There was a time when every interview with Salman Khan would have a stock question: “Why did you agree to this interview?” It would come after a series of monosyllabic or hostile answers from him. That was also the time when every movie he touched did not turn to gold. Among the three Khans, he alone had regular flops to his credit. His personal reputation was in tatters after some police cases and a public statement issued by Aishwarya Rai about their ‘abusive’ relationship. The popular impression was that he had gone wild and didn’t seem to really care.
What you see of him now is an altogether different man. He is smiling, joking and even when he thinks the questioner is a moron (which he or she probably is), he doesn’t say so. He is still impetuous and blunt, but a public relations gene seems to have got encoded in his DNA. In an Arnab Goswami interview, when asked about money, he said that was all-important at this stage of his life, and then, as an explanation, gave platitudes about how money can buy everything including love. When Goswami asked some more, the gene kicked in and Salman switched tracks to say how his money was an end to his vision for his charity organisation, Being Human.
The metamorphosis can be ascribed to the warm feeling of success, or the necessity of displaying a beautiful mind to courts when the cases come to an end, or a mixture of all of that. The intriguing thing about Salman is not the vacuity of what he says but the astute insights which come as one-liners in passing. Like the manner in which he has dealt with low phases in his career—he hikes his price and waits for the flop run to get over.
Sometimes such observations are both true and false. When he talks about how his films are doing so phenomenally well, he gives credit to the genres that he is picking. It is hard to pinpoint what they are, but mostly it would be romance couched as super-masala. He is also often given to observing that all successful genres begin with entertaining films that deteriorate into idiocy because everyone crashes the party, killing it.
The first part of the sentence is true. Lost and found movies reached their entertaining pinnacle with Amar Akbar Anthony, and after that the theme became progressively so stupid that when it went away, no one realised or felt sorry about it. But take a movie like Ready, a recent Salman hit. It is already a paean to brain death. Not just that one. Most Salman wave films are bereft of anything. There are one-liners marketed for months as one-liners, the story can be told in two lines, and the only reason his movies make over Rs 100 crore apiece is that Salman acts in them. Dabangg might have fit the definition of something different, but Dabangg 2, which released last week and is a predictable blockbuster, is the same old nothing. There are just moments in it, held together not by a script but by Salman. If you are not a Salman convert, then all his movies are bottom scrappers. The man is the genre. (It leads to an interesting question: when this genre becomes corrupted—as it will, according to Salman’s own hypothesis—what will its form be? A movie in which Salman will just be present in every frame from start to end doing nothing?)
The equivalent to this is Rajinikanth, and that phenomenon was pinned on the nature of Tamilians—a hysterical society had found a star who evoked nothing but hysterics, who did not act but gimmicked. Then something strange happened. Even the urbane audience in the rest of the country, which had considered Rajinikanth’s acting a form of clowning, suddenly looked at him with admiration. They reasoned that if so many people loved him and he himself was unapologetic about it, then there must be something to it. But there is nothing to it. Only exaggeration.
The same sentiment now makes people who see a Salman film come out thinking it must be entertaining. Forget about good and bad cinema, those are the yardsticks of the arthouse phonies. The thing to ask is whether you were entertained after seeing Bodyguard and then give yourself an honest answer. Mass appeal is relevant to Salman, not to you, the man who is buying a ticket. You can still say there is nothing about Dabangg 2 that is not silly and juvenile. And you can say this in the full realisation that the Salman aura, alas, looks likely to glow for some more time. There is no combination as long lasting as that of a non-thinking actor and a non-thinking audience.