HE’S THE BOY who still stands to attention when his father, Bollywood’s iconic scriptwriter Salim Khan, calls. He’s the bhaijaan who has made it his business to help those in trouble. He’s the boyfriend who finds it difficult to let go. Salman Khan is all this and more. He was also, until a reinvention in 2009 with the surprise action hit Wanted and the TV show Dus ka Dum, the least likely to succeed of the Khans.
But here he is, 31 years after first hitting screens as Farooque Shaikh’s brattish brother in Biwi Ho To Aisi, Mumbai cinema’s biggest superstar. So audacious that in his latest movie, he is Bharat, the character and the country, spanning 70 years of its tryst with destiny. ‘Desh logon se banta hai aur logon ki pehchaan unke parivaar se hoti hai. Tujh mein poora desh hai, Bharat,’ says his screen father’s voiceover.
It’s a formula that has worked brilliantly in the remaking of Salman, from wannabe eternal bad boy Sanjay Dutt to Everyone’s Best Friend Sunil Dutt. Along the way, he has been enshrined as the Nation’s Everyman, with his Uncleji dance moves; his simple one-bedroom Bandra flat; his easy- to-clone film costumes (as he said, “I make sure I wear one pair of shoes throughout a movie, otherwise children start harassing their parents to get them more”); and his misogynistic remarks. There have been jail stays, killings of innocents, alleged assaults on women, casual conversations with the underworld and countless blockbusters.
But a few things have remained constant. His 17-and-a-half-inch biceps, 30-inch waist, 42-inch chest and hero image—as he says, “Parents have to want you as their son, youngsters have to think they can be like you, children have to idolise you.” He may not be as quick-witted as Shah Rukh or as thoughtful as Aamir, but he is perhaps the most intuitive of them, maintaining a deep connection with his working-class fans which he reinforces with routine Eid releases and choice of salt-of-the- earth directors such as Ali Abbas Zafar.
The 54-year-old won’t kiss on screen, will only fight with a villain larger than him and will never play anyone evil. In a sea of make-believe, he seems himself: authentic, unmediated, with a swagger easily mixing his small-town origins (he was born in Indore) with a Manhattanesque accent and concealing his Bollywood ultimate insider status with an outsider’s keen awareness.
What’s more, unlike his compatriot Akshay, his exploitation of the nationalist agenda hides in plain sight, sometimes in a name (Bajrangi); at other times, in the waving of a green flag in Sultan; and in the close-up of Delhi’s Jama Masjid in the forthcoming Bharat. Much like his family which mixes and matches all faiths, his stardom embraces a pluralist idea of India, where waiting to be united with one’s loved ones at Wagah border in Bharat is as much the mark of a patriot as weeping silently to the chanting of Hanuman Chalisa in Bajrangi Bhaijaan (2015).
Having seen failure, he is now comfortable with success and the discipline required to sustain it. Whether flying a kite with then BJP prime minister candidate Narendra Modi in 2014 or speaking up against an Indian Motion Pictures Producers’ Association ban on Pakistani actors in 2016, he is a star who needs no stars from critics, whom he largely loathes, and no social media, the niceties of which escape him. All he needs is his fans, the devoted gawkers who wait outside his home, hoping for a wave or a salaam from the Little Emperor of Galaxy Apartments, and who make their way to watch his films first day, first show.
Prem, the loving son; Chulbul Pandey, the crooked cop with a heart of gold; Tiger, the RAW agent whose heart beats for an ISI compatriot; and Bharat, who is above jati, dharma and even surname. He is always Being Human, Being Himself, Being Salman.