Until a few weeks ago, the Salman Khan starrer Veer was supposed to be released alongside a couple of other films. The competition has since abandoned the fight and left the arena open to the desi swords-and-sandals epic, which is set in 1875.
The online grapevine is rustling with rumours that Veer rips off the Hollywood adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s 18th century novel Taras Bulba, but the trailers also look and sound like Troy and Gladiator. There are several whinnying horses, computer-generated soldiers and a bare-chested Salman wearing armour, shiny leather pants and a scowl that makes Nicolas Cage look cheerful.
Crowd-puller: Gladiator Khan in a still from the forthcoming Veer.
The scowl is part of Salman’s appeal, as is the shaven chest. Salman’s ancestors in the shirtless department include Dharmendra, but Salman probably holds the record for the maximum number of upper body exposure shots. Perhaps no star has ever made his bare chest a part of his performance. It is said the mark of truly great actors is that they can convey emotions even with their backs to the camera. The reverse is true for Salman: Watch how his ribcage both heaves with joy and weeps with pain.
It’s easy to see why Salman became a star in the late 1980s with such films as Maine Pyar Kiya (remember the shirtless Salman on the poster?), Saajan and Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! Along with Aamir Khan, Salman represented a new crop of actors who stepped in to replace fading stars such as Jeetendra and Anil Kapoor. Salman was achingly young and aggressively fit. As the years went by, the galaxy became more crowded with such names as Shah Rukh Khan and Hrithik Roshan, but Salman endured.
Only his fans and kind-hearted critics believe he is a good actor. But nobody disputes his ability to draw the crowds—the same reason why people of dubious talent such as Rajendra Kumar and Rajesh Khanna have managed to linger in the public eye for so many years.
The fact that no other movie wants to compete with Veer when it opens on 22 January is proof of Salman’s ability to pack the movie halls. Trade analyst Vinod Mirani, who is the managing editor of www.boxofficeindia.com, points out that Salman is a box-office magnet who hasn’t lost his draw. Mirani says: “One or two flops don’t affect Salman. If you look at his hits, they include all types of films.” Salman is a mass hero, Mirani adds, the kind of star who appeals to the front-benchers and rear-stall acolytes who like their stars to be larger than life. Although Salman has been involved in several criminal cases (the shooting of a blackbuck; accidental death of pavement dwellers; assault on girlfriends), his aura refuses to fade. “The bad boy image helped Sanjay Dutt and it has also helped Salman,” Mirani says, adding that audiences say, “Kya kare bechara, uska naseeb hi aisa hai (he is a victim of misfortune).”
Salman’s unreconstructed self may be anathema to discerning viewers, but his appeal seems to lie in the fact that he lives by his own rules despite being so deeply entrenched in the film industry. So what if a few deer and poor people have to die for it?
Each of the reigning stars represents a different facet of Indian manhood. Shah Rukh is the poster boy of aspirational India. Aamir is the urbane, intelligent and pragmatic hero. Saif Ali Khan is the maverick and somewhat unpredictable. Hrithik stands for perfection and is the closest we have to a fully certified hunk. Salman is a tragic figure who falls deeply in love, wears his heart on his sleeve and almost always ends up hurt. He soldiers on in pursuit of the woman who will accept him, vices and all. Meanwhile, he donates to charity and paints—hard evidence of the tender soul that is hidden by the abs. If there was any actor born to play Devdas, it was Salman. If Guy Ritchie could envisage Robert Downey Jr as Sherlock Holmes, what’s stopping a local director from casting Salman as a heart-broken spoilt boy-man who just happens to have a six-pack?
Nandini Ramnath is the managing editor of Time Out Mumbai (www.timeoutmumbai.net).
Write to Nandini at firstname.lastname@example.org