A longside his status as a superstar screenwriter in his heyday, a career he looks back on with the pride of a self-made man, Salim Khan today divides his time between writing columns for Hindi newspapers, taking care of his farm in Panvel and playing advisor to his kids. “I am a satisfied father not because Salman is doing well but because all my children are up and working,” says Khan, adding, “People must be assuming we celebrate every night because of Salman’s hits, but the fact is he always had it in him. I think he should have been in this position ten years ago.” Khan refuses to accept any credit for Salman’s success. “Uski mehnat hai (he has worked hard),” says the father. Not known to mince his words, Khan, who wrote Zanjeer, Deewaar, Sholay, Trishul and Don in partnership with Javed Akhtar, speaks with insight and wit about the number game, his relationship with Javed and Salman’s rivalry with Shah Rukh Khan:
Q You write on a sweeping range of issues in your columns. What are your political beliefs?
A My family’s political and religious belief is the same. Assume we are driving and faced with a near-fatal accident. When we apply the brakes and the car halts at once, I scream “Oh God”, my wife says “Arrey deva” and my kids say “Oh shit”. During Anna Hazare’s fast, a friend asked me why I didn’t go. (Laughs) I told him we don’t need Anna, we need Amma (mother). There is a saying, ‘Family is the first school and mother is the first teacher.’ If you have a good mother, she will inculcate the right values in you—aur phir aapka zameer aapko chori karne ki ijaazat nahin dega (then your conscience will not let you do any wrong). When I was six, I stole a toy from a car. When my mother got to know of it, she made me return it to the owner and apologise. That incident left such an impression on me that when I first came to Bombay to act in films and had to make a call from a public phone, I used to put in a coin and [if] the coin returned, I used to keep that coin aside and use another, thinking that that coin belonged to someone else.
Q You established a very strong mother figure in your films. Was it because you lost your mother at nine?
A A mother bears a child in her stomach for nine months, nurtures him till he becomes young enough to look after himself, and she does all this with devotion and pride. When Salman was a kid, he used to sleep in his mother’s pallu. In the morning, Salma (Salim Khan’s wife) had to loosen his grip over the pallu to go to the kitchen. Unlike Salman, I didn’t get to spend much time with my mother. I wasn’t allowed to go near her because she was suffering from tuberculosis. My father died when I was 14, the year I was appearing for my matriculation. I am one of those unfortunate persons who was brought up by servants. After my mother’s death, my father did become closer to me. Since I was the youngest in the family, he used to take me along wherever he went. Honestly, I think there’s definitely that influence of the mother [on your] character, because you retain those memories, and somewhere, it reflects in your work.
Q Is Salman closer to his mother than you?
A Yes, she [acts as] a buffer zone for him. Even today, when Salman is tired and emotionally low, he comes up here (Salman lives on the ground floor) and sleeps while she caresses him. A mother’s character is universal; she is the same anywhere in the world. With me, it’s different. When I was working, I was always busy and didn’t spend as much time with my kids. Pehle main kum bolta thha (earlier, I would speak to them much less), now I have become friendlier with them.
Q It’s incredible how similar Salman and you are in terms of your habits, temperament and, particularly, your views on women.
A Ek jaisa sense of humour hai hamara, if that’s what you mean (you mean we have a similar sense of humour). Salman and I are not alike. I am disciplined, punctual and committed. He has a laidback attitude, ki chal raha hai. Usko push karna padta hai (you have to push him). But he is changing now. He has become more professional. He is choosing the right projects and is very serious about his films. Emotionally, we react the same way. Usko bhi wohi baaton se taqleef hoti hai jisse mujhe hoti hai (the same things bother us). We connect that way. There’s unspoken love between us, and also respect. He stands up when I come and that’s not because he’s scared of me, but because he loves and respects me.
Q Does he seek your advice on which films to do, and whether a script is good or not?
A He doesn’t depend on me professionally. He takes all his decisions. I don’t interfere in my children’s life. Whenever he does ask me, I articulate my point. When I saw Bodyguard, I insisted they add the scene of the mother’s death and that there should be a family reunion in the end. Similarly, when I saw the first cut of Trishul, I suggested that the ambulance Amitabh Bachchan drives around in be added because I found the film too dry.
Q You have been a critic of Salman’s work, often voicing your opinion in public. Would it be fair to say that it is you who has guided and pushed him in the apt direction, that you are the real reason behind his success?
A The only credit I can take is that if one man hadn’t dared to come to Bombay from Indore, probably Salman would have been doing some other work; he would have been someplace else. I am not a critic of Salman, but I always felt his talent wasn’t utilised [well] right from his Maine Pyar Kiya days. He has disappointed me because I expected much more of him. He meets all the requirements of a Hindi film hero—he has terrific comic timing, he can romance well, when he fights he looks credible aur woh theek-thaak bhi dikhta hai (he is good-looking too). I had faith in his talent. Once, we were at a wedding in Aziz Mirza’s family, and there was this alleged rivalry played up by the media between Shah Rukh and Hrithik (Roshan). I told Shah Rukh that the only actor you must fear is Salman because jis din Salman serious ho gaya uss din woh sab ko peechhe chhod dega (the day Salman gets serious about his career, he will leave all of you behind).
Q Does all this talk of who is number one and the Shah Rukh versus Salman contest bother you?
A We don’t believe in the number game. Today if one actor is on top, someday there will be someone else. What you must not lose are your values. Salman has been brought up with the idea that failures and successes are part of life.
Q Do you think Salman’s fee of Rs 35 crore for Yash Raj’s Ek Tha Tiger is justified?
A When a star signs a picture, his first responsibility is to attract an audience. You give him his fee depending on his star value. Javed saab and I used to get our share; we used to retain the South Indian territory rights. It’s not a question of how much Salman is charging, it’s about how much a project can generate on his name. It’s like in cricket— everyone contributes, but there’s one player who gets the ‘Man of the Match’ [award] because he makes the maximum contribution.
Q This is Salman’s first film with Yash Raj in his two-decade-long career. What prevented him from signing one earlier?
A They approached him and he liked the script. It’s as simple as that. I have excellent relations with Yashji (Chopra). Woh nihayati (amended) shareef aadmi hai (he is a very cultured man). He respects me. Whenever he has any doubt on a script, he calls and asks for suggestions.
Q How is your equation with Javed Akhtar?
A Respect karta hun unki. Par aisa nahin hai ki hamara roz ghar aana jaana hai (I respect him, but it’s not like we are buddies). Once, I went out for a walk with a friend and suddenly it started raining. We ran and took shelter in Javed saab’s car-shed. He probably saw me and must have told Honey (Irani, his then wife), and she called me in, offering me something to drink. We chatted and I left. A friend later said, “Yeh Javed saab nahin kar sakte thhe?” If Javed saab were in my situation, he would have thought hard and pondered [the act of entering the car shed]; I just do it.
Q Of all your scripts, which are the most personal?
A Zanjeer, Shakti and Trishul gave me tremendous creative satisfaction. Sholay gave me an audience satisfaction; it reached out to the widest possible audience, and that has its own effect on a writer. Deewaar is the finest in terms of screenplay. Craft-wise, it was Salim-Javed’s greatest achievement.
Q Is there a script you’d like to write especially for Salman?
A Why only Salman? I want to just write a good screenplay.
Q You came to Bombay to act and become a star. Do you sometimes live that dream through Salman?
A I am not the kind of person to regret anything. Who says only actors are or can be stars? Nasir Hussain was the real star in Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak and not Aamir (Khan). There are times when producers are stars. Salim-Javed, despite being writers, were stars and quite popular. (Laughs) Maine kuchh ulti seedhee films kee thheen (I did act in some lousy films), but I soon realised that I cannot become Marlon Brando or Dilip Kumar. I discovered that I enjoyed creating and writing scenes more than I enjoyed acting them out. I was quick to identify my shortcomings and became a writer and reached the highest [possible professional] peak in writing.
I told Arbaaz (his second son) the same thing; when his acting career wasn’t going anywhere, I suggested he try out production, but he didn’t want to. Instead, he would go to (third son) Sohail’s office at 9 am, wondering what to do with his time. I bought him a makkhi maarne ki bat (flybat) and told his secretary, “Perhaps you and he can take turns at it.” The moral of the story is: realise your true potential and get right to the top of your field.
Look at David (Pointing towards director David Dhawan who has just dropped in to meet him), he knows he cannot make Mughal-E-Azam and sticks to comedies because that’s what he knows best. With all due respect to K Asif saab, he wouldn’t have been able to make a film like Partner. And Satyajit Ray couldn’t have made Sholay.