The dangerous innocence of Bollywood’s most controversial superstar. Though Salman has largely remained reticent about the allegations of abuse against him, his father, Salim Khan, has in interviews spoken patronisingly and disparagingly of the women his son has dated.
ON A COOL, BREEZY evening in mid 2017, I was shown into a carpeted tent in Mumbai’s famed Yash Raj Films Studios. The tent was set up in a far corner of the sprawling complex, next to the vanity van of the man I was there to interview: Salman Khan, the Hindi-film superstar, who, along with Aamir Khan and Shah Rukh Khan, has dominated the industry for nearly three decades.
I sat at a long table and waited for him. I had lost track of time when, suddenly, I sensed a shift in the air and looked up from my phone. Salman had entered and seated himself on a chair across from me. A group of five or six people orbited him—entering the tent, asking him a question, exiting, taking a phone call, returning.
A member of Salman’s team introduced him to me, and reminded him about our scheduled interview. “You have met her before,” she said. His expression remained unchanged; it was impossible to discern whether he remembered me.
The actor was at YRF Studios to shoot a bouquet of promos for the eleventh season of the Hindi reality television show Bigg Boss, which he hosts and which is currently airing on the channel Colors. As I wondered whether to begin the interview, a producer informed him that the crew would be ready whenever he was. Someone decided that Salman’s look needed tweaking. A make-up artist came over and dabbed colour on his beard and moustache. I watched, and then, since he remained seated, asked hesitantly, “Should I start?” A faint smile appeared in Salman’s eyes, as he gestured to his face to indicate that he could not speak freely because of the cosmetics on it. A minute or so later, without a word to me, he got up and disappeared into his van.
OF THE TRADE MAGAZINE Film Information’s list of top ten Hindi films of all time by domestic net collections, four star Salman. Together, these films have earned Rs 1,042 crore. (Four films starring Aamir are in the top ten, and have together earned Rs 1,186 crore. One Shah Rukh film appears on the list, and the top spot is held by the dubbed Hindi version of the Telugu film Bahubali 2: The Conclusion, which earned Rs 510 crore.)
Alongside his commercial appeal, Salman also commands a fierce loyalty among his fans. At a 2013 event, Aamir himself, despite racking up more impressive box-office figures, declared that Salman was “a bigger star than me. I prepare so much but he does not need to do that. He will shake his belt, move his goggles and that’s enough for the success of his films.” Indeed, of the three Khans, it is Salman who has spawned the greatest numbers of imitators, who sport the clothes and accessories he wears—tight T-shirts, leather jackets and bracelets—and, during screenings of his films, cheer wildly at the birth of a baby if they know that the child will grow up to be their hero’s character.
But Salman is also by far the most controversial of the three superstars. In the first two decades of his career, he had a reputation for being rude, aggressive and unprofessional. He also developed a hostile relationship with the press from his early days in the industry. He continued to get projects because his core audience remained so deeply committed to him that his films were almost guaranteed to open well at the box office, even if subsequent word of mouth caused them to fizzle out.
But stories of Salman’s professional misconduct pale in comparison to the three chilling instances in which he has been accused of potentially criminal actions. He was charged by police with poaching deer, including the endangered black buck, in Rajasthan in 1998; and with culpable homicide in a case where he was alleged to have crashed his car into a bakery in Mumbai in September 2002, killing one person and injuring four. He was also accused by the actor Aishwarya Rai, with whom he was in a relationship, of verbal and physical abuse—the only instance when widely circulated rumours about his allegedly violent behaviour towards women were placed as facts on the record.
Whether it was owing to his reported unprofessionalism, his poor film choices or the reams of bad press that his alleged misdemeanours attracted, Salman’s career saw a downturn between 2000 and 2008, when several of his films flopped at the box office. Towards the end of that decade, however, he scripted a turnaround, beginning with Wanted in 2009. He began choosing films with more care and took greater control of his image. Where earlier he relied entirely on his family to manage his affairs, now, for the first time, he hired a professional management team. This was accompanied by work to subtly build awareness about his new charity, Being Human—The Salman Khan Foundation, which is active in healthcare and education, and whose branded T-shirts he regularly wears in public.
This dramatic, frequently disturbing biography played through my mind over the two days that I spoke to him at YRF Studios, in several stretches of between one minute and 45 minutes. I began this series of conversations with open-ended questions about his dreams, ambitions and plans. “There was a time when we used to say ke picture milegi toh mehnat karenge, (we will work if we get a film),” he said. “Now it’s always, mehnat karoge toh picture milegi (if we work, we will get films).” His fellow actors, he continued, were “so good at their jobs that you feel incompetent, you feel you’ve lucked out, and you need to appreciate every shot you give.” He then referred to his own reputation for impatience, slipping into a semi-philosophical tone that has led some co-workers to jokingly address him as “Swami Salman.” “Sometimes you get angry or irritable,” he said, “but if you keep controlling that and just think ki yeh abhi nahin hua mere saath, yeh mere saath ek saal pehle hua thha (this did not happen to me just now, it happened to me a year back), then automatically that anger and frustration go down. It’s difficult but achievable.”
My previous interviews with Salman had been straightforward half-hour question-and-answer sessions for television. But at YRF Studios, I allowed his words to flow uninterrupted as far as possible, and found that he often answered questions I had not asked. “Every time I’ve gone down is only because of me, nobody else,” he said at one point, apparently alluding to the rough patch his career had hit in the early and mid 2000s. “Not god, not fans, nobody.” Every individual had their own destiny, he added, “and this is my journey. I don’t know how long it will last, but however long it is, it was only meant to be that long.” But, he insisted, he would not grow complacent about his success. “I will always give to the best of my capacity and keep reinventing myself—thhoda sa kuchh aur, thhoda sa kuchh aur (a bit more, and then some more),” he said.
This reflective, solemn Salman was a far cry from the person I had first encountered nine years earlier, whose behaviour seemed to justify the troubling reputation that preceded him.
In November 2008, I interviewed the actor, along with Katrina Kaif, Anil Kapoor and Zayed Khan, all of whom were promoting the producer and director Subhash Ghai’s film Yuvvraaj. The interview, which took place on the lawns of a south-Delhi five-star hotel, was for my then employer, the television channel Headlines Today, now India Today.
The first 20 minutes of the conversation flitted smoothly between light-hearted banter and serious reflection. Then, I asked Salman whether he tended to be more tense about a new release if his previous film was not a hit, such as on this occasion, when he was preparing for Yuvvraaj’s release in theatres just months after God Tussi Great Ho had fared poorly at the box office.
“Who says so?” Salman shot back curtly, with a hint of a frown flickering over his face. The mood of the interview changed instantly. Seated next to him, Kaif murmured, “Oh no.” Kapoor sat forward, and placed a hand on Salman’s arm as if to pacify him.
Salman repeated gravely, “Who said so?”
“Well, I spoke to theatre owners and trade analysts,” I replied calmly with a smile. Kaif cleared her throat nervously.
Then, all of a sudden, Salman’s face broke into a boyish grin. He playfully raised his finger to his lips in feigned embarrassment and shushed me. It felt like he had been testing the waters with his effort to intimidate me, and was enjoying the fact that it had not worked.
At this, the others appeared relieved, and began to speak in unison, seemingly seeking to ease any potential tension that might linger. Kaif let out a loud “Awwww,” and said, “How mean ya, you’ll make him cry.” She then turned to Salman and teased, “Don’t cry, don’t cry.” “It’s a big hit in Mumbai,” Zayed said. “In Gaiety”—a famous hall in the city—“it’s a big hit.” Kapoor chuckled, and repeated, “It’s a big hit, it’s a big hit.”
Over the chorus of voices, Salman said with a laugh and an exaggerated drawl, “In our minds, in our home, it is a big hit.”
“Don’t, you’ve made him cry now,” Kaif said. “You are mean, Anna.” It was clear that Salman was enjoying the moment when he added, “Arrey, God Tussi Great Ho ko god bhi nahin chala sakey”—even god could not save the film. He was charming through the rest of the interview, which was filled with thoughtful answers and merriment, from both him and his co-stars.
This summer, I met Anil Kapoor at his home in Mumbai, and reminded him that he and his co-stars had appeared to be mollycoddling Salman that day. “Salman has a quality that makes you feel protective towards him,” Kapoor told me. (When the Yuvvraaj interview took place, Salman was 42 and Kapoor 52, while Kaif was 25 and Zayed 28.) When I pressed further, Kapoor said, “I can’t put a finger on the reason. It’s something to do with the innocence on his face, the kind of person he is, the goodwill he creates with certain gestures, the smile, the mischief, a childlike quality. Apne ko zyaada shaana nahin samajhta hai (he doesn’t act smart).”
The defence that Salman is “childlike” seemed reasonable enough as an explanation for his prickly responses to interview questions. But in my 23 years as a journalist, I have also heard it trotted out innumerable times to defend everything from his obnoxious behaviour to his possibly criminal conduct against women. Other defences offered by producers, directors and actors have included the oft-repeated claim that the star has a “heart of gold” and that he should be judged by his charity work rather than any alleged misdemeanours. For three decades, they have echoed each other’s words, as if reciting from a memo that was circulated to them.
Ghai has been one of them. In 2016, when Salman sparked widespread outrage after remarking that his training sessions for Sultan, in which he played a wrestler, were so physically strenuous that they made him feel “like a raped woman,” Ghai defended the star, who turned 51 that December, by saying, “Salman is a child.” Talking to me earlier this year, he explained, “When I say he is a child I mean not politically correct, he doesn’t understand that his words could have consequences or what those consequences might be.”
The director had perhaps forgotten that I had once witnessed an episode involving him and Salman that followed the Yuvvraaj interview, which offered to me further evidence of how those around the star constantly indulged him, seeming almost fearful of displeasing him. As I waited for our crew to pack up, the film’s publicists came over to coax Salman to visit the studios of Star News (now ABP News) for a live interaction. It was evident that the other three actors were willing, and that Salman was the only one needing persuasion. Kaif—who was then dating Salman—had already done her bit, explaining to him while I sat there during a break in shooting that studio visits helped generate curiosity about a film. Salman would not budge.
Then Ghai came over. An industry elder known for being high-handed himself, Ghai stood trembling before Salman, with folded hands, pleading with him to acquiesce. The director of the ageless Karz and money-spinners such as Kalicharan, Hero, Karma, Ram Lakhan, Khalnayak and Saudagar had not had a hit as a director since 1999’s Taal, and Yuvvraaj was a make-or-break project for him. It was a sign of his desperation that day that he disregarded the presence of a journalist as he begged, “Salman, please, we have to do this. There is a difference between going to the studio and doing an interview here.” An unmoved Salman replied, “Tell Star News to bring their studio to the hotel. If she”—he pointed to me—“can bring her studio here, so can they.”
An industry professional who worked on Yuvvraaj reacted to my recollection of Ghai’s grovelling with another kind of justification often offered for Salman’s misbehaviour: that those he mistreats ask for it. “Salman knows Ghai well,” the person said. “Usko acchhi tarah maloom hai kiske saath panga lena chahiye aur kiske saath nahin (he knows well whom he can mess with and with whom he cannot). Ghai should not have begged like that. He is, after all, the Subhash Ghai. When you behave like that, this is how some people will treat you.”
Salman and Ghai had clashed in a far uglier fashion in the past. In the late 1990s, they came to blows at a party in the presence of numerous eyewitnesses. That fight is now a part of Bollywood folklore. In a perfect example of the Stockholm-Syndrome-like relationship that many industry professionals share with the star, the director is now one of Salman’s staunchest defenders, standing up for him after his “raped woman” remark, when, in a rare instance, the rest of the fraternity largely chose to stay quiet.
In a decade when the feminist movement has gained greater visibility in the Indian mass media, Salman offers an instructive example of the kind of masculinity that nevertheless continues to dominate society. The readiness with which friends and colleagues defend a range of irresponsible, violent and abusive behaviours by citing his supposedly innocent and childlike inner self and his charitable work is telling of how easily such actions are excused and normalised. To understand Salman is to see how deep-rooted a culture of what feminists call “toxic masculinity” is in India, and how it is propagated not just by those who are its most prominent symbols, but also—wittingly and unwittingly—by their friends, family members and colleagues.
THE SILENCE ABOUT Salman’s misdeeds was never more palpable than in the instances when the star faced charges of assaulting women he was involved with. Among those Salman was rumoured to have beaten are Sangeeta Bijlani, as well as Somy Ali, who, according to her official website, was in a relationship with him for eight years till December 1999. (The dates provided in this official biography suggest that for a part of those years she was a minor, while Salman was in his mid twenties.)
The most commonly cited account of Salman’s violence against Ali is one in which he reportedly broke a bottle of Coke on her head in full public view. In an interview to Sarah Khan of the New York Times in 2012, Ali denied that this ever happened, but provided a nevertheless disturbing description of the episode. “I was out with some friends and had a rum and Coke,” she said. “He felt I was in wrong company and didn’t want me drinking, so he poured it on the table. Now I think he did the right thing.” Ali, now a Miami-based activist for victims of human trafficking and domestic violence, said that a journalist “blew it out of proportion. It went from one thing to another, that he broke the bottle on my head, that he dumped it on my head, but he just poured it on the table and said, ‘You shouldn’t be drinking.’ He’s just overprotective, that’s how Salman is in relationships.” She did not note that even her description of Salman suggested that he was prone to intimidating, controlling behaviour, nor did she point out the hypocrisy of a man known for drunken brawls objecting to his girlfriend drinking. In the same interview, Ali said, “He was beyond wonderful to me … aside from the cheating.” In an interview earlier this year to Aditi Lamba on TV Asia, a channel targeted at the Indian diaspora in the United States, she said, without explaining further, “My relationship with Salman was not very healthy.”
Salman himself has spoken lightly of physical abuse in romantic relationships. In a video titled “Salman angry with media 1998,” uploaded on YouTube by a fan club, he said, “Would I ask you who your girlfriend is or what your relations are with her? No. So why do you keep asking me these questions. It’s my personal life. Who I beat, who I sleep with is my personal problem, not yours.”
While the details of these link-ups remain unclear, far more information emerged about Salman’s relationship with Aishwarya Rai, which reportedly began during the making of Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, released in 1999. Two specific instances are well chronicled. In the first, from 2001, confirmed at the time by the Mumbai police, an intoxicated Salman barged into Rai’s flat one night when she was not present, smashed window panes and broke furniture. The police also confirmed that Rai’s father registered a complaint against him on 27 December. In the other incident, Salman reportedly went on a rampage and rammed Rai’s car with his own during the shooting of Kuch Naa Kaho, in which she starred alongside Abhishek Bachchan, and which was released in 2003.
Salman himself broadly confirmed both incidents in a February 2002 interview to S Balakrishnan of the Times of India when he said, “Yes, yes, there is truth (in these reports), but they are all exaggerated.” His explanation for his behaviour was alarming. “If you don’t fight, there’s no love,” he said. “I will not fight with an outsider. Whatever fighting and possessiveness is there from my side and hers is all out of love. The banging of the car was wrong. But I banged my car. I have now been told by the cops not to go to her building.” Conjecture that Salman used to assault Rai was further fuelled by her appearance at an awards function with a plaster on her arm and dark glasses. She, however, claimed she had injured herself in a fall.
In another very public incident, in 2002, Salman arrived on the sets of Aziz Mirza’s Chalte Chalte in Pune’s Naraingaon town, where Rai was shooting, and created a scene there. In September that year, Rai spoke to the Times of India’s Afsana Ahmed and Smrity Sharma, confirming that she had broken up with Salman the previous March and that he had been stalking her ever since. “Ash also denies that she called Salman to the sets of Aziz Mirza’s film in Naraingaon,” the report stated. “It was other way around, she explains. Salman kept calling, but Ash refused to say where she was. But he overheard people near her mentioning the name of the place. Witnesses say that an inebriated Salman reached there and insisted that Ash go with him. Though she refused first, she relented after he hit himself.”
Rai’s interview was published on 27 September 2002. Salman’s car crashed into the American Express Bakery in Bandra the next night. In an example of how far Salman’s supporters reach for justifications for his behaviour, the journalist Jasim Khan wrote in his 2015 book, the eulogic Being Salman, “Was it a mere coincidence that Salman rammed his Toyota Land Cruiser onto the pavement in suburban Bandra (Mumbai) just a day after Aishwarya made her break-up public in The Times Of India interview? A person lost his life in the accident and later Salman had to go to jail for his crime. Many of Salman’s friends and colleagues visited the jail to show solidarity with him, but not Aishwarya. This sealed the fate of their relationship.”
The disquieting sense of sympathy for Salman apart, the writer also neglected to note that the turmoil continued into the next year. In April 2003, the then rising star Vivek Oberoi called an impromptu press conference accusing Salman of hounding him with 41 drunken, abusive and threatening phone calls in one night. At the time, Oberoi was said to be dating Rai. A few days later, in a move without precedent in Bollywood, Rai issued a detailed statement to the media calling the “Salman chapter” of her life a “nightmare,” alleging that she had been “at the receiving end of his abuse (verbal, physical, emotional).” She confirmed again in this statement that she had ended their relationship two years earlier.
Back then, Salman chose to let his family respond to the media’s questions about these allegations, following a pattern he has adopted whenever he is in trouble. In an interview at Mehboob Studio in Mumbai not long after the success of Wanted, I told him that the first response I read from him to Rai’s statement came years later, and asked why it had taken him so long to react. “You should never talk about an ex,” he replied. I suggested that it was important for a public figure such as himself to address an important social issue such as domestic violence. “By clearing yourself out, you’re putting somebody else down,” he said. “And guys can go to any extent to clear themselves out. Women have this one limitation, ki kitna bolegi (how much will she speak)? Guys can go to a different level altogether. And I don’t think that is right. So the best thing to do is keep quiet about these things and I’m sure whatever anybody has said, have their reasons to say that.”
But Salman’s father, the legendary scriptwriter Salim Khan, has spoken patronisingly and disparagingly of the women his son has been involved with. “Can’t people see anything good in that boy?” he said in a 2001 Cine Blitz interview quoted on the Bollywood website Pinkvilla. “He must have been in love many times, on intimate terms with his girlfriends. Has he ever spoken ill about any of them, even under provocation? We have a tradition of respecting women in this family. Salman has seen his father do that. If Salman has a party at home, I always escort the female guests to their cars. It’s the same with Salman.” He then raised a challenge to those who claimed he mistreated women. “His ex girlfriends called him a difficult man to get along with, in print,” he said. “But I ask them, ‘Why were you with him for 7 years?’”
Salim concocted an answer to his own question during an interview given in Mumbai in 2012 to Jasim Khan, which is cited in Being Salman. “None of the girls who stole Salman’s heart were interested in raising a family,” he said. “They had come into his life for their career. They wanted to reach the top through Salman. They wanted only to pursue their ambition. All these girls wanted to ride on his back to the top. Whether they succeeded or not is a separate issue. But they had their eyes set on stardom. So they never wanted to settle down with Salman.” His words once again positioned Salman as a victim, not a perpetrator of violence.
The director Shashilal Nair, too, put forward a disconcerting justification of Salman’s alleged assault on Rai when I spoke to him this year. He said, “Between a boyfriend and a girlfriend many things happen. I don’t count it as very important if you raise your voice or raise your hand at the spur of the moment. It happens. It’s normal.” I pressed him on whether he meant that domestic violence was acceptable. He said, “At the spur of the moment, you may lose the balance of your mind, but that doesn’t categorise him as a person who is a woman beater.”
Unlike Nair, Shilpa Shetty Kundra, who has acted with Salman in six films, struck a more careful balance, not casting aspersions on the women involved or condemning her friend. When she asked Salman about the accusations against him, “He laughed it off,” she said. “He was like, ‘You think I could hit a woman?’ He really respects women. I see the way he is with his sisters, his mum, with women in general. He is really overprotective.” She added that “only two people in a relationship can ever really answer a question about the kind of relationship they are in.” Kundra added, “All I can say about Salman, I’m not really taking up for him, is that I’ve never seen him physically abuse a woman. Beyond that I really can’t comment.”
Salman seemed to draw on this aspect of his reputation in his 2003 film Tere Naam, directed by Satish Kaushik, the story of a hooligan, Radhe, who is driven insane by his love for a traditional, college-going girl, and kidnaps her in a bid to force her to reciprocate his feelings. Earlier this year, I asked Kaushik why he had romanticised Radhe’s violence, and about the potential impact of this on Salman’s followers, who tend to hang on to his every word. The director insisted that “rather than romanticising his violence, it was much more about Radhe’s trauma.” He added, “And when you are traumatic, you tend to physically express much more. He never hit Nirjara, he just gets up to hit her but he controls himself and starts bashing himself.” Kaushik did not note that leading up to this moment in the film, Radhe grabs the woman, forces her into his car, gags her and ties her to a chair when they reach their destination, and roughs her up. It is after this that he raises his hand to hit her, and then restrains himself.
I was reminded of Tere Naam and Bollywood’s nonchalance towards domestic violence during a conversation with a fiery Nagpur-based travel company employee called Tripti Shrivastava. Shrivastava is a diehard Salman fan and the treasurer of an as-yet-unregistered charitable organisation founded in the star’s name. She was introduced to me by a professional Salman impersonator named Shan Ghosh, who features in the 2014 documentary Being Bhaijaan. Shrivastava told me she had no doubt that a notoriously hot-tempered man like Salman would hit girlfriends. And while she did not support such behaviour, she believed that the fault lay with the women for not stopping him or leaving him. “Here, you are taking his beatings as long as you need him and once you no longer need him, you are telling the whole world that he hits you,” she said, painting a familiar portrait of Salman as a victim of the women he strikes. She added, “There are so many families in our country where the husband beats the wife. Outsiders can do nothing about it. It is the wife’s responsibility or the husband’s family’s responsibility to stop him, to change him.”
Shrivastava’s comments were particularly unsettling because the discourse on Salman fans is dominated by stories of obsessive men mimicking their idol’s physical traits and sympathising with his perceived inability to cope with a world that does not understand him—as, they believe, it fails to understand them. Tere Naam was an above average grosser at the box office, but for his core following it was a career breakthrough. Hordes of fans across the country began copying the protagonist’s floppy hairstyle, with a middle parting, just as they had taken to bodybuilding after Pyaar Kiya To Darna Kya, in which Salman first unveiled his ripped torso to the world.
SALMAN, WHOSE FULL NAME is Abdul Rashid Salim Salman Khan, was born on 27 December 1965, in Indore, less than two months after a child named Shah Rukh in Delhi, and around nine months after one named Aamir in Mumbai. Part of his name comes from his paternal grandfather, Abdul Rashid Khan. His father, Salim Khan, was once an aspiring actor, but went on to become one half of the legendary scriptwriter duo Salim-Javed. Salman’s mother, Salma Khan—formerly known as Sushila Charak—was Salim’s first wife, with whom he had three more children: Arbaaz, Sohail and Alvira. When Salman was in his teens, Salim married again: his second wife is Bollywood’s famed dancing queen, Helen. Soon after, the family adopted an orphaned baby girl named Arpita.
Salman studied at the Scindia School in Gwalior, and in Mumbai’s St Stanislaus High School, and joined St Xavier’s College in the city before dropping out midway, marking the end of his formal education. He had no passion for academia, he told me, and recounted that, by 17, he began doing the rounds of producers’ offices—not seeking acting work, but carrying scripts he had written and that he wanted to direct as films. Thirty-five years later, he reminisced to me about those days in his mixture of fluent English peppered with colloquial Hindi. “I was a kid, yaar,” he said. “So who is going to trust me with a Rs 1-crore film? Everywhere I went, they’d say ‘actor bann jao’ to tarkao me (they would advise me to become an actor to fob me off).” The young man soon began to wonder if his destiny, in fact, was in acting. “When 15, 20 people told me that, toh, I thought ke they see something in me,” he said. “When I later realised that was their polite way of turning me down, I said, ‘theek hai, ab toh yeh hi karunga, dekhta hoon’ (alright, I’ll do exactly this, let’s see). And I decided ki agar ek saal ke andar ho jata hai toh theek hai, nahin toh kuchh aur karunga (if something happens within a year, then fine, otherwise I’ll do something else).”
The primary obstacle in Salman’s way was that his father could not envision him as an actor. The veteran film journalist Rauf Ahmed recalled being part of discussions in the Khan home, in Bandra’s Galaxy Apartments, on Salim’s plans for his sons. “The family was thinking of Sohail as an actor, Arbaaz as probably actor or director and Salman as director,” he told me in May. During one particular dinner at the house, he said, “Salman showed a bunch of his photographs to my wife and said, ‘If Sanjay Dutt can become a hero, what is wrong with me?’ Salim-saab berated him, saying something like, ‘Don’t waste your time, we have decided you will be a director.’” Ahmed explained Salim’s reasoning. “You see, Salman was short and small built,” he said. “Not the muscular chap he is now. Whereas the big stars those days—Amitabh Bachchan, Vinod Khanna and their successors—were mostly tall, strapping fellows.”
Salman had already found considerable success as a model before he sought an acting break. Though he could not remember the precise details, he told me he was around 14 years old when, on his first job, he earned Rs 75 as a back-up dancer in a stage show at a Mumbai five-star hotel. He appeared in his first television commercial in the early 1980s, when he was around 16 years old. The advertisement was for the then popular soft drink Campa Cola, and was shot on a boat in the Andaman Islands by the leading ad filmmaker Kailash Surendranath. Kailash and his then girlfriend, the model Aarti Gupta were “the people responsible for me being in this industry,” Salman said. “They gave me my first job in front of the camera.”
The star told the teen vlogger Hanee Chavan in June that he got that job when he jumped into the pool of Hotel Sea Rock, in Bandra, and swam back and forth below the surface to impress a beautiful woman who was passing by. The woman, who turned out to be Aarti, was struck by his display, particularly since Kailash (who is now her husband) was working on an ad for which he needed actors who could swim well underwater.
The Surendranaths’ version of the incident is as amusing, though it sounds less like a karmic event. Aarti did indeed see Salman that day, but she already knew about him because her father, who ran a club in Sea Rock, was Salim’s friend and had asked her to recommend the boy to Kailash. In a conversation over the phone from her home in Mumbai this October, she laughed at what she called Salman’s “elaborate” and “dramatic” memory of events. With days to go for the Campa Cola shoot, she said, the team was desperately looking for one young model who was a good diver. One day, Aarti visited the hotel “to see this boy my dad is saying is sweet.” She was wearing a red sari from a shoot she had just completed. Her father “had told Salman I was coming and he should meet me,” she said. As she walked down the stairs towards the pool, she said, “I see this young boy with great V-shaped shoulders dive the perfect dive, go underwater, and, as I walked past, he’s done the whole breadth underwater. I said, chalo, ladka mil gaya (we’ve got our boy).”
Despite the favourable first impression he made on Aarti, Salman did not immediately win over Kailash when they met the next day. “You’ve sent a child,” Aarti recalled Kailash laughingly telling her. She replied firmly, “Just make him take off his shirt. He has a swimmer’s body.” Kailash did so, and he too was convinced.
Salman recounted that he was paid Rs 750 for that ad. He went on to do other ads with Kailash, for each of which he was paid Rs 1,500. These included one for the soft drink Limca and a series for the footwear brand Lakhani, which featured Sangeeta Bijlani, who, Kailash told me, was paid a higher fee than Salman because she had already won the Miss India pageant by then, and was an established model.
Salim was sceptical about Salman’s acting prospects though he was doing well as a model. “When I told my father I want to act, he asked, ‘Tum mohalle ke dada bann sakte ho?’ (Can you become a local don?) Toh I said, nahin (I said, no). ‘Tum policewaale bann sakte ho?’ Toh I said, nahin. ‘Judge?’ Nahin. ‘Lawyer?’ Nahin. Those were the kind of films being made. ‘Voh bann sakte ho, ke dus aadmi ko uttha ke phek do tum?’ (Can you become a man who can lift and throw 10 men?) Nahin. I used to weigh not even 50 kgs at that time.”
Reasoning that working behind the camera could provide him with insights on what to do in front of it, Salman became an assistant director in the mid 1980s to Shashilal Nair, whom he met through Salim. Nair listed three films to me on which Salman assisted him, although he was not credited on them: Parivaar, starring Mithun Chakraborty and Meenakshi Sheshadri, released in 1987; Falak (The Sky), written by Salim Khan, starring Rakhee Gulzar and Jackie Shroff, released in 1988; and 1990’s Kroadh, featuring Sanjay Dutt, Sunny Deol, Amrita Singh and Sonam. Salman’s duties included fetching artistes from their make-up rooms and other odd jobs, from which he “graduated to giving the clap for scenes and writing continuities.”
Nair remembers Salman as a hard-working young man who enjoyed dressing well—he had a soft spot for well-cut jeans and stylish boots. By this time, he was already a regular at the gym. He also recounted that Salman would often bring Bijlani, then his girlfriend, to the shoot, “asking me to give her a chance and make her a heroine. He had that thing to help and promote people even back then.” The young man made a good impression on the sets. “When I was shooting with Sunny and Sanjay, the crew and the crowds used to always give Salman a second look because they would mistake him for Sanjay Dutt,” Nair said. He recounted that when he told Salman’s father this, the writer said, “Don’t tell him that and distract him. Let him concentrate on his work.”
Nair remembered that Salman had a rocky start in the industry, and that he did not get along with JK Bihari, the director of 1988’s Biwi Ho To Aisi, starring Rekha and Farooq Sheikh, in which Salman made his debut. During the shoot, Nair said, “the director used to always complain about this boy. He used to say he is good for nothing, he would come on the sets and sleep, get up only when his shot is ready and he was not interested.” Nair said he confronted Salman about these complaints, and that the actor replied, “The director doesn’t know anything. The way he is making the film, it is doubtful whether I should be part of it.”
The discord between the actor and director continued after the shooting, with Bihari hiring another artist to dub for Salman. “I told the director, ‘You can’t do this to a newcomer,’” Nair recounted. “But he replied, ‘You should hear the boy’s voice. He sounds like a girl. And I am the director, so I can decide.’” Nair said Salman “was very ashamed of his work” in the film.
By the time Biwi Ho To Aisi was released, Salman was already being considered for the role that would launch him to stardom: that of Prem in Sooraj Barjatya’s directorial debut, Maine Pyar Kiya, or MPK. But, as the actor remembers it, the experience of the earlier film had dented his confidence. “I told Sooraj, ‘Sooraj, I am so shit in the film, I am so shit in the film. I will come and be an AD to you, but do not mess your film by casting me in it,’” he recalled. But Barjatya was not dissuaded. “Sooraj came out of the show and said, ‘Why are your eyes looking so big in the film?’” Salman recounted. “I replied, ‘Boss, I don’t know, that’s all you need to say?’” To this, Salman said, the director declared, “‘Ya, you’re Prem. This doesn’t matter.’ He said when our film comes out it will speak for itself.” He remembered thinking about Barjatya, “this gentle polite boy was the strongest man mentally on this planet.”
In 2014, in an interview on the occasion of MPK’s 25-year anniversary, Barjatya told Rediff, “I remember him sitting in our office’s reception area. He was thin. I thought he was quite ordinary. Then he showed me his photographs. They were superb. The way he sat down and posed was magical. His auditions and dancing were quite bad but his photographs were beautiful.”
But it was not just his talent that impressed Barjatya. “He would send his friends for the auditions, saying, ‘If I am not good, take him,’” he said. “Because of his goodness, we took a chance and cast him.”
Salman recalled that he was offered Rs 31,000 for MPK, a fee that was increased to Rs 75,000 midway through the shoot.
As we reminisced at YRF Studios about his debut, a representative of Colors came over to inform Salman that the crew had finished setting up to shoot the next Bigg Boss promo. Salman switched off from our conversation in an instant. He got up from his chair and headed to the set wordlessly, no longer immersed in the 1980s and savouring the memories of early success, but back in the present, a megastar with multiple demands on his time, including, just that week, a journalist with a barrage of questions, a producer who had invested crores on a television show, a Jodhpur court hearing on the poaching case he had to attend a few days later, and meetings to conclude before commencing a 50-day shoot with Katrina Kaif in Abu Dhabi for Tiger Zinda Hai.
THE 1970s AND 1980s were a time of angst in Hindi cinema, dominated by heroes of Amitabh Bachchan’s Angry Young Man archetype. Other actors followed in this mould, including Jackie Shroff, Sanjay Dutt, Sunny Deol and Anil Kapoor. Then, in 1988, the director Nasir Hussain produced Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak, the directorial debut of his son Mansoor Khan. This adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet starred his nephew Aamir and the former Miss India Juhi Chawla as the star-crossed lovers at the centre of the story. MPK was released the following year, another intimate story of young love beating heavy familial odds. India Today heralded the arrival of a trend with a cover story headlined “Young Love Blooms” in May 1990, pegged on MPK’s blockbuster run. Two years later, in 1992, a young Shah Rukh transitioned from television to films and stole the hearts of audiences from right under the nose of Rishi Kapoor, the joint male lead in Raj Kanwar’s Deewana, in which the late Divya Bharti played a woman who falls in love again after she thinks she has been widowed.
The era of the Khans had arrived in Bollywood. But while Shah Rukh’s career was steady from the start, and Aamir found clarity and stability by the mid 1990s, Salman had a much more uneven journey until the late 2000s.
Immediately after MPK, however, Salman’s superstardom seemed a foregone conclusion, with the media coining the term “Salmania” for his fans’ love for him. In May 1990, Mumbai’s most prestigious film magazine, Filmfare, put him on the cover with a story headlined “Salman Khan: The New Craze.” In November 1991, he was again Filmfare’s solo cover boy. A photograph of Salman was also the dominant one on a 1991 cover about the year’s achievers.
But despite this slew of coverage, it was perhaps a sign that Salman would never be a critics’ favourite that at the Filmfare Awards recognising achievements in Hindi films of 1989, while his MPK co-star, Bhagyashree, was awarded Most Outstanding New Face and Barjatya the Most Sensational Debut of the Year, Salman’s arrival went unrecognised. It marked the emergence of a narrative of Salman’s apparent victimhood at the hands of the media. Social-media chatter by the star’s fans even today is testament to the fact that they have never forgiven the magazine for not giving their hero an acting debut trophy that year.
Rauf Ahmed, who was then the magazine’s editor, clarified that in fact Filmfare had no such acting debut trophy at the time. “The Most Sensational Debut of the Year was not meant to be only for acting,” he told me. The winner for that particular award was picked after deliberations between the editor and his team. “We gave it to Aamir Khan for 1988’s Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak because we thought his was a good performance,” he added. “For 1989, we gave it to Sooraj Barjatya for directing Maine Pyar Kiya because he had made a sensational beginning with that film. We didn’t think Salman’s was a great performance, but they had all assumed it would go to Salman because I had earlier given it to Aamir.” According to Ahmed, it was only from the following year that awards were given specifically for a debutant male and female actor. Shah Rukh bagged the prize for 1992.
Salman appeared deeply affected by the snub. “He stopped talking to me, there was a cooling off with his family and he did not turn up for the awards the next year,” Ahmed said. He heard that “they were upset because they felt I had deliberately avoided giving the award to Salman. So I said, it is not charity that I would give it to him. The performance did not merit the award.” The rift with the press would deepen further in years to come.
Although Salman debuted as a hero with an all-out love story, it was Shah Rukh who quickly earned the tag of King of Romance, while Salman’s filmography in his first decade was equal parts action, comedy and romance. In his first hit after MPK, Deepak Shivdasani’s Baaghi: A Rebel for Love (1990)—in which he was credited for the story idea—he was a college student braving murderous pimps to save the woman he loves (played by Nagma) from a life of prostitution. In Raj Kanwar’s Jeet (1996) Salman was the honest son of a dishonest industrialist, who marries the ex-girlfriend (Karisma Kapoor) of a hitman (Sunny Deol) who is assigned to murder Salman’s character. And in Rakesh Roshan’s reincarnation drama Karan Arjun (1995), the only time he teamed up with Shah Rukh as a joint lead, he battled the crooks who killed him and his brother in a previous birth. These films emphatically cashed in on his fighting skills.
In Judwaa (1997)—the start of an extremely fruitful and enduring partnership in the comedy genre with the director David Dhawan—he played identical twins separated at birth who land up in the same city, causing confusion all around. And in Biwi No. 1, also directed by Dhawan, he was an unfaithful husband whose determination to hide his infidelity from his wife (Karisma Kapoor) led him into a web of lies.
There were romances too, including Saajan (1991), where he shared space with fellow superstars Madhuri Dixit and Sanjay Dutt. Then came Hum Aapke Hain Koun! (1994) in which, much to the chagrin of his fandom, Dixit walked away with most of the accolades; and Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999), in which he won acclaim for his searing chemistry with his co-star, Miss World 1994 Aishwarya Rai.
The stark contrasts between the parallel journeys of the three Khans were evident from the start. For every hit Salman delivered, he would also churn out several flops, whereas Aamir and Shah Rukh were more consistent at the box office. Shah Rukh appeared to settle into a rhythm early on, at first risking anti-hero roles in films such as Baazigar and Darr, both released in 1993, which paid generous dividends at the box office and with critics. He became the go-to hero for prestigious studios such as YRF and Dharma Productions that were known for their glitzy projects, and with whom he delivered hits such as Darr (1993), Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995), Dil Toh Pagal Hai (1997) and Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998), the last of which featured a guest appearance by Salman. When Kundan Shah, the man behind the cult comedy Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983), returned to film direction after a decade with Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa (1993), it was Shah Rukh he sought out. When the Tamil auteur Mani Ratnam made his first Hindi film, Dil Se (1998), he cast Shah Rukh as his leading man.
Aamir took a little longer to find his feet post-Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak, signing up for a spate of films that were of indifferent quality but that are now crowded out of memory by his blockbusters of the time: Dil (1990) and Dil Hai Ke Manta Nahin (1991). He also starred in Mansoor Khan’s Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar (1992) and Rajkumar Santoshi’s Andaz Apna Apna (1994), an ensemble film co-starring Salman—though the former was only an average grosser and the latter a box-office dud, both have since gained dedicated fans. In the mid 1990s, he transitioned into the selective artist his audience now knows him to be. The effect has been clear on the quality of his filmography and his enviable strike rate at the box office ever since.
Salman, meanwhile, seemed to be winging it, saying yes to a slew of films such as Suryavanshi (1992) and Majhdhaar (1996), which were critical and commercial disasters. Shilpa Shetty Kundra conceded that he was not judicious in his choices in those days. “Salman is a very emotional guy,” she said over the phone from London in July. “He used to work from his heart more than his mind. He did a spate of bad films with people to whom he thought he owed something because of friendships. You can’t do that in this cut-throat industry.”
Many of Salman’s colleagues have recounted that despite this large-heartedness, the experience of working with him during those years was a trying one. In a December 2013 episode of the popular talk show Koffee With Karan, the usually reticent Aamir Khan went so far as to tell the host, the producer and director Karan Johar: “In Andaz Apna Apna, I had a very bad experience working with him. I didn’t like him and I found him rude and inconsiderate.” After this, he maintained a cordial but distant relationship with Salman, he added. “Over the years, I used to meet him and I was polite with him. I said ke after the experience of working on Andaz Apna Apna with him I felt, ‘I just want to stay away ya, from this guy.’”
Anil Kapoor too remembers considering Salman an “attractive kid” who was “a little arrogant” when they met on the sets of Kapoor’s then secretary Rikku Rakeshnath’s 1993 production Dil Tera Aashiq, which starred Salman and Madhuri Dixit. “He was a young, upcoming actor and I was doing a guest appearance as Anil Kapoor the star,” he said. “He was sort of a mastikhor and I felt he was overstepping the bounds with me.”
Both men now swear by what they consider Salman’s innate goodness. On the same episode of Koffee With Karan, Aamir spoke of how his equation with Salman changed after his divorce from his first wife, Reena Dutta Khan, in 2002. “For about a year and a half I was just locked up in my house,” he said. “I was on a downslide. That’s when I bumped into Salman again and he said, ‘I’m gonna come over.’ So he came over and sat with me and we began drinking. I was drinking a lot at that time. Something connected there. Then it grew. We began spending more time together.” He felt that Salman had grown to be “a little more mature than he used to be in Andaz Apna Apna. He wasn’t that kind of brat that he was at that point.” Aamir went on to describe Salman as “generous” and “a wonderful guy.”
Kapoor, too, said he later came to believe that Salman had a generous spirit. He illustrated this through a frank account of the making of his family production No Entry (2005). “Our company was going through a rough patch,” he said. “Boney”—his elder brother and the film’s producer—“was trying to make No Entry. He needed someone besides me to sell the film, a happening star like Salman who suited the role.” But when Boney finally managed to get in touch with Salman, the star “asked for a ridiculous amount. He was trying to avoid it. Since I knew him, I called him, and he promptly landed up at my house.” Kapoor told Salman about the two roles that he could consider: one, the lead, which would need 50 days of work, and another, a guest role which would need between eight and ten days of work. “He immediately agreed to do the role requiring minimum work,” Kapoor said. “Before I could tell him that if he did not do the film it would not happen, I think he sensed it. He was sensitive enough to not make me plead. If he had not said yes, No Entry would have never happened.”
That did not, however, mean that working with Salman was easy. “During the making of the film I came to know him more, his attitude, his habits,” Kapoor said. “He was still not the quintessential professional.” In the mornings, he continued, “I would go into his room and not really wake him up, but sit there so that he gets up, because I had a responsibility to the film as the producer. Money was lot less, it was a sensitive kind of situation.” Salman would wake up, “order breakfast, have coffee in bed, and I would hang around prodding him, hoping to start the shoot as soon as possible.” When Salman finally arrived on set, Kapoor said, “I used to say—we had that kind of relationship—‘Bhenchod, you haven’t slept all night, you are looking like a wreck.’ He would tell me, ‘Fuck off, just look at the shot.’” Salman, he added, “used to wear his glares, give his shot, and sure enough, when I checked the monitor I would say, ‘This guy is fucking blessed, ya. He’s not slept the whole night, but he walks into the frame and translates into magic on stage.’” His friendship with the actor continued after the film, Kapoor said. “It helped that No Entry became a big hit. Success is very important for every relationship.”
Shilpa Shetty Kundra told me of how Salman accepted a supporting role in Revathy’s Phir Milenge—the story of a woman, played by Kundra, who gets HIV from her boyfriend—over an informal chat while they were shooting for Puneet Issar’s Garv: Pride and Honour (2004) in Rajasthan. He was a big star at the time, while her career had hit a trough. “No one was interested in Phir Milenge because it was woman-centric and was not an entertaining film,” she recalled. “I generally told him about it and he said, ‘I’ll do it.’ I said, ‘Are you serious?’ and he replied, ‘Ya. It’s such a nice subject. Why wouldn’t I do it?’ It was as casual and bizarre as that. None of us actors asked for anything for that film.” The producer, Shailendra Singh, had said that if it did well, “he will give us what comes out of it. Even Salman barely took anything for the film. We all did it in good faith. Salman has gone way beyond his responsibilities as a human being with his charitable brand, and I think he had already sowed the seeds from there.”
From around 2007 onwards, Salman seemed to take charge of his life. His NGO, Being Human, was registered that year. Kabir Khan, the director of Ek Tha Tiger, Bajrangi Bhaijaan and Tubelight, believes that the charitable organisation “formalised and institutionalised” the part in Salman that “always enjoyed supporting the underdog, backing someone the rest of the world sees nothing in.” In 2008, Salman made a successful television debut with the game show Dus Ka Dum, which gave the public a chance to watch him interact directly with the masses, without mediation by journalists. Both these developments drew the attention of an audience beyond his traditional fan base.
He also began to choose scripts more carefully. Describing this change in his approach, Salman said, “There was a time when I was thinking very correctly but it was thinking for friends, wanting to work with them, help them out. But those films were not appreciated and friends eventually start taking you for granted.” His revised attitude, he explained, was, “If you do a film with a friend, it has to be the most outstanding script. It cannot be just, haan karenge, bana lenge (yes, let’s do it, we’ll make it). That time has gone.”
On 16 July 2008, Salman had a huge showdown with Shah Rukh during Katrina Kaif’s birthday party at Mumbai’s Olive restaurant—friends say that fight gave him a new-found determination to take his career to greater heights. After years of hostility with the media, he began interacting more freely with journalists and promoting his work actively, where once PR personnel would struggle to get him to give interviews.
This drive and strategy was quickly visible in his output. Wanted, in 2009, the first release in this new phase of Salman’s career, was an above-average grosser that attracted more critical and public acclaim for Salman’s performance than most of his earlier films. Dabangg was the highest grossing film of 2010. Since then, Salman has had a number of hits that have placed him in a dominant position on the box-office charts. The four films of his that appear in Film Information’s domestic Hindi top ten by net collections are Bajrangi Bhaijaan (Rs 318 crore) at fourth place, Sultan (Rs 300 crore) at fifth, Kick at seventh (Rs 226 crore) and Ek Tha Tiger at tenth (Rs 198 crore). He earns an average of between Rs 2.5 crore and Rs 3.5 crore per day of work as a brand ambassador.
Success brings with it its own peculiar problems. In Salman’s case, it has meant his films are now being sold at such a high price to distributors that this year’s Tubelight, despite netting between Rs 125 crore and Rs 130 crore, is not being deemed a hit. “They are calling it a flop,” Salman said sardonically. “I toh hope ki jitni badi flop yeh hui hai, baaki ke stars ki bhi itni badi flop hoey” (I hope every star manages to deliver a flop as big as this one). As the film’s producer, Salman refunded money to those who incurred losses, according to trade reports.
There were other unexpected challenges to his increased prominence too. Salman encountered one in mid January 2014, when he visited Ahmedabad in the middle of Uttarayan festivities to promote his film Jai Ho, which was scheduled to reach theatres later that month. The plan was simple: he was to take part in the celebrations, get photographed by the media, and also meet the then chief minister, Narendra Modi, to seek an entertainment-tax waiver for his film in the state.
By then, Modi had already been declared the Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime-ministerial candidate, and had mounted a months-long pan-India marketing blitzkrieg that drowned out every sales pitch from the opposition. Most opinion polls pegged him as the electorate’s leading choice for prime minister.
One stain on his image, however, persisted: the 2002 targeted violence in Gujarat, in which, according to government figures, more than 1,000 people, most of them Muslims, were killed. Critics accused Modi, who had been chief minister then, of everything from inaction during the violence to complicity in it. As he prepared for the general election, an appearance with, and perhaps even an endorsement from, one of India’s most popular Muslim personalities, could prove powerful in helping him dispel his anti-Muslim image. The symbolism of such an appearance was only enhanced by the fact that Salman’s visit coincided with Eid-e-Milad—the birthday of Prophet Muhammad, and thus one of the most important days of the year in Islam.
A connection had already been made some years earlier between the politician and the star’s family, by Zafar Sareshwala, a businessman with roots in Gujarat who had spoken out against Modi after the riots, but metamorphosed into a supporter after a meeting with the politician in London in 2003. Sareshwala, who returned from the United Kingdom to Ahmedabad in 2005, told me on the phone in September that, in 2009, he introduced Modi to Salman’s father. Salim and Modi had been in regular contact ever since, Sareshwala added. Salman told me that his father had urged him to meet Modi during his visit to Ahmedabad in January 2014.
Modi and Salman had lunch together at a government guest house in the locality of Shahibaug in the city. Media access to the meeting was restricted, and the only available footage from it shows them seated on sofas, posing stiffly.
Another set of images, however, dominated television channels and newspapers, and succeeded in projecting a sense of camaraderie between the politician and the actor. These were from later in the day, when Modi and Salman, both wearing sleek sunglasses, flew kites together on the terrace of a residential complex, as an adoring crowd cheered them on.
Salman had had some political associations in the past. In 2009, to the amusement of poll-watchers, he campaigned for the Nationalist Congress Party’s Sameer Bhujbal in Nashik, for the Congress’s Satyajit Gaekwad in Vadodara and Annu Tandon in Uttar Pradesh’s Unnao, and the actor-turned-politician Vinod Khanna from the BJP in Gurdaspur, Punjab. In each instance, he said clearly that he was backing a friend, rather than an organisation. In Ahmedabad, the media was keen to see if Salman would pronounce support for Modi or the BJP. Any such move was sure to make headlines across the country.
After the kite-flying, both Salman and Modi stepped up to a makeshift podium and faced a battery of cameras and microphones. Over the hubbub came the expected question: “Salman-ji, will you support Modi for PM?”
If Modi expected an unequivocal statement of support, he was likely disappointed. First, Salman laughed awkwardly. “I think the best man for the country, for all of us, god should decide that who is the best man for Bharat,” he said. “And the best man for our country should be the PM of this country.”
The mediapersons pressed further. “Narendra Modi ko maante hai best man?” Did he consider Modi the “best man”?
Salman was not to be pinned down. “Look, a good man stands before me here,” he said. “I came here nine years back and then about four years back. I have seen a lot of development here. You tell me, because I am not from Gujarat, so whether I do or don’t makes no difference. What you believe matters.” Modi stood next to him with a waxy smile on his face.
A few questions later, another voice asked if he would campaign for Modi. “Look, as far as voting is concerned, it depends on the constituency,” Salman said. “You should vote for the best man in your constituency. Who is the best man for you here?”
Cries of “Modi, Modi” emanated from the crowd. “Is Modi-saab the best man for you here?” Salman asked. What the star said next could not have pleased the BJP leader. “In my constituency, Bandra, where it is my duty to cast my vote,” he said, “it’s Baba Siddique and Priya Dutt”—both Congress politicians, and, at that point, members of the Maharashtra assembly and the Lok Sabha, respectively. “So you have to give Modi-saab the vote, I have to give my people the vote,” Salman added. Modi’s discomfort at the comments was apparent when, after a few questions, he grunted a quick “Chalein?”—shall we go?
But Salman dived into another question. After some more semantic gymnastics, he declared, “I like Modi-saab very much. I’ve met him for the first time today. I hope we continue to meet, and we get along.” There was still no clear endorsement for the chief minister. Modi had by this time already turned away from the microphones. Perhaps deciding that he had had enough, he began to walk off, bringing the press conference to a close.
From a member of the film industry who is close to Salman, I heard one explanation of how the star found himself in such a tricky situation. “That kite-flying meeting was totally engineered and hijacked by Modi,” they said. “He was never supposed to come together on that platform and get projected like Salman is backing Modi.” This person told me that Salman had told them that he had expected to have lunch with Modi, without the media present, then “go on his own for the kite-flying, which is a big public spectacle in Gujarat.” Modi’s appearance there “was a surprise thing, which the Modi PR machinery had planned but had not told Salman.” (Salman is the only one of the three Khans who has not clashed with right-wing Hindu groups. Aamir and Shah Rukh had already crossed swords with the BJP and its allies by 2014. In 2006, Aamir had antagonised Modi supporters by backing the Narmada Bachao Andolan. Shah Rukh, in 2010, had rejected the Shiv Sena’s demand for an apology after remarking that Pakistani cricketers should have been included in the Indian Premier League.)
This, the friend continued, explained “why, when Salman is talking to the press there, you can see he doesn’t know what to say. If it was a planned PR meeting, he would have had a rehearsed speech ready. Here, he was stuck.” They added, “Salman was very upset because he fully understood the positive fallout of such an event for Modi. He told me that the moment Modi came there, he thought to himself, ‘Oh shit, I know exactly what’s happening here.’ He was never supposed to be with Modi at such a huge public gathering.” When I spoke to Grishma Trivedi, a member of the BJP and an event-management professional who helped organise Salman’s Ahmedabad appearance, and who also founded a Narendra Modi fan club in the city that year with her husband, she denied that the joint appearance had been a surprise for the actor.
I pointed out to Salman’s friend that when I watched the event live on television, I assumed that both Salman’s and Modi’s publicists had agreed this was an excellent, mutually beneficial idea for their clients: Modi would gain from his association with a high-profile Muslim, and with the politician commanding airtime like no other individual in the country, Salman’s film, too, might benefit from the windfall of attention. Salman’s friend disagreed. “Salman’s PR agency would not advise him to do such an event because, if anything, it could boomerang,” they said. “For whatever reasons, Salman has a cult following among Muslim blue-collar workers. He’s their god. Supporting Modi would not go down well with them. So no, Salman’s people had definitely not planned it that way.”
I asked Salman about his Ahmedabad appearance with Modi and the possibility that it might have benefited the politician. “I was going to all state chief ministers to get Jai Ho tax-free,” he said. “If I’m visiting a state, and the chief minister wants to meet me, I’ll meet him. I don’t think a photo with me made a difference. That means all the places I ever go to, they’ll all become this powerful.”
I suggested that a politician who had an image of being anti-Muslim would gain from being seen with him. “If he’s taking a picture with me, how is he anti-Muslim?” Salman asked. He then made a puzzling argument: “When the riots happened here in Maharashtra, did anyone know that chief minister of Maharashtra?” Arguing that investigating agencies had not indicted Modi, he added, “Who am I to say anything?”
But Salman’s fans may not have perceived the meeting as an innocuous one. Komal Nahta, the editor of the Mumbai-based trade magazine Film Information, believes—as do several industry members and watchers—that Jai Ho suffered at the turnstiles because Salman alienated the Muslim community by engaging with Modi. “The team of Jai Ho won’t admit it, but the film flopped because Salman’s traditional Muslim fan following, who form a sizeable chunk of his committed audience, did not go to watch it,” Nahta told me over the phone. “They were upset with him for that meeting with Modi. Exhibitors across India told me, ‘Mussalman nahin aaye film dekhne ke liye’ (Muslims didn’t come to see the film).”
Nahta conceded that the film’s content itself did not generate much favourable buzz either, but argued that “Jai Ho was a slow starter even before word-of-mouth took effect. It did not even get a good opening, which is unusual for a Salman film, and that’s because the community did not turn up to see it.” He added, “On the face of it, if you go by gross collections alone, the film is on the list of the year’s top 10 earners, but that’s not how you measure a genuine hit.” Jai Ho was made on a high budget, he explained, and the production and distribution company Eros had spent “approximately Rs 100 crore-plus on buying the distribution rights from the producer”—Salman’s brother Sohail—“and on promoting the film.” But, he said, “they did not recover their money. The Khans made a killing as producers, but the distributors lost money.”
AS NIGHT FELL, Salman returned to his tented reception area at YRF Studios. He threw himself down on his chair and we began talking about Tubelight, while a member of his staff brought vessels of food over to the table. “Come, let’s eat,” he said. “You must be hungry. Try, it’s from home.” I asked if I should continue talking. “No, no, I wanna take a break,” he replied. He paused. “Eat,” he said then. “You take a break.” I realised it would be foolish to pass up a chance to taste Salma Khan’s famed cooking, which Salman’s friends and others in the industry always raved about.
Today, Salma had sent a chicken preparation, fried fish, spinach and rice, among other dishes. I expected Salman to pile up his plate and disappear into his trailer, as most stars would. Instead he sat with us—a journalist and a few of his colleagues—and began to wolf down his food. As I served myself, a member of his team said, “Now you can truly say you have interviewed Salman Khan.”
This was the softer side of the star, the part of his persona that the industry and outside world had seen more of since the late 2000s, even as he also showed a greater devotion to his work. Anil Kapoor had told me that Salman was “more committed now because he is enjoying his work, the success, the stardom, the money.” Earlier, he suggested, “somewhere he felt he was not getting what he richly deserves.”
Along with this transformation, the number of positive stories emanating about the actor has multiplied. Anita Kaul Basu, the producer of Dus Ka Dum, recalled Salman sending off a staffer at 4 am to fetch “Rs 2 to Rs 3 lakh” for a daily wage labourer who came on Dus Ka Dum and who said he needed that money to free the land he had mortgaged to educate his daughters. Kajal Malhotra, the mother of Harshaali Malhotra, Salman’s child co-star in Bajrangi Bhaijaan, spoke of his genuine affection for children and the long stretches of time he spent with her then six-year-old daughter during the shoot.
From Dr Sandeep Chopra of Being Human, I learnt that when Salman travels to shoot, the organisation “usually runs a full-fledged medical camp for the underprivileged in the area, mostly focussed on ophthalmology, with a group of volunteer doctors.” If follow-up surgeries were required, he said, “we get them done, too, at a local hospital.”
The actor Sonam Kapoor told me of Salman’s patience when they worked together on her debut, Saawariya, in which he had a cameo. Even as she struggled with her lines, “screwed up his takes, not once did he lose his patience with me,” she said. Ali Abbas Zafar, Salman’s director on Sultan and next month’s Tiger Zinda Hai, spoke of Salman’s endearing habit of learning the names of everyone on a film set on the first day, “whether it is a light boy or make-up artist or a junior artist’s make-up artist.” Swara Bhaskar, his co-star along with Sonam on 2015’s Prem Ratan Dhan Payo, was struck by his magnanimity while they were shooting and “a studio head from Fox came over to meet Salman.” Her superstar colleague told the person he did not have the time to talk, but insisted that he meet Bhaskar and “listen to the details of her project Anaarkali Arrahwaali”—a small-budget film in which Bhaskar was playing the lead. (The film was released earlier this year with the name Anaarkali of Aarah.) “Salman gave this person the whole synopsis and recommended it to him,” Bhaskar added. “The poor guy was forced to listen to the details from me because Salman said it. I was really touched.”
Positive and negative accounts of Salman have jostled with each other throughout his career; the big difference now is that the grimmer stories about him have faded into the background and voices of criticism grown quieter. But the outbreak of the occasional controversy—most recently, with his “raped woman” comment—serves as a reminder even today that the Salman with a history of violence and misogyny is still around. In response to his remark, the National Commission for Women, or NCW, sent a notice to the actor, demanding an apology. When the then NCW chairperson Lalitha Kumaramangalam appeared on NDTV, she was joined by her colleague from the BJP, Shaina NC, who, while purportedly there to condemn Salman’s remark, softened the blow with commendations such as “all of us who know Salman know that he’s a great guy, he respects women.” The star had “made a wrong choice of words … but his intent was not wrong,” she said, suggesting that “it could be a slip of tongue.”
Shaina, who is one of the party’s national spokespersons, had appeared on television earlier to speak up for Salman in the hit-and-run case. She had claimed to be there in a personal capacity as his friend, not as a government or party representative. When I interviewed Shaina this May, I asked if she was not aware that irrespective of that caveat, the powerful visual going out to the judicial officers and other parties involved was that the BJP spokesperson was defending Salman. Her response was the typically mundane argument of a politician. “If the case is sub judice, I don’t think it is for me or you or anyone to form a judgment,” she said. “Let the honourable courts decide, there is a due process of law. And let that legal process be based on evidence rather than sentiment or emotion or contrarian opinion.”
Salman’s lawyers sent a letter to the NCW in response to its notice, which Kumaramangalam described to the media as “not at all conciliatory.” There was not “even a hint of an apology,” she said. “In fact, he tried to find fault with the NCW for taking up the issue.”
The commission summoned Salman to appear before it, but the actor ignored the order. For this, Kumaramangalam was slammed by the union minister for women and child development, Maneka Gandhi. “Nothing came of it because we have no power to enforce attendance,” Kumaramangalam told me. “The minister felt it was a mistake to send a notice to such a high-profile person because if he didn’t appear before us, it would set a bad precedent.” Gandhi, she said, “fired me, saying I should pick and choose my battles. I was disappointed at her response, and said, ‘This is not a battle in which one can pick and choose. I am supposed to react to everything that is an insult or an affront to womanhood.’”
Despite Salman’s indifference to the commission’s censures, Kumaramangalam said she has no regrets, because the NCW’s actions generated a debate on gender sensitivity. Still, she added, the NCW was not “asking Salman to come and fall at our feet, but an acknowledgement that he had made a mistake itself would have been a huge thing from a man with his fan following.”
In the audio of the interview that set off the controversy, which is available online, one can hear that after Salman says the words “raped woman,” there is a pause, then a murmur. Then we hear him say “shouldn’t have”—but since it is an incomplete sentence, and there is no accompanying video, it is hard to be sure what he meant. Salman’s teammates on Sultan insisted that he was withdrawing his previous comment, and asking the group of journalists present not to publish it. Since this was not clear from the tape, all Salman needed to do was to clarify this on social media and to the NCW. Instead, his lawyers responded to the commission by questioning its mandate to issue such a notice. They accused the NCW of assuming “that what is stated in the press report is both true, and a complete reproduction of what our client said.” In long-winded legalese, the response claimed that if what was published was true, then it was clear from the recording that Salman had issued an immediate retraction. It asked that action be taken against an “errant reporter” for publishing the remark.
“Oh that’s because Salman does not believe in issuing clarifications,” a director who did not wish to be named told me. “He feels there’s no point. Either people get you or they don’t.”
But this is patently untrue. In 2015, after tweeting in support of Yakub Memon, convicted of involvement in the 1993 Mumbai serial blasts and sentenced to death, Salman responded to the ensuing controversy with a detailed clarification, retraction and apology on Twitter. Clearly, in the case of the “raped woman” remark, some calculation had convinced him that there was no need to explain himself.
A cynical reading of the situation might suggest that after the Ahmedabad appearance with Modi, he felt he had won greater support among the masses of BJP workers and voters—and that it was this group that attacked him for the Memon tweets. Further, the BJP’s victory made it risky for any star to take a stance against the party or its supporters. Liberals, on the other hand, who protested the “raped woman” remark, are neither a significant fan base for him, nor in the current regime a source of political power.
Since Salman himself is largely inscrutable when it comes to such matters, it is left to his viewers to guess at his motivations. But it does seem that his character in 2014’s Kick was perhaps being disingenuous when he addressed the audience directly and insisted he was an uncomplicated individual. “Mere baare mein itna mat socho,” he said.“Main dil mein aata hoon, samajh mein nahin”—don’t analyse me so much. I win hearts, not the intellect. #KhabarLive