3 years

Open Essay

Being Salman Khan

Rachel Dwyer is Professor of Indian Cultures and Cinema at SOAS, University of London
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The matinee masculinity of Hindi cinema’s biggest star

BEING A FAN of Salman Khan may lead to guilt by association, namely accusations of supporting the killing of endangered species, drunk driving and abusing women. How do we Salman fans reconcile these charges with our pleasure in watching his films? Why is he one of the most dependable stars of Hindi cinema, the last of the great Bollywood stars?

Some may say Salman was unfairly treated by the law, being the only one sentenced for poaching black bucks in Rajasthan, that he wasn’t driving the car at American Express Bakery in Mumbai, and that his abuse of women is only rumoured. Moreover, these events happened long ago and his sentence will cause major losses to his producers. I cannot comment on the legalities, but can say only that no citizen is above the law and we must wait for the courts to make their final decisions.

However, I am interested in why these events, whatever their exact nature, don’t dent his stardom but may even increase it. What is Hindi film stardom and what does that of Salman Khan mean?

Hindi cinema has produced most of India’s greatest stars. While other media generate stars, film stars seem greater than others, seen on giant screens, in close-ups, acting out dramas which matter to us often beyond the film viewing experience. Stardom needs media, and film stars appear in many media beyond cinema, such as television, advertising andmodelling. Their films build up an image of stardom, as heroes and heroines, and their images beyond that may be controlled by the press or influenced by rumour, while the real person is largely unknown although we may feel we know them through gossip, social media and images that circulate through the media.

Film stardom is different from celebrity status such as that produced by cricketers and other sportspeople, who are famous for their achievements in their field. They may become famous beyond their sports, but they don’t have the additional layer of the screen roles which create a parallel text in their lives.

Stars have an almost indefinable quality that marks them apart from others. Usually identified as charisma, they communicate with us in ways that other people can’t. They seem almost godlike, their beauty and talent contributing to the image, but there is still this extra elusive quality. Perhaps it is their ability to make us feel their emotions, our wish to emulate them, to do what they do, live as they do, look like them, dress like them, or is it our desire to be their lovers, their friends, their chosen ones?

A star combines this charisma with acting or performance talent and represents or becomes the ideal beauty of the moment. They are also associated with particular attitudes and concerns. Hence Raj Kapoor was the citizen of newly independent India who sought love and family in this changing world, while Amitabh Bachchan embodied a righteous anger against a corrupt system in the 1970s.

Salman is now the most commercially successful star in Hindi cinema. He seems part of the old Hindi film world, not the glossy, super rich, sophisticated new Bollywood, or an authentic character but a masala hero

India also has transferable charisma, not unlike the British royal family, where being born to a star makes a person likely to be star. There are many examples of this not happening, but the example of the Kapoor dynasty which has produced the top stars of Hindi cinema throughout its history is striking. Talent, looks and selection of roles have been part of it, but the criticism that star kids seem to be the only stars today is not only untrue but also surprising, given that the film industry is a collection of family businesses, and, like other Indian businesses, is passed down the generations. The starting place is not equal, but no amount of parental help can sustain a non-charismatic star or untalented actor.

Abdul Rashid Salim Salman Khan, born in 1965, is the oldest child of Salim Khan and Salma (née Sushila Charak). Salim Khan came to the industry to work as an actor; he is famously seen in an opening shot of O Haseena Zulfon Waali as the drummer in Rocky’s band in Teesri Manzil (1966). He was certainly handsome, but while he never became an acting star, he and Javed Akhtar became screenwriting stars, creating the legendary Vijay roles of the superstar Amitabh Bachchan.

Salman’s first lead role was as the romantic hero, Prem, in Maine Pyar Kiya (1989) which made him an instant star. The simmering sexuality in his labouring sequences performed to prove his love were constrained by a strict observation of sexual mores. Suman (Bhagyashree) was modest, ‘simple’ and coy (except in one rooftop sequence), meeting all the requirements of a wife he described to his mother, including the ability to shell peas. Their love was about friendship, although the beloved had to say ‘I love you’ in English rather than the MPK of the title.

Prem returned with the superhit Hum Aapke Hain Koun…! (1994), where innocent love in a family setting was celebrated until a tragedy led to the romantic couple being willing to sacrifice themselves for the sake of the family. Fortunately, divine intervention via a Pomeranian ensured a happy ending.

Although Salman played other romantic heroes (such as Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, 1999), and action heroes (along with Shah Rukh in Karan Arjun, 1995), it was in his roles as a comic, roguish, action hero—where his big muscles and shaven chest had to be exposed by the removal of his shirt—that he became the box office success he is today.

In Partner (2007), Salman played this role, his awkward dancing style set alongside the talents of Govinda, but his wicked charm was coupled with kindness. A striking feature was his acceptance of his girlfriend’s child, no questions asked.

It has been argued that Salman embodies a toxic masculinity. Is his massive fandom due to his normalisation of such behaviour? It is said that Salman’s fans are mostly male. Perhaps they like the roles where he plays the innocent and good man who can flare up and fight when provoked

One of Salman’s outstanding films is Dabangg (2010), where he plays the roguish policeman Chulbul Pandey who lives in a dystopia. His mother takes a second husband; he is a Brahmin who marries a potter; he is a drunken and corrupt policeman who honeymoons in luxury in the UAE; he wears overtight clothes, his sunglasses on the back of his collar to see his enemies from behind, and dances in a deliberately dreadful style. The fights become comic action sequences, notably one referencing The Matrix, which has him dancing to his opponent’s ringtone, and another where farm implements are deployed as his shirt rips like that of the Incredible Hulk as he recalls how his opponent insulted his mother. I can’t imagine another actor performing pratfalls to a romantic Rahat Fateh Ali Khan song, Tere Masst Masst Doh Nain.

Salman starred in one of my favourite Hindi films of recent years, Bajrangi Bhaijaan (2015), playing Bajrangi, again a Brahmin, this time the son of an RSS leader. Failing as a wrestler due to his ticklishness, he finds his inner heroism through his love for a mute girl who attaches herself to him at a Hanuman festival. Bajrangi, as a follower of Bajrang Bali, is first seen emerging from the crowd after we have begun the song with giant statues of Hanuman. The identification of him with the deity is reinforced by his devotion, his sense of right and the courage this gives him. The song tells devotees to take selfies, but these seem to feature Bajrangi rather than Bajrang Bali, conflating ideas of darshan and stardom.

Bajrangi’s love for the girl he calls Munni is not shaken as he finds out more about her identity. First, he must confront her dislike of vegetarian food and love of chicken, so he reassures himself she must be a Kshatriya. Then when he sees her offering prayers as a Muslim, he—despite his seeming fear and incomprehension of Muslims—cannot give up his love for her. Even when Munni gives herself away by cheering for Pakistan in an India-Pakistan cricket match, his love is such that he knows he must now do anything he can to return her to her parents, even crossing India’s western border. His capers in Pakistan include wearing a burkha but also finding peace in a qawwali, Bhar Doh Jholi Meri, where he finds that just as Hanuman protects him, so does Munni has her helper.

The final scene on the Thajiwas glacier, where Munni utters her first word, ‘Mama’, has the black-blanketed figure of Bajrangi throwing her in the air, showing love suspended on the LoC, even as Pakistanis belong in Pakistan and Indians in India. The plea for the acceptance of religious difference that the film makes is powerful and entertaining, all seen through the eyes of our hero.

Salman Khan’s offscreen activities, if he is found guilty once the appeals have gone through, are condemnable. We know little of his private life and as long as it is within the law, it is none of our business. Let the courts judge Salman the Indian citizen

Salman became a superstar at the same time as Aamir and Shah Rukh. Aamir played a variety of romantic and tapori roles before establishing himself in 2001 as one of the most sophisticated producers of Hindi films. A popular actor, he was the good guy doing right, an image he has taken beyond cinema into Satyamev Jayate on TV and his social work. Shah Rukh began as an antihero but soon became the Yash Raj/Karan Johar romantic hero, the post-libereralisation star who often played an NRI but defined a new kind of Indianness.

Salman is now the most commercially successful star in Hindi cinema. He seems part of the old Hindi film world, not the glossy, super rich, sophisticated new Bollywood, or an authentic character but a masala hero. Quick to anger and retaliate for any slight, or to defend his family or woman, yet soft-faced and floppy haired, despite the increasingly muscled body. He can bring his star image to any role as the innocent man who will rise to any challenge and fight with all he has.

This image fits with his real life. Salman has never married and, despite rumours of fondness for drink and women, still seems a young man, a student-type, who lives with—or at least next door to—his parents, and whose father speaks on his behalf when he is embroiled in a controversy.

While no one has any doubt that Salman is a superstar and a great performer, he has also shown his acting ability in films such as Bajrangi where his dilemmas and his will are clearly marked; and his comic talent from Andaz Apna Apna (1994) with Aamir to the present is undisputed.

It has been argued that Salman embodies a toxic masculinity. Is his massive fandom due to his normalisation of such behaviour, in a way? It is said that Salman’s fans are mostly male. Perhaps they like the roles where he plays the innocent and good man who can flare up and fight when provoked. There is also his everyday generosity, whether one-off grand gestures of large gifts or his Being Human charity that funds schools. He is seen as reckless and has the bad luck to get caught when he goes astray.

Salman’s fans are said to be mostly lower-class men, who see his innocence, family duty and generosity and closeness to his family as important, while passing off his misdemeanours as reckless and impetuous behaviour. Salman’s hardcore fans seem to be little concerned about his wrongdoings, taking his view that he has been wronged.

Many feel that Salman is victimised as a Muslim, although he has claimed in court that he is an Indian, a Hindu and a Muslim, rather than one or the other. He has rarely acted as a Muslim, although played one in the popular song Mubarak Eid Mubarak from Tumko Na Bhool Paayenge (2002), but it is said his following is high among Muslims.

It is not unusual for fans to refuse to judge stars in the same terms as other people. Many female stars’ real lives are glossed over, whether it is their affairs with married men or their alcoholism. Stars from Hollywood and elsewhere have been embroiled in controversies over underage sex, mafia connections, drugs and so on. Their fans remain loyal.

Even if Salman is a criminal, there is no need to avoid his work anymore than we stop listening to Richard Wagner because of his political views. Many politicians and figures who hold public office have criminal cases ongoing and it seems that there needs to be a deeper engagement with the wider problem of public morality.

Salman’s place in the history of Hindi cinema is assured as one of its most popular performers who has starred in many significant films. Salman’s offscreen activities, if he is found guilty once the appeals have gone through, are condemnable. We know little of his private life and, as long as it is within the law, it is none of our business.

Let the courts judge Salman the Indian citizen. Let us think about why we celebrate him as a film star and study seriously the kind of masculinity he performs and why that has made him such a superstar.

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