TO A LARGE number of those who saw the acquittal of Salman Khan in the case where his car ran over pavement dwellers in Mumbai, his five-year jail sentence for the poaching of two blackbucks in Rajasthan seems like karma that came calling in its mysterious way. Because by deed alone of this specific case, half a decade seems a little too much for the killing of an animal, even if it is an endangered species; and for something that took place almost two decades ago, with the man who committed the crime different from the man who got the sentence.
How do we remember Salman of those days? Brash, impudent, reckless, a hint of violence merging with a kilo of attitude surrounding him as he walked with chest broadened and arms swaggering—in short, like most male Bollywood stars in the high of their youth, but a little more amplified in his case. And how is he now? More mellow, with an army of image managers flitting about whenever he gives an interview (to protect him from himself), a TV show on which his dry humour and a clear sense of right behaviour enhanced his appeal, and no exhibitions of aggression at all. It has been years since he was last reported drunk. And then there is the charitable organisation that he launched called Being Human, which has given him a social image.
The irony in all this is that this radical makeover was a result of the drunk driving case in which almost everyone expected him to be found guilty. And even though it was at a lower court, he didn’t spend a day in jail because of the kind of legal help that only superstars can afford. That he is now sentenced to five years in prison over an animal is almost like a prank played by God.
His change in behaviour and character over the past decade had served him well in many ways, both professional and personal. After a streak of flops, when he seemed about to be relegated to a rung below the other two Khans in the industry, he has had a relentless line of blockbusters, propelling him right to the top. And this was despite most of the movies being as senseless as his earlier ones. But, in that mysterious alchemy that exists with Indian superstars, the public had once again found a chord to tune in with him.
A movie star who goes to prison for five years won’t necessarily come out as a star, as Sanjay Dutt is finding out. And by then Salman would already be in his late fifties. If Bollywood was a stock market, then the index would fall by about 1,000 points tomorrow because the amount of money riding on him is enormous.
But you can almost be certain that Salman will not be doing that time, at least not anytime soon. The Indian justice system is a slow and and not very sure beast. There will now be an appeal and bail. And while the process grinds along, Salman will continue to make more movies with ever more hundreds of crores in box office collections. Eventually, at some point, there will be a final verdict, but by then who knows what will happen.
There is a great lesson in the life of Salman Khan: extraordinary success can come to anyone with luck, but at least try to deserve it once you get it. Otherwise, even if it is not taken away despite your best efforts, you still cannot relish it in full. Salman might still beat this conviction later on, but the process itself is punishment. And that is something even he cannot ward off.