Fortunately—or unfortunately—I’ve been Salman’s role model. A father is his son’s first hero. He is an important influence, especially in the son’s personal development, his habits and social behaviour. Salman used to hear tales of my Indore days, how I rode a motorcycle, wore clothes, walked and talked. In his twenties, Salman was exactly like me. At that age, I lived an adventurous life, full of thrill and excitement. When you are young, you’re wild and reckless. Not that we harmed others. Salman, in some ways, was living my life.
I have remained in touch with all the women in my life—we never parted on a bitter note and some of them are grandmothers today. Salman, too, is still on good terms with the women he loved. Things between them may not have worked out, maybe due to [the prevailing] circumstances or something else, but Salman has never spoken a word in public against them. These days, we find every second couple washing their dirty linen in public after a messy breakup. That’s why I’ve also been a little forgiving towards him. We’ve made the same mistakes and paid the price for it.
As far as his emotional or love life goes, all of us have given him complete liberty to sort it out himself. In our family, it seems the concept of love marriage is more popular than arranged marriage. I got married twice—thankfully to women I love. Arbaaz married for love, so did Sohail and Alvira, and now, my youngest daughter, Arpita too, is getting married to the man she loves. I can’t choose a wife for Salman. He’ll have to choose [his own], because he has to live with her.
When you want to get married, what is it you look for in a woman? That she’ll be a homemaker, who’ll bear children, look after them, prepare breakfast for them, make them go to school and do several other things. A man wants a woman who’ll be a good mother to his children. And, being a mother is a full-time job. A career woman won’t do that. She can’t do it. Even if she tries hard, she cannot assume the job of a homemaker, because she hasn’t trained herself to do so. Actresses like Rajshree and Kajol quit at their peak to raise a family. Some of the girls here want to get married only once their careers are over. The biggest contradiction in Salman’s life is that those he gets involved with are not prepared to do all this.
I’m one of those unfortunate people who were brought up by servants. My mother died when I was about nine, and my father, when I was 14. My father grew close to me those four-five years after my mother’s death. Since I was the youngest in the family, he took me along wherever he went. I remember how scared we were of our father. So I’d decided that when I become one myself, I’m going to be the kind of father whom the kids aren’t afraid to approach. I wanted them to talk freely and joke around with me. But there has to be a line they can’t cross. When I was working, I didn’t have time for them. Naturally, they all—including Salman—grew close to their mother. He can confide in her about his girlfriends and breakups. With me, he’s a bit reserved. In time, I did get close to the children, but only after they had all grown up.
I’m like a friend to them now. I drink with Salman, just as I do with my other kids. Though he’s given up smoking, he never lit a cigarette in front of me out of respect. I still don’t drink in front of my elder brother. Love is rooted in respect. If you don’t respect somebody, you can’t possibly love that person.
With respect comes responsibility. If somebody looks up to you, you’ve got to make sure not to go down in their eyes. To set an example, you have to avoid certain temptations. You can’t come home drunk and create a ruckus and make a fool of yourself. The children are watching you. I have conducted myself carefully and gracefully, even more so after the kids became adults.
When I decided to marry Helen, it wasn’t like I was disillusioned by my marriage with Salma or something. It was just an emotional accident that I met Helen, liked her and married her. Anybody who says he’s not interested in a beautiful, good-looking woman is either lying or there’s something physically wrong with him. Initially, there was turbulence at home. It was only natural. But we realised we have this situation on hand and we dealt with it maturely. I didn’t want to do anything that would embarrass my children or do something that would make others taunt them, ‘Look, what a disgraceful thing your Dad did!’
I’M 78 now. After I’m gone, Salman is prepared to take over the family’s responsibilities. All the siblings have already given him that position subconsciously. He has acted courageously in crisis and proved that he can lead from the front.
He has always been sensitive. Even as a child, he never gave us a tough time. He was good at whatever he did, especially cycling and swimming. He had a lot of energy. By the end of the day, muh khol ke kaheen bhi so jaata thha (he’d fall asleep open-mouthed anywhere). Afterwards, we used to lift him to his bed. It’s no secret that he paints—and dare I say, he’s good at it. I hear he’s also a good singer. He’s sung a song for Kick. I won’t say that he’s Mohammed Rafi, but if he continues to work on his voice, it might come in handy at a fire brigade drill!
A saying goes, ‘You can’t learn swimming without jumping into the water.’ Obviously, you can’t learn to swim in your bedroom, unless, of course, your bedroom has a pool. I was one of those fathers who threw his children into water. I wanted them all, especially Salman, being the eldest, to grow up on their own. In my time, I’ve seen a lot of fathers in the film industry who were very protective of their children—to the extent that they were also controlling their careers. They used to hear scripts, discuss money and other things on behalf of their sons. When Salman entered the industry, I was accused of ‘managing’ his career. That’s not true. In fact, I even refused to sit for script narrations of his films. If I can claim to know a thing or two about anything, it’s got to be scriptwriting. Right from the beginning, Salman was encouraged to take his own decisions. Like all of us, he made mistakes, took some wrong steps, but has learnt from those.
There’s a difference between climbing and growing. Climbing is instant, whereas the process of growth is slow. Salman has grown, not climbed, into this position. It has been slow going... Compared to the other Khans, Aamir and Shah Rukh, his track record has been somewhat inconsistent. Though all the Khans are highly appreciated and command huge fan followings, Salman is loved. That’s the difference between him and the other Khans. There’s an extra something that he has. Honestly, I don’t know what that ‘extra something’ is. Maybe people find him kind-hearted. Or, it could be his simplicity. He has no ambition to own a fancy bungalow or building. He still lives in the same flat, just below mine. You should see how small that flat is. Half of it is a gym. There’s not even proper space for a wardrobe. Some years ago, we bought him a duplex- terrace apartment at Carter Road. I called him to say, “Now, you’ve got a house that befits your status as a star. Tell me when you wish to move there.” He wondered whether his mother and I will join him. When we refused, saying that we’re too comfortable in this house, he was upset and said he won’t go either. We had to sell that property eventually. That’s how he is. He loves us, but also enjoys his private space and stays alone on the farm in Panvel for days on end.
As an actor, Salman is an original. He’s doesn’t copy anybody. Some actors have made a career out of copying Dilip Kumar or Dev Anand. But Salman doesn’t remind me of any star who has come before him. He is free of any influence.
Post-Dabangg, he has enjoyed great box-office success. But where there are hits, there are also misses. Jai Ho didn’t do as well as expected. When I saw it, I thought the music was weak and that could go against the film. I was proved right. But hits and flops don’t excite us anymore. Even before Salman became a star, this house had seen a dozen super- hits: Sholay, Don, Deewaar, Trishul, Shakti, you name it. We’ve been too long in the game to know that. In cricket parlance, we’ve played on all kinds of pitches—flat wickets, bouncy wickets, so on and so forth.
There was a time when he did films for emotional reasons—to bail out friends or support people who’ve been with him in his difficult times. He didn’t take up films for reasons that most actors usually do, like the script, character, director and the studio. He has given breaks to a number of people, be it producers, music directors or lyricists. But when those films started flopping, he realised their survival also depends on his own survival. That’s when he reassessed his career and decided to take things more seriously.
He’s big on philanthropy. And he does it purely on his own strength. Do you think the funding is coming from the sky? It’s his personal money, and he earns it whichever way he can, whether it is through films, appearances or endorsements. He cuts a ribbon and the proceeds go to [his charity] Being Human. The hit-and-run accident, the blackbuck poaching case—these are not criminal offences. These were mistakes. For him, it’s a double-edged sword. If he is punished, people say he’s being made an example of. If he is set free, the argument goes that he bought his freedom [through] his celebrity status and powerful connections. But only we know how much we’ve suffered. As a family, we may make for a happy picture, but at the back of our minds is always this looming fear for his future, ‘What’s in store for Salman?’
IN 2002, we went to see him at Thane central jail, where he was lodged in a ten-by-six room, which he shared with hardened criminals. He slept on a dhurry. The only thing in the room was a pot for water. It was painful to see him in that condition. Here’s a man who lived life on his own terms! I’m never short of words, but that day, I couldn’t bring myself to say anything. I told my wife not to cry in his presence and to put up a brave front. Finally, when he came, I couldn’t bear to see him. I left quietly. Salman afterwards told his mother, “Don’t bring Dad next time.” That night, I sat by the window with a drink. Suddenly, my eyes turned moist and tears started flowing. In our culture, fathers don’t express [emotion]. There’s always a communication gap between fathers and sons. There’s no question that life is a great teacher. The jail experience brought about a big change in him, and a realisation that life without freedom is nothing. He now recognises the value of a free life.
Fortunately, what has kept us going is our sense of humour. We never take ourselves too seriously, and, as far as possible, laugh away our worries. Recently, a lady came to meet us and was introduced to all our children. She looked at everyone, especially Salman and said, “Your kids are quite handsome.” Sohail quickly pointed at me, “Thanks to Vicky Donor!”
Salman has his own special brand of humour. At a private function once, the photographer asked us to come together for a group shot. Salman said, “We are a joint family that joins only for a group photo. Otherwise, we are like frogs—drag one into the frame and somebody else goes missing. By the end, there’ll be no one!”
We all burst out laughing.
(Shaikh Ayaz is a Mumbai-based film journalist)