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The Curious Case of Salman Khan

The Salman Khan cause celebre has left the public, confused and wondering whether stars are really special creatures, monarch of all they survey, a rule unto themselves.

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An actor is respected and admired.

A star is adored and loved.

A super-star is worshipped , fantasised and generally perceived as the first cousin of God … maybe, sometimes, even a substitute!

He can do no wrong.

The Salman Khan cause celebre has left the public, confused and wondering whether stars are really special creatures, monarch of all they survey, a rule unto themselves … or are they glamorous cardboard cutouts, over rated Sapnon ki Saudagar, exploiting and manipulating an impressionable and gullible star-struck hoi polloi desperately seeking heroes in a corrupt & unjust world, to offer them hope & salvation from their wretched lives.

Salman Khan’s 2002 hit n’ run case in which one person was killed and four injured faced several serious roadblocks but 13 years later, in Maym he was convicted and sentenced to 5 years in jail. Predictably, hysterical furore in thought, word and action across all avoidable media avenues from his countless fans blitzed the air. Bollywood — infamous for staying mum and maintaining a diplomatic silence on any issue of real importance lest they rock the boat and disturb their image and career-graph — dialled in big time this time with the cutest n’ corniest feel-good “howlers.’’ Some gems include “Salman is the nicest human being in the business. Deeply saddened” to “It doesn’t matter what anyone or any court says … he doesn’t deserve this at any level” to “it hurts when your own are punished, even if they are in the wrong. We are standing with you and love you”.

Bollywood’s self-appointed spokesperson Mahesh Bhatt was quick to join the party and complained the sentence was the price one pays for being a celebrity. It is, he suggests, a revenge against creatures living the perfumed life, divorced from the sweat and toil, flotsam and jetsam of everyday reality, by those who can’t partake of this privileged life and take sadistic pleasure in seeing these 7-star, God’s chosen few squirm, shocked and humiliated. While conceding that that no one is above the law, Bhatt reckons celebrities are singled out for “special” treatment, to teach them a lesson.

This was the Bollywood brigade. The bigger hulla gulla however came from his countless, die-hard, loyal fans who just refused to believe that their Bhai was in the wrong. A Delhi-based journalist who had criticised Salman’s act and bail across social media was roundly trashed in the vilest language. Their message was simple: Achha hai, Bura hai, Bhai apna hai – panga nahin lene ka, verna …

So, the first question that needs to be answered is: what makes Salman Khan so special? Why — despite the competition from Shahrukh Khan and Aamir Khan — is he so crazily and blindly adored despite his well-publicised goof-ups time and again … be it the Black Buck shootout, bugging and hassling ex-girlfriends, rubbing shoulders with Namo before gen-elections, dancing to the U.P.Chief Minister’s tune during a government sponsored, gaudy and vulgar star-studded tamasha soon after a bloody riot nearby?

The answer is complex and a combination of several things. Explains a passionate Salman watcher “I think first & foremost it has to do with what he brings to the table. He reminds us of Dharmendra, Govinda and Mithunda inasmuch as he offers uncomplicated mass appeal. His image is determinedly one-dimensional: Macho with Mischief! Not for him the sophisticated romantic dramabaazi of Shahruk Khan or the well-rehearsed, mentally mapped-out, cerebral adventuring of Aaamir Khan. His is a basic, intuitive, sadak chhaap, populist pitch, which is unapologetically audience-friendly, solely focussing on masti n’mischief, Salman style! His Veergati (1995) kicked off the body-building craze and Oh Jaane Jaana in Pyaar Kiya … (1998) started the topless craze among male stars. Admittedly he rode the romantic wave from Maine Pyaar Kiya (1989) to Hum Dil De… (1999) but post Wanted, he switched lanes. He and his writers and directors recognised that his pull lay in his macho masti combo and it was an idea whose time had come. From then till today, all his starrers have followed the same basic track. The script and story is never ever the driving force — Salman Khan is. It is a one-man show all the way — and his scary super success proves that he is always spot on. The fact about his Jai Ho being dubbed a flop, yet racing past the Rs. 100 crore mark, dramatically reaffirms this point.”

The most important issue is of course the profile of the frat that has made him who he is, his audiences who consistently swear Bhai Ho To Aisa and believe there is no one should touch him — as a superstar or human being. This group largely emanates from the non-English speaking, Bollywood-loving junkies — a massive segment coming from Tier-2 cities and certainly the auto-rickshaw-wallahs, cab-drivers, juice-wallahs, bus-drivers, etc. – for whom he is God. It is a well-known fact that in gyms, hair-cutting saloons and auto rickshaws in mini-metros, Salman’s beefcake posters dominate. For them, he is inspiration and aspiration personified — the Dabangg who has fired their imagination and kick-ed their heart n’ soul as no one else has, before or since. Such is his crazed, pop-star following in this group that it is reported that while he was serving out a jail sentence in Jodhpur in 2006-7, every single day thousands of fans, sporting Tere Naam hairstyles crowded outside the jail, forcing lathi charges on a regular basis. It is this very community that lashed out on that poor hapless Delhi-based journalist, warning her that Bhai was special and any criticism of him could be dangerous, even injurious to health and well-being.

The legal aspect of the Salman Khan case is totally another territory. Commentators are united in their belief that beyond the raging debate blitzing public space about his innocence versus guilty verdict lie competing mental modes of both the concept of justice and the role of punishment. Brilliantly articulating the nuances of this discussion, Social Commentator Santosh Desai suggests that “on the one hand, there is this societal idea of justice that is context-sensitive/driven. It is about creating a predictable sense of order where actors carry consequence, but punishment does not, to the extent possible, disrupt the overall structure of existing social reality. This perspective is in full view in Salman’s case. There is an opposing view however, radical and pointed, which comes from imagining justice as an absolute idea, blind and impervious to who may be involved. Being human or doing work that has uplifted the poor and underprivileged is of no consequence and neither is citing examples of people who have got away with a lighter rap on the knuckles. If he is proved guilty, he must be punished according to the law of the land. Eventually, I suppose the formal legal system that is truly context-neutral must supersede everything else.”

It is indeed a curious case. Will his hi-profile, celeb lawyer get him out of this mess? Will the general public, who pay and praise him, eke the right vote out of the judiciary? Will the brave and fearless have the guts to blow the whistle and undo the latch from the inside in this closed casino? Is this really, as some insist, a charade with the front yard so ablaze with dazzle that even a cursory peep at the back yard is near-impossible? Is the law an ass, overwhelmed by the megastar’s crores riding on his films, his maniacal popularity and financial muscle power? Or is the man more sinned against than sinning, punished for being a superstar?

While its time to move from the sizzling heat of scandal to the less glamorous process of accountability, Salman Khan needs to reflect, both through longshots and close-ups, on events that could boggle the mind of any scriptwriter. While he is shooting the breeze till the court reopens, he needs to wonder whether this time too his Dabangg image will pull him through; whether his macho-masti will save the day; whether the climax will land him in the arms of freedom … or behind bars. May justice prevail, fair play Kick in and the star be Ready for any kind of Bodyguard to lead him to his decreed destiny.

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Bollywood | Arts & Entertainment | June2015

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