An all too-brief conversation with a Bollywood star a few months after the Muzaffarnagar riots led to a throwaway remark as shocking as it was revelatory. Salman Khan had danced at one of those tastelessly televised events politicians hold as a “rang-a-rang karyakram”, where the might of the neta is directly proportional to the degree of stardom he has on call. Hordes of UP pols grinned in the audience as Salman did the doodah on stage. The
din and glitter successfully deflected focus from the victims and their families mouldering in camps.
I wondered aloud at the incongruence of filmstars being able to revel under such circumstances. Wasn’t it the height of callousness? Pat came the response: “Arrey par Salman ko toh pata bhi nahin hoga ki wahaan riots huey they (Salman wouldn’t have been aware that there had been riots)”. Whether he was or wasn’t is moot. The fact of him being where he was, doing what he was, showed an astonishing disconnect with reality. The remark was equally applicable to Salman’s starry brethren: he was not the only participant in the post-riot jollities; Madhuri Dixit and Hrithik Roshan also moved and shook as we watched, aghast.
Does stardom blind you to what’s going on around you? Yes, we know stars live in a bubble. Most of them say they have to or they would get suffocated by adoring fans. But at what point does insulation become ignorance? Wilfully blinkered ignorance, at that, which is a self-perpetuating thing. The more you don’t know, the more you don’t want to know. Because your cocoon is your castle and you are king. Those who are let in know their place: the maximum access is given to those who can maintain the star at that frightening level of opaqueness. Who knows what demons lurk out there, especially those who can come back to haunt you for your past misdeeds?
An ordinary citizen found guilty of culpable homicide would have been locked up, and the key thrown away. Salman Khan kept the long arm of the law at bay for 13 years. On Wednesday, a court finally upheld all charges against him and sentenced him to five years in prison. On Friday, a higher court granted him reprieve, suspending his sentence pending an appeal. He is, as we speak, a free man. The gush of insensitive remarks from his “friends” and “supporters” has turned into full-blown glee.
You can clutch your head every time you hear a born-into-wealth person moaning about irresponsible people who sleep on the pavement. But after you finish collecting your jaw from the floor, you come slap bang against that feeling of sheer disbelief: Just who are these people? What makes them tick?
Greta Garbo famously said, “Being a movie star means being looked at from every possible direction. You are never left in peace, you’re just fair game”. She was so uncomfortable with intense public scrutiny that she took refuge in absolute reclusiveness. Fair enough: if you don’t like being in the public eye, you can go into hiding, as long as that is what you want.
But many stars want to be stars precisely because they crave the attention. Shah Rukh Khan, who cannot be accused of being oblivious to happenings around him (he is one of the few Bollywood A-listers who keep abreast of current events), has gone on record several times about his need to be loved, recognised, surrounded by fans, whether in Berlin or Bhatinda.
Even going by the full-blown mania Bollywood stars generate, Salman’s devotees are a class apart. The cult of the bad-boy-turned-good has spread so widely and become so entrenched that it has become a movie of its own. Being Bhaijaan is a documentary that tracks a bunch of Salman fans, and is a fascinating peep into the world of the young men who worship the star. The word “bhaijaan” — the brother as dear as life — has become an unthinking, reflexive suffix and is part of the title of his forthcoming movie, Bajrangi Bhaijaan.
To his fans, he is the one and only bhai, who makes all things right, so how can he be in the wrong?
Does being a star allow you to buy into your own myth? Do you become larger than life off screen as well? Contrition and repentance is not only for the poor and the disenfranchised. It is for all of us. Or what is being human about?