talks love, life and legacy
On screen, he wears a brooding intense look more often than he does a shirt. His bulging biceps and quirky dance moves have the cash registers ringing and his fans going wild. And in the ephemeral world of fame, reports of his link-ups with some of the most beautiful women in the world have been the only constant.
Salman Khan, self-proclaimed “average actor’’ and Bollywood’s favourite bad boy is also reportedly the highest paid, earning more than Rs40 crore (Dh23.5 million) for a movie, and charging Rs5 crore for hosting each episode of Bigg Boss 7 – India’s version of Big Brother, a show that experienced an enormous leap in popularity the moment he signed up four seasons ago.
Then there are the millions he earns from the innumerable endorsements, including being a brand ambassador for Dubai-based fashion house Splash.
At 48, Salman is at the top of the entertainment game that is as unpretentious as it is unforgiving in its pursuit of money and success. But ironically, as his father the famous Bollywood script writer Salim Khan once said, Salman continues to suffer from ‘divine dissatisfaction’.
Whether it’s Salman’s search for a soulmate who is stunning but dresses modestly, or him wanting his films to be the biggest-grossing ever, or at least bigger than his rival Khans – Shah Rukh and Aamir – it’s this perennial pursuit for more that keeps him competitive.
“However big [a star] you are, everyone wants their film to be a slightly bigger hit than someone else’s, and if it doesn’t work, they want it to be a slightly smaller flop than the other person’s,” he admits in a one-on-one conducted outside a noisy gallery in his hometown of Mumbai, while promoting his latest release Jai Ho.
Directed by Sohail Khan, the youngest of his two brothers – Salman has two sisters as well – the film, like most of his others, follows the David and Goliath storyline where one man fights against the odds to beat a corrupt and incompetent system.
The film also has a moral – do a good deed and encourage the recipient to pay it forward. Although a noble thought, Jai Ho, unlike most of Khan’s recent films, has not done too well at the box office. Fortunately for Salman, it is considered to be a “slightly smaller flop” than many other recent releases not having made its entry into the elite Rs100 crore club.
It is this numbers game that has turned film-makers into businesses and compelled stars to explore their brand equity. And after 25 years since his first lead role, Salman knows that his star power lies in his in-your-face physicality rather than his acting talents.
Unlike many other Bollywood stars who are launched in lavish productions by their parents – like Hrithik Roshan in Kaho Na Pyaar Hai (Tell Me You Love Me), Sanjay Dutt in Rocky or Sunny Deol in Betaab (Anxious) – Salman stepped into the industry at the age of 14 as a background dancer for a mere Rs75, only because school didn’t hold his interest. Although his father was in the business of filmmaking, he didn’t have the financial standing to launch him big.
It took Salman nine years and a second lead role in Biwi Ho To Aisi (An ideal wife) – an average grosser at the box office – to finally get some
‘The scene where I was dipped in mustard oil took 11 days to film… It looks cool but takes time’
recognition. But it was only a year later in 1989 when he made his debut as a main lead in Maine Pyar Kiya (I Am In Love) that he made it big.
A clichéd yet classic love story between a rich, spoilt brat and a girl from a humble background, it went on to become one of the biggest hits in the history of Hindi cinema, and Salman’s character Prem became every collegegoing girl’s dream boy. The film was dubbed in several languages and earned Salman glory not just in India but all over the world. Salman went on to win the Filmfare Best Male Debut Award the following year, his only one to date.
But what the film also did was put a monkey on his back – a monkey called expectation. “In spite of its stupendous success, I didn’t have work for six months as my co-star in Maine, Bhagyashree, decided to leave the industry to get married. And as most producers wanted to cast both of us together to exploit the chemistry we shared in our debut film, they did not want to take a risk by casting me with any other female actor. My father had to speak to some of his friends in the industry to help me get a role,” he recalls. For five long years he worked in several forgettable films just so he would not slip into oblivion.
Then in 1994, Sooraj Barjatya, the director of Maine and Salman’s friend, reentered his life to not just recreate the magic of their first film, but also to save a career that was going nowhere.
The film was Hum Aapke Hain Kaun (Who Am I To You). At three-and-a-half hours and with 14 hit songs, it was a wedding extravaganza that was panned by critics for being too long and too kitsch, even for the melodrama-loving Indian audience.
But beating all naysayers, the film went on to be the biggest blockbuster at the time. It was the first film to make more than Rs1 billion, not just in the Indian market but overseas as well. “I played Prem again and I realised that a movie works only if the love story works in it,” he says.
Twenty years later, Salman has definitely moved on from being lover boy Prem to playing complex characters. Movies like Wanted, Ready,
Bodyguard, Ek Tha Tiger (There Was a Tiger) and Dabangg (Fearless) have turned the star into a franchise as they have not only collectively made more than Rs700 crore, but have succeeded in giving potboilers a respectful image.
It was Dabangg, a film produced by his younger brother Arbaaz Khan and directed by Abhinav Kashyap, that irrevocably established Salman’s superstar status. As respected film critic Anupama Chopra once commented, “It’s the role of a lifetime and Salman Khan bites into it like a starving man devours a feast. He inhabits it fully, strutting and swaggering and even, spoofing himself.”
Salman plays Chulbul Pandey, a caricatured police officer who fights, romances and generates laughs with equal aplomb. When asked what was the highlight of the film for him, he says, “The scene where I was dipped in mustard oil took 11 days to film. It gets in your hair, clothes, everywhere. It looks cool but takes time.” It was worth it because it was one of the most popular scenes in the movie, which had his female fans drooling by showcasing his muscled body.
It is this ability to urge to appeal to the critical mass that has ensured Salman remains dear to millions who believe cinema should never get rid of its larger-than-life, fantasy characters.
But here’s the hitch. His on-screen superhero persona has failed to shield him against offscreen controversy. Apart from getting into a brawl – details of which are still not clear – with other mega-star Shah Rukh Khan years ago that resulted in a dispute, which has shown signs of thawing only recently, Salman has two court cases going on against him.
He is alleged to have killed an endangered black buck while on a hunting expedition with his mates in the Nineties in Rajasthan; and he is also alleged to have run over a man in a hit and run incident in Mumbai. But unlike his on-screen characters, he is not going
‘I have accepted my fate… If the judgement goes against us, I am prepared to go to jail’
to fight his fate with fists, but with equanimity.
“I have kind of accepted my fate, but I will fight it with my lawyers,” he says. “We have the best legal team, and in spite of that if the judgement goes against us, I am prepared to go to jail.
“I am going to accept whatever happens. I am not going to go ask help from politicians or use other means to escape the law. I will use the legal way to prove that I am not guilty. I will fight like I should.”
And one area where Salman is known to fight is to promote new talent – especially women. In a world where scripts are generally written for male actors and female actors are mere eye candy, Salman is known to have promoted several women by suggesting them to filmmaker friends.
And he doesn’t deny it. “I promote only those who I think deserve to be promoted,” he says. “I can see that some of the girls have the potential and if given encouragement, can be successful. I back girls who are talented, hard-working and ambitious.
“There is no harm in supporting someone who you know is going to do well.”
While Salman is refreshingly quite candid about female peers, he continues to be tight-lipped about his affairs with some of them, although his relationships have always been public knowledge.
Whether it was his enduring ties with Sangeeta Bijlani, former Miss India and an actress who didn’t get too far in the industry, or with model-turned actor Somy Ali, who he dated for a long time but was reluctant to commit to, or with the stunning Aishwarya Rai now Bachchan – an epic relationship that met a bitter end after various reports of him being obsessive and overbearing – he has been known as a rather commitment-phobic star.
More recently, his on-off association with fellow actor Katrina Kaif has consistently been the focus of every tabloid, in spite of his reluctance to comment on them.
“What’s the point. They are all married?” he once said. When reminded that Katrina Kaif still isn’t married, he immediately added, “She’s too young to be married.”
So what does the future hold for this rich and handsome superstar, since he does not want a ‘and they lived happily ever after’ tag yet? “I want to make a lot of money as it helps me help out a lot more people through my NGO Being Human Foundation. I want my project to be a bigger hit than all my films. It is my baby and I am very passionate about it.
“I know money is the best way to help a lot of people who actually need it. It is all a matter of how you are using money. It is important, but if it is only lying in your safe, then you don’t really value money,” he explains.
Over the years, the Being Human Foundation has helped farmers in drought-hit areas by setting up water tanks that allow for water harvesting and has made huge contributions towards colleges in small towns that are strapped for funds.
His die-hard fans would applaud his charity work, but sceptics would say that Salman is in pursuit of redemption from the excessive life that he has lead until now in an effort to build a legacy that will hopefully be bigger than the box-office numbers that his movies have generated. It is only that legacy which will tell us whether the star is a man with his heart in the right place or a flawed mortal whose mouth is in the wrong place.
But then when he is on that big screen in Ready, looks you in the eye and says, “Zindagi mein teen cheez kabhi
underestimate nahi karna, I, me and myself” (There are three things in life that you should not underestimate, I, me and myself), you have no option but to be convinced of his greatness.
The film that gave Salman a second lease of life in Bollywood
With Daisy Shah in his latest release Jai Ho
With Kareena Kapoor in Bodyguard
With Asin in 2011 film Ready
Ek Tha Tiger, in which he starred alongside Katrina Kaif
Doing a song and dance number in Bodyguard
Brothers Arbaaz and Sohail with Salman and Sunil Lulla, producer of Jai Ho