Cover Story

Salman Khan: The Last Sultan

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The man, the mind and the mayhem. Up close with Hindi cinema’s biggest star

Outside a large vanity van that casts a soft light upon its owner whenever it is opened, like a refrigerator in a dark room, Salman Khan sits under a temporary structure made of poles and tarpaulin sheets, across a table with several white plastic chairs. He sits at a slight elevation—two chairs stacked one atop the other—as if to distinguish his position from those who come to occupy the other chairs. Wearing a dark tee with the name of his foundation ‘Being Human’ scribbled on both sleeves like a declaration of intent, and a pair of jeans that strangely has two large sequined flaps flopping out of the backpockets and hanging like a basset hound with overlong jewelled ears, Salman Khan scrutinises his surroundings with cold dispassionate eyes.

Dozens of men and women approach the structure this evening as though it were a shrine. Some of them are let in by the burly men who guard it, but many simply wait on the periphery to catch his eye. After he waves at them, or simply lifts one or both eyebrows in recognition, they leave, as if all they wanted to do was to pay their respects. Sometimes he calls out a first name, and sometimes, when it fancies him, even obliges with a handshake, and a wave of perceptible pride runs through the visitors.

Those who are allowed into the sanctum sanctorum today sit with their seats drawn towards him, precariously resting on the edge, and the chairs drawn so forward that they incline and totter dangerously towards a fall. They sit like this, with a beatific glimmer on their faces, trying to cling on to every word that escapes his lips. But Salman Khan, his eyes bleary and uninterested, isn’t speaking much today. What you hear instead, every few minutes, is a breath, deep and sonorous, to clear his nasal cavity. For Salman Khan is sick today, laid low by an ailment as common as the common cold.

Nearby, a member of his entourage is moving among those gathered to catch his eye, apparently telling whoever might care to listen how sick Salman is today. Some worry whether he’s fit enough to step into an air-conditioned studio to complete a scheduled recording for a television channel.

And then, to soothe his cold, Salman Khan does what perhaps only Salman Khan can. He pours himself a large glass of chilled Diet Coke and lights a cigarette.

You see me dancing in a film, romancing a heroine and I have a verdict next week, people think, ‘Oh, he is having a good time.’ But man, this is my work

There are various stories about how Salman Khan had given up smoking, one of which includes how he would trick his mind into believing he was smoking just by dangling an unlit cigarette in his hand as he went about his day. Today, however, three days after he admittedly resumed smoking, he explains his new mind-fooling technique to those who ask: he fills his mouth with smoke, but doesn’t really inhale.

As he rinses his mouth with smoke, one cigarette right after another, taking large sips from a glass of cola to help soothe his cold, a suggestion is made that something so cold might be counterintuitive. “Ya, ya,” he says with genuine sincerity, and waves his hands. “It helps the cold.”

There is good reason for those around him to worry about this trivial ailment, or perhaps even to indulge him its anguish. Salman is the one person in India right now who it seems can rescue an entire industry from financial depression. He is the one person—despite the inexperience of his collaborators or the questionable talent of directors like his brothers, Sohail or Arbaaz— who can take ordinary projects and take them to stratospheric levels. Since the start of this decade, he has delivered 10 record- breaking hits. Two of his last two films, Bajrangi Bhaijaan and Prem Ratan Dhan Payo, grossing Rs 626 crore and Rs 432 crore worldwide respectively, according to reports, are in the list of the top five highest-grossing Hindi movies.

Many expect his latest release Sultan, said to have raked in Rs 568 crore worldwide by 1 August, to top this list soon. He is the one person who can make Shah Rukh Khan stall his film’s release (Raees) by a year with the frank admission that the country doesn’t have enough movie halls to accommodate another film along with Salman’s. He is the one person who makes you wonder if Eid in India celebrates the end of Ramazan or the release of his latest film. If he had a more genial image, perhaps, with the service of internet memes, he could have been the next Rajinikanth. Maybe he is headed there, who knows?

But most curiously, Salman Khan is a 21st century oddity. At a time when political correctness is demanded of all public figures, and certainly its superstars, when tastes and interests are dividing rapidly along income lines, with multiplexes on one side and single-screen halls on the other, and along urban and rural audiences, a 50-year-old man embroiled in several legal cases enjoys a sex appeal that’s the envy of better looking men half his age. He towers over the entertainment horizon right now, reviled by many, certainly, but also adored by a huge constituency of both the masses, and perhaps for the first time in his career, the upper classes. I recently watched Sultan in a South Mumbai theatre, one of India’s poshest localities, where the audience, perfectly coiffured hair and freshly painted nails, sat with their lithe bodies at the edge of their seats.

The other two members of Bollywood’s much-celebrated Khan triumvirate, Aamir and Shah Rukh, are exceptionally careful about the image they project. The former carefully chooses his films and projects himself as a discerning man’s star, and the latter, still a middle-class romantic hero who appears to be in want of a new image, has already begun to show box-office frailty. But Salman Khan—muscular, good looking, in possession of a supposed heart of gold—plays himself with an appeal that cuts across the diversity of India.

Maybe I am popular because I can do a bit of everything. A bit of dancing, a bit of acting, a bit of action…

Ashley Rebello, Salman’s close friend and stylist, has an easier way of describing what sets this Khan’s stardom apart from that of the other two. “The difference between Salman and the other stars in India is that while all of them are respected and have huge followings,” he says, “Salman is loved.”

As the consensus seems to go, he can do what he wants and get away with it. He is alleged to have run over people and killed endangered animals. He has been to prison twice. He had failed his films in the past, lost the world’s most good-looking woman, and suffered a public meltdown. But he is back today. At the top of the entertainment heap, he has been acquitted in many of the cases against him (though appeals are pending in higher courts), making money like no one does, delivering hits like no one else can, smoking cigarettes that he doesn’t inhale and curing a cold with a glass of chilled cola.

Kandi (matchstick),” Salman Khan says, and shakes a forefinger vigorously for emphasis. “Every dublaa patlaa (skinny), kandi, like a matchstick, wants to be a Bruce Lee outside the theatre [after watching his film]. Remember?”

Salman is talking of the 1970s, it seems, recalling a childhood memory while discussing a change in his approach to his career, or, more specifically, his choice of roles: how in the past few years he has decided to play the roles of heroes, characters who have no negative shades and have a larger-than-life aura. He could be a Chulbul Pandey (as he was in Dabangg, 2010), who robs from the rich to help the poor, or a Sultan Ali Khan (Sultan), who fights in an MMA tournament to start a blood bank and win over his wife.

“It has to be a hero, you know,” he explains. “A good man who people can look up to.”

In this discussion on the resurgence of his career, he speaks with a flat and unemotional voice. It appears distant, as though he is recounting someone else’s story, or is unsatisfied with the quality of his answers. And it is in the midst of this theoretical aspect of his recent super-success that his face suddenly comes alive with that old vignette of a Bruce Lee film, and an eager, sophomorish voice comes rushing through.

After a few minutes of silence, he remembers why this memory had occurred to him.

“I want my film and character to be like that… like Bruce Lee.”

And then his flat voice returns as he embarks on a complicated explanation of how he now tries to retain a certain proportion of the good qualities of each of these characters within himself, a kind of self-improvement mission via cinema. “If I do a film, I should know I’m taking this character back home. I want to do those movies that will change my own personality,” he says. “[I want people to be able to say of the character], ‘Wow, what a man’, ‘wow, what a personality.’ I want this to happen to me. Maybe 2 per cent when I start… [But] karte, karte, till the end of the film, I want 25 per cent of the character’s qualities in my life.”

Salman speaks English in a soft, reserved voice that sounds detached and has an affected quality to it. But every so often, when he gets excited by something, he breaks into Bombaiya Hindi filled with colloquial ease and frequent cusswords, which is remarkable when you consider how most film stars are so careful with their words.

Had I been wrong, like people say I am today, my father would have never taken my side. I know that. I am not wrong, because my father is by my side

He is sometimes eccentric. Later, during a shoot, in a room full of people, when a makeup man begins working on his face, Salman suddenly erupts into a loud Hindi song.

His face has an air of toughness about it. And it’s not as if his age does not show at all. His eye-bags are puffy, his jowls are heavy, and his hair looks scanty. But the subtle, tender character of his face has kept well. And his eyes are brown and alert, ready to shine with genuine warmth or glower with menace.

When he is eager in conversation, usually when he speaks in Hindi, it often appears difficult to get a word in. “Now the bar is so high, it is difficult getting the right scripts. I have signed only three films right now,” he says. “I’m just listening to script after script these days. I like something sometimes. Everyone gets damn excited. And the next day, it just sounds bad…”

Okay. But what do you think about your stardom?

“…So I just heard this script from a producer that day. I’m like achcha hai iska sab (it’s good, everything about it), graph waaf, business wizness, stylish wylish. Next day, I go, ‘Yaar, sir, mazaa nahin aaya’ (buddy, sir, didn’t enjoy it). And they go, ‘Arre aap hamaare saath kaam nahin karenge (oh, you won’t work with us)’… ‘Karenge, karenge sab ke saath karenge (I will, I will, with everyone I will). But…”

But what do you think about your stardom?

“…What about it?” he asks.

Have you thought about why you are so popular?

Kaun sochega, boss? Chal raha hai, toh chal raha hai. (Who’ll think about it? If it’s working, it’s working). No analysis.”

If you goad him a little, he will hazard an answer. “Maybe I am popular because I can do a bit of everything. A bit of dancing, a bit of acting, a bit of action…”

And then he resumes. “Ya, I was saying I told the producer, ‘Karenge kaam. Lekin mereko…’ (will work, but I...)”

FOR MUCH OF the 2000s, Salman Khan appeared like a remnant from the previous century. His films were silly and doing poorly compared to those of the other two Khans. He was entangled in several court cases, and he had a poor media image. Towards the end of that decade, he sat down with his family and those close to him to assess what was going wrong. He realised he had to stop doing films simply to support or bail out old friends in a difficult time. And he decided that he had to take his work more seriously and perhaps repose trust in newer filmmakers. “Salman never took up projects for the right reasons, like for the right script or how good the director was. It was always about working with a friend or helping someone out,” Rebello says. Salman himself says he decided he would do movies that he would like to spend time watching. “A film, I realised, has to be something that makes people want to come out of their homes and watch it on the big screen. People may have the money. But they don’t have much time now. Something worth their while.”

If I do a film, I should know I’m taking this character back home. I want to do those movies that will change my own personality

His recent collaborators exhibit surprise at how serious the actor is with his work. Ali Abbas Zafar, director of Sultan, talks about how in the span of three months, Salman would exercise so vigorously that he would fluctuate his weight as the role demanded, from 82 to 100 kg, and then later to 90 kg. “For a star like him, he could refuse to do that. And it is really tough to see such results for a 50-year-old. But SK was adamant that he wanted to make it as genuine as possible.”

Salman not only got more serious about work, he also got smarter professionals around him. During this period of reassessment, a talent management agency, Matrix India Entertainment Consultants, headed by Reshma Shetty, a close friend of Salman’s sister Alvira, was brought in. They began to streamline and professionalise his work-life. “They, most importantly, put a system in place for him. Everything was organised and set up now. Meetings, film scripts, projects and shoots, everything was orderly and well-planned now. People were designated for different roles. And all of this began to help him,” Rebello says.

An image outreach programme also began. Instead of shutting himself off from the media and the larger world, and thus risking unfavourable depictions, it was decided that he should take himself, the real Salman, to the people directly through TV.

He began doing reality TV shows, 10 Ka Dum first and then Bigg Boss later, which endeared him more to audiences. “In a way, he was showing the world who Salman truly is. And it worked. People loved him,” Rebello says.

Salman himself recalls trekking in the villages close to his farmhouse in Panvel, at the outskirts of Mumbai. “People started coming out of the houses, you know,” he says. “And guess what they did. They were shouting, ‘10 Ka Dum’. [I’ve been] working for close to 30 years in films. And they remember me as ‘10 Ka Dum’. That’s when I realised, you may be the biggest star, but if you want real reach, you have to be on TV.”

People think I am getting away with things because I am a star. But I feel just the ultaa (opposite). I suffer because I am a celebrity. So much hype, all the time

A realisation also seems to have dawned that the only thing he needs protection from is himself. Within his entourage, there are now managers who accompany him to every shoot or interview. They work with him through his day, sit through media interactions, nudge questions and answers in certain directions, and if there is the vaguest possibility that something objectionable could be said or something that could lead to a miscommunication, they step in. According to one individual, they accompany him everywhere except film sets, since a film set, after all, is a ‘contained environment’, one that is under the direction of the director in whose charge the actor is.

SALMAN KHAN LIVES in a one-bedroom apartment, half of which has been converted into a gym, on the ground floor of Galaxy Apartments in Bandra. Almost daily, there is a large gathering of fans outside his building, certainly a lot more than those outside the homes of Shah Rukh and Aamir. And during weekends, the crowds get so large and unruly that the police often have to be called in to disperse them. Late last year, when Salman was acquitted of charges in his 2002 hit-and-run case in Mumbai, to the surprise of several reporters covering the judicial proceedings, several fans, to beat the security outside the court, came dressed as lawyers to get as close as possible to the superstar.

Most of Salman Khan’s time away from work is spent either here at home, and with the rest of his family who live on the floor above his in Galaxy Apartments, or at a large farmhouse in Panvel, where he keeps several horses.

According to Zafar, it is his relationship with his family, and especially with his father, that helps him navigate the world of stardom. “They play a really big role in his life,” he says. “They are his anchor in a way.” Salman works through the year, he says, but always takes a longish break from the end of November till early February. Except for the birthdays of his siblings Arbaaz and Arpita, the birthdays of all others, from himself to his father and stepmom, are in this period, and he likes to keep himself relatively free.

“As a kid, I always had to behave myself. Otherwise, at the back of my mind, I knew, my father would not like it,” Salman says. “Had I been wrong, like people say I am today, my father would have never taken my side. I know that. I am not wrong, because my father is by my side.”

Several people complain that his cases have dragged on needlessly and the police have gone easy on him because of his influence. But Salman says he feels his stardom has worked against him. “They think I am getting away with it because I am a star. But I feel just the ultaa (opposite). I suffer because I am a celebrity. So much hype, all the time,” he says.

Salman places his head in an imaginary guillotine. Using his left hand as a blade and his right as a basket, he looks up to say how he has felt in the last few years. “There has been this sword hanging over my neck. You see me dancing in a film, all dressed up chakaa chak, romancing heroines, glamour everywhere. And I have a verdict next week. And people think, ‘Oh, he is having a good time.’ But man, this is my work. I’m stressed, no matter what.”

Salman started off as a model for advertisements at around the age of 15. It was a time, he says, when his father Salim Khan, one half of the Bollywood writing legend Salim-Javed, wasn’t as successful anymore. The loud and raucous parties, the constant phone calls from friends and well-wishers had all come to an end. It was so bad, he says, that his father would constantly hold the telephone receiver to the ear to check if it had stopped working. “Even his girlfriends stopped calling,” Salman quips.

Salman Khan worked as a advertising model for a few years before he moved into cinema. But this was as an assistant director. And his ambition was to learn the art and eventually become a director himself. Few around him thought that this was an idea worthy of much encouragement, though. “Everyone I met during this time was like ‘Tereko hero bannaa chahiye, tereko hero bannaa chahiye…(you should become a hero)’,” he recalls of that period, “I wanted to be a director... chalo, nahin hua (okay, didn’t happen). Then I started my journey to becoming a hero. I struggled for a year and got nothing. Some would say, ‘You look too young.’ Some would say, ‘You look too old.’ They were all tarkaoing (finding excuses to refuse) me, man. They tarkaoed me when I wanted to direct. And they tarkaoed when I wanted to act.” He saw through this phase, he says, and once work came his way, in 1988, in the form of a small role in Biwi Ho To Aisi , and then in 1989 by way of the lead role in what was to be a smash hit, Maine Pyar Kiya, he grabbed the opportunities to prove how good he was as an actor.

JUST BEFORE SALMAN Khan reaches his venue, there is a stir in the air. The ground between two large studio sets begins to clear and people begin to take position in spots where they can best view him. Large men appear, before and around his Land Cruiser, on foot and on bikes, clearing his path. When he steps out, even if you were unfamiliar with the Hindi film industry, you would recognise who the celebrity is. He walks every bit like a star, his chest puffed up, looking through people, avoiding eye contact.

Salman hates people with cameras. He tells me cellphones with cameras should be banned at airports. He complains about people taking pictures of him walking around, dozing off on his flight seat. He points to scratches on his Land Cruiser left by photographers angling for shots of him. “What about the old fashioned way? Taking permission? I would never refuse,” he says.

As the shoot comes to an end tonight, taking not more than 20 minutes in all, a stream of people comes. Technicians, camera persons, sound and light specialists, their wives and relatives, and perhaps even neighbours who are all dressed in their finest saris and jewellery, all of them with cameras and cellphones. Each one of them seeks permission first. And Salman grants every request, even when the same people start coming again and again, in different formations and pairs, until even the smile on his face begins to show signs of strain.

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