his first blockbuster in 1989,Sooraj Barjatya’s Maine Pyaar Kiya. Filmmaker Deepak Shivdasani says that the actor was always aware of his star power. “Immediately after Maine Pyar Kiya,when we started shooting Baaghi,he knew that he would be popular with his female fans and the masses. The climax shot of the film,in which he runs with the sword towards the camera and bangs it into the camera,was his idea. It worked wonders,with the crowd rooting for him,” says Shivdasani. “I believe India is a land of heroes. People come to theatres to see a hero,someone who can do all the right things and emerge victorious in the end. That is what I have always wanted to do,” says the actor.

In the initial years,Khan seemed content to do romantic roles,not stepping out of the mould to experiment. While movies such as Judwaa,Hum Aapke Hain Koun,Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam,Tere Naam,and Biwi No 1 kept the cash registers ringing,it was much later that he took stock of his stardom. Even between Wanted in 2009 and Dabangg in 2010 there were three flops — Main Aur Mrs Khanna,London Dreams and Veer. So what changed it for him? Dwyer says,“There was a gap in the market for a new hero for a few years and Salman,who has been a superstar for decades but ignored by many of the “chattering classes”,quietly stepped in to fill it.” Khan has an even simpler explanation: “One day I realised that I should do movies that I want to do. So I stopped doing movies for every other reason other than the love of the script. This was the turning point in my career.”

Kabir Khan,who directed him in Ek Tha Tiger,says that there’s sound logic behind Salman’s statement. “Name one actor who can carry off being called Tiger without sounding cheesy? Or,for that matter,Radhe,Raja,Chulbul Pandey or Lovely Singh? Salman believes these names exist,because people,like these characters,exist,” he says.

It’s probably why,even when his films flop,the blame never goes squarely on the actor alone. “His fans love him so much,that even if the film fails,he remains a hero,” says Kapoor. Manoj Desai,owner of G7 theatres in Mumbai,sums it up. “Even when the fans are disappointed with his film,they never blame him. You will often hear them say,bhai se galat karwaya iss picture main. (They made Bhai do the wrong things in this movie)”

After his more nuanced performance in Ek Tha Tiger,which seems to have appealed to both critics as well as his loyal support base,the road ahead for Salman seems full of potential. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he continues to develop his character roles beyond being Salman Khan,but only if the director can tame the Tiger,or the actor,” says Dwyer.

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