Shera has always been a Mumbai brat. An Andheri boy, he grew up in Manish Nagar, Four Bungalows, tinkering with the Fiats, Bajaj scooters and Gypsy cars in his father’s garage—A to Z Singh’s Garage & Automobile Shop. His most potent childhood memory is of the “two times I was caught by police riding the scooter in front of my own school; the Seth Chunilal Damodardas Barfiwala High School. I was fined and my father was also fined.”
A love for mischief, cars, weightlifting and flirting with danger, with no fear of a fight, seem to have been the perfect trajectory for where he is today, and has been for more than 15 years—actor Salman Khan’s personal bodyguard. Payback for the years of dogged loyalty comes in the currency Bollywood knows best—a share of the spotlight. Shera is now the lead subject of, and has a dance number in, Salman Khan’s forthcoming Eid release Bodyguard.
“I am the lone son of my father, my real name is Gurmeet Singh Jolly. Shera is the nickname my father gave me,” he introduces himself. Ask him his age, and he laughs “I am 28. I have been with Khan for 15 years. So then, I was chhota (small) bodyguard.” In other interviews, Shera has said that he is as old as Khan.
Shadow lines: Actor Salman Khan (right) has been shadowed by his bodyguard Shera (left) through good times and bad. Photo: Sebastian D’Souza/AFP
There is a merging of identities with his “bhai” that Shera is barely conscious of.
He is after all the only man ever allowed to tower over “Salmanbhai”. He manages to look menacing even when he smiles, and at the gym on the top floor of the Reliance Big Entertainment offices in Andheri West, the photographer eventually gives up coaxing him to smile. His black leather shoes with stern metal buttons look bulletproof. In a black shirt, rippling muscles and a “let’s-get-this-over-with” air about him, he seats himself between gym equipment and barbells he can no longer lift with the ease he once used to—he won a bodybuilding title in the 1980s.
He has brought a friend with him—Ronnie of Uncle’s Kitchen, the restaurant after which Malad’s Uncle’s Kitchen junction is named—for moral support. “I am feeling (a) little nervous, you see,” he explains.
Shera dropped out of Bhavan’s College in class XI to work with cars in his father’s garage nearby. “I had a craze for body,” he says candidly. He won the junior Mr Mumbai 1987 and came second in the junior Mr Maharashtra in 1987-88. “Salman is a star so he needs to train accordingly. I don’t need that any more. I keep fit, but I need mental fitness more to do my job,” he explains. Despite his hulking presence, he says he rarely uses aggression. “I am a gentle person. Being a bodyguard is about how you respond to situations.” What would he do if someone came too close for comfort? “Send someone like that. And see,” he replies.
It was under the guidance of Andre Timmins, founder of entertainment events company Wizcraft, that Shera opted for the security business. “He was my neighbour, we grew up together, his brothers are close to me. He told me ‘Why don’t you do security?’ So, I started with Wizcraft.”
Shera began in 1995, providing protection to Hollywood stars who came to India for shows, undertaking security arrangements for Amitabh Bachchan Corp. Ltd (ABCL) and the mega-dandiya events of Sankalp, a famous dandiya organizer in Mumbai. His first encounter with a celebrity was Slash—the guitarist for Gun N’ Roses. Shera had met Khan twice during this time. Once, when Khan accompanied his sister Arpita to meet Danish singer Whigfield; the second, when Khan joined a party for actor Keanu Reeves on the terrace of The Orchid, Andheri East.
Muscleman: Shera won the junior Mr Mumbai 1987 and came second in the junior Mr Maharashtra in 1987-88. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
“I had just set up my own company—Tiger Security—and that year (1995) Sohailbhai (Khan’s brother) called me because he wanted someone to go with Salman for shows and all. Sohailbhai was impressed with me, seeing my talking and all. He asked me: ‘Eh yaar, bhai ke saath tu rahega kya? Rahega na? (Will you stay with bhai? You’ll stay, won’t you?)’.” The deal was sealed. “That time I used to wear a turban. I am a Sikh. Because of my job I had to leave the turban. It was not possible to keep because of the crowds. So I had to cut my hair. I started wearing a cap and all. We went for a show and gelled well.”
Khan’s film Veergati had released and he was the nation’s heart-throb, freshly minted from blockbusters such as Andaz Apna Apna, Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! and Karan Arjun. Khan’s troubled future was nowhere in sight. It was the year that saw the start of a 15-year relationship between the soon-to-be controversial star and his protective silent shadow.
Shera recalls his first assignment with Khan. “Now, I travel with him. That time, I used to go one day before to set up the security arrangements and then come to the airport to pick him up. My job was to secure him from the crowd. We were in Indore. The crowd is mad there because it is Khan’s hometown. We had to go to a place which is little far away. There was only one small road to go and come, and we were getting late. I was little tired also. He gave me a pill. Bole (Khan said) ‘Have this’. One dose of something he gave me. I had it. You can’t believe it: I ran 8km in front of his car to clear the road (of fans). That was the job I did with bhai.”
Where other stars are concerned, security men and bodyguards come and go. What is the special bond Shera shares with Khan? “We have an understanding. Because he knew I was a ‘yes man’ for him. ‘Whatever I tell him, he will do it’—that confidence (about me) I got in Salmanbhai.”
Shera’s face is troubled, his voice dropping in tenor as he describes the most difficult period of his own, ergo, his employer’s life. “The most difficult moment for me was that accident case which happened. Then, the story of that accident case is going on, then that Jodhpur case is going on. To take him to courts—this court, that court—it was difficult. I was not feeling good, seeing this for a star” (in 2002, Khan allegedly ran over four workers sleeping outside the American Express Bakery in Bandra, killing one man). “Whenever all these cases happened, I was with him through all of it. I used to make him hide somewhere that people don’t see him.”
How did the police allow a bodyguard to accompany an arrested star? Shera laughs with an underlying childishness that apparently even flummoxed the Mumbai police then. “The police didn’t allow me, but I used to. Somehow I used to get in. I used to just get in. Bas.”
Shera was at hand even when Khan’s family could not be. When Khan had to keep court dates in Jaipur for the blackbuck case, flying on day trips via Jodhpur or Udaipur because direct flights were not available, Shera was there. “Things happen with everybody, but things were more exaggerated at that time. I used to request the police, ki, ‘Sir, mujhe bhi aane de. Ek jan ko saath mein rehne de (let me go too)’, so they used to allow.”
Shera’s loyalty lives on in a denial of the fate his star bhai suffered. “Media ne kuch zyaada cheezon ko uchchaala hai (the media brought things up too much). At that point of time, media didn’t have a liking for him or something. But I don’t think so he was in any way in the wrong side of the…” He trails off. His conviction that his employer is innocent doesn’t waver, however.
Shera is convinced; Khan is good-hearted, he does a lot for charity that he does not need to show to the press. He is also much misunderstood. Fans understand him. That is why they love him. He loves him, “as a brother. Naturally, 15 years, he is my family. It’s not just Salmanbhai, it’s Sohailbhai, didi (Alvira), Arpita, they are like my brothers and sisters. Wherever I have travelled in the world, I am given the room next to him. He has made this film (Bodyguard) about me, he has made me dance, he has begun the publicity for it from me, he has worn my company’s logo in the film, how much mileage he has given me...”
In return, Shera has sacrificed his turban, and the time he spends with his son: “My son’s name is also Tiger. When I am in Bombay, I get time with him, when I am travelling I am not able to... but that is life.” He adds, “I have no timing for Mr Khan.”
Fifteen years of proximity implies there are many secrets Shera could have, and could still spill, but he won’t. “I never talked to the press actually. He told me, if you want you can talk. I said ‘No, no’. Now, you see, things are changed. Slowly we are getting to know that things are cleared, nothing is there. I will never write the book Salmanbhai joked about, that if I write he will be doomed. Don’t try to lead me there. It won’t work.”