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Business News/ Industry / The education of Salman Khan

The education of Salman Khan

A moment of epiphany on choosing good scripts, a more professional attitude and a stint in reality TV have all helped in Salman Khan's evolution over the years

Beyond his record-shattering superhits, the country has found in Salman Khan a celebrity who defies most norms of public judgement and opinion. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/MintPremium
Beyond his record-shattering superhits, the country has found in Salman Khan a celebrity who defies most norms of public judgement and opinion. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

For a star who has been on a roll since 2010, delivering nine consecutive smash hits, Salman Khan is disarmingly modest. There’s none of the swagger associated with the man known in Bollywood simply as bhai (brother).

“I’ve never analysed where my appeal lies. And I’ve never worked towards it," Khan said in an interview on 20 May. “In fact, if I’ve done anything, it is try and choose the right scripts. And give my best in front of the camera, with my own limitations, which are huge."

He adds: “It’s just that my time is working. I can dance a little, act a little, sing a little and produce a little. I will start directing a little later. A little of all these things is more than enough for my fans. When it stops being enough, I will increase it a little more."

Before the interview in a sea-facing hotel suite, hangers-on are whisked away and coffee is served. Dressed in black, Khan is still carrying the weight he had to put on for his latest movie, Sultan, in which he plays a wrestler, and a slight stubble.

He takes away his signature bracelet and rolls up his sleeves, sitting with one arm over the chair, looking at the sea through the window.

Khan’s hot streak at the box office started in 2009 with the success of the movie Wanted, in which he played an undercover cop. Beginning in 2010, he played the leading man in nine more movies, each of which grossed in excess of 100 crore.

His last two movies, Prem Ratan Dhan Paayo and Bajrangi Bhaijaan, both of which released last year, earned 208.88 crore and 320.34 crore, respectively, at the domestic box office, according to the website Bollywood Hungama.

Bajrangi Bhaijaan, in which he plays a Hanuman devotee who rescues a Pakistani child lost in India and takes her home, is the only Hindi film other than Aamir Khan’s PK to have crossed the 300 crore mark in box office collections.

Also Read: Q&A | Salman Khan on being Salman

Prem Ratan Dhan Paayo was a family drama. The other movies that broke into the so-called 100 crore club—Dabangg and Dabangg II, Ready, Bodyguard, Jai Ho, Ek Tha Tiger and Kick—were fast-paced action movies and screwball comedies that are Khan’s forte.

“The right kinds of films are coming to me," Khan said in the interview. “Earlier, I selected the best from what came to me. So, just imagine how bad the rest must have been."

Film critic Raja Sen traces the emergence and success of the unapologetically commercial cinema that Khan specializes in to Ghajini, a 2008 release that became the first Bollywood film to gross 100 crore. Ghajini was a psychological thriller starring Aamir Khan.

“Ghajini introduced the idea that you could take one star, make a vehicle around him, market it crazily and ensure that there’s so much hype that everyone goes to watch this movie," said Sen. “That is the strategy that clicked in a rather infectious fashion."

Salman Khan’s movies revolve unabashedly around the personality of the star; there’s usually a scene of him tearing his shirt off to expose his rippling muscles, mouthing catchy one-liners, an item song or two.

“Salman does not stand for quality, Salman stands for saying I will give you exactly what you’re paying for," Sen said. “With ticket prices having risen dramatically over the last 10 years, our primary audience is not that open to experimentation. India has this ridiculous value-for-money mentality and that’s what Salman really promises. It’s like you go to this place, you may not like what you watch but you’ll like the samosa. So Salman is the samosa."

It wasn’t always so. A look at Khan’s choice movies in the early 2000s shows up an unending list of forgettable flops. He went through a phase, close friends say, where he was choosing films for the wrong reasons—if someone’s daughter was getting married and they needed to raise money or if someone was launching a son and needed a star’s presence to push the film.

At one point, the actor sat down with his writer-father Salim Khan and wondered what he’d been doing. If he didn’t feel like watching his own films, why would somebody else watch them?

“Every actor is unsure of himself in the beginning. Success gives you confidence and you start experimenting with yourself. When he came, Salman didn’t know how his personality could be used, where it would work. Over the years, he learnt what he could handle more comfortably, how he’d look more credible," Salim Khan said.

By the time he came to a position where he could pick and choose, Salman also realized what he should or shouldn’t do, his father said.

“Wanted is not exactly a turning point, but he was growing during that time and he’d discovered himself. And he was in a position to reject a bad script and select a good one," said the veteran scriptwriter.

That self-discovery led to a few decisions the actor made. First, he would only be part of films that he would enjoy watching himself. And second, cinema, as an art form, lends itself to the depiction of a certain heroism that is needed in a cynical world—a theme that resonates across most of his recent outings, in which he plays a knight in shining armour or a cop who takes on the system, or a Robin Hood who robs the rich to feed the poor.

“See, hero ka toh matlab hi wahi hota hai na (that is what a hero means)," Khan said.

He catches the waiter about to add way too much Sugar-free to his black coffee just in time, stops him and spoons it out himself.

“The hero can’t be killed in the end, he can’t be a loser."

“If I, as a child went to a movie, I would want the hero getting beaten up, but coming back in the end. He could be fighting for anything, be it his dog or cat, his mother or father, his country, or for a child he does not know but needs to drop back to her parents," Khan said.

“I believe, one hundred per cent, that cinema hugely contributes to making your personality stronger, and heroes, if a film is well-written and the emotion is correct, will go sink into your head. If not now, a few years later. You will want to be that hero. So, with the kind of films that I am doing, I’m trying to keep some part of that hero in me," the actor said.

The other change happened in Khan’s personal life when he signed up with talent management agency Matrix India Entertainment Consultants in 2008.

“They started streamlining his work, everything started becoming a little more professional—his dates, his commitments, everything," said designer and close friend Ashley Rebello.

There were charts, there was planning, dates for projects were now known beforehand, everyone knew what they were doing, what clothes had to be made, there were official meetings with directors, and most importantly, scripts were being handed to him in advance.

“I guess they brought in a system to his life, changed the way he looked at things. And he saw that it was simpler this way. So, I guess he had this positive energy around him and all these people that helped him go through that point in his life where everything he touched became gold," Rebello said.

And yet, a lot of people including Rebello say it’s not just about the movies. Before Wanted, a game show called 10 Ka Dum on Sony Entertainment Television allowed people to see what Salman was like outside the films he made.

“Nobody really knew the person Salman was before. All the other actors had a more accessible approach, Salman didn’t," Rebello said. “After a couple of reality shows, people started realizing he’s not the monster that the media made him out to be. That’s when he started building on his family audience. It was a big connect—you could sit in your home and talk to Salman Khan."

Khan had the image of a Bollywood bad boy—an image that owed itself to the 2002 hit-and-run case in which he was acquitted by the Bombay high court last December—the Maharashtra government is challenging the acquittal—and a 1998 case of illegal hunting.

Controversy has never been too far. This week, he sparked outrage on social media by saying that shooting the wrestling scenes in Sultan was “like the most difficult thing… When I used to walk out of that ring, it used to be actually like a raped woman walking out."

But his popularity is undeniable. The success of Hindi entertainment channel Colors’ reality show Bigg Boss, in which a group of contestants are isolated in a house, attests to it. Khan is the host of the show.

“Salman doesn’t have to act. Anything he says, people pick up. I don’t think there’s any star who connects with the masses the way he does," said Raj Nayak, chief executive officer of Colors. “Also, when you’re doing a show like Bigg Boss, you need a person from the industry whom everybody else in the house looks up to."

The last season saw Khan cajoling a reluctant contestant, Rimi Sen, to stay on and make the best of her time on the show. At one point, when the gates were left open for participants to leave if they wished to, Sen didn’t budge.

The Colors CEO says Khan is the face of Bigg Boss and will be in the coming season as well.

“I’m a firm believer that Salman brings a lot of value to the show and the show also adds a lot of value to his persona. At the end of the day, whether you believe or not, the biggest movie will release in 10,000 movie theatres. A show will go to 160 million households," he said.

And yet, not everyone is enamored of the bhai brand, it seems. Khan endorses brands like Thums Up, Relaxo, Wheel and History Channel and receives about 2.5 crore per day of shooting, but is associated with far fewer brands than a star of his stature would be.

The fact that he has voluntarily excluded himself from the clothing industry by having his own fashion brand Being Human is one reason, but experts point to others. Like the fact that the actor may have his own fiercely loyal fan base, but there has always been a significant section that finds his scandalous past unacceptable to forgive and forget.

“Everything is relative—Salman may be more popular than other actors today, but that doesn’t mean he’s universally popular. And I think that’s reflected on the endorsement side," said a brand expert who declined to be named. “You can’t have a brand ambassador who’s polarizing and volatile. The question is whether the fanatically loyal section is worth it. For producers, it obviously is. For television, it obviously is. But for brands, it needs to be more universal, you really cannot afford to alienate consumers."

Khan admitted as much in an interview a few years ago when he said he wasn’t a safe option for several brands. When an aghast PR team questioned him, he replied, “Jo hai so hai" (It is what it is).

Asked about his charitable trust Being Human earning the tag of a PR exercise, Khan laughs.

“It’s a very expensive PR exercise," he said. “But I don’t need to do my own PR because every six months, there is a movie releasing. I’ve heard a lot of people say I have a charitable trust and that’s why my films are working more. So, I say, haan, hai. Tum bhi start kar lo (Yes, that’s true. You start one too).

“You can’t just start a trust; you have to run it, put something into it. A lot of people have started charitable trusts and that has taken them nowhere."

Also read: Why Salman Khan can joke about rape and get away with it

Khan’s trust works with textile and apparel manufacturing company Mandhana Industries, which has the exclusive global licence to design, manufacture, retail and distribute Being Human clothing. The clothing company takes a part of it and Being Human receives a royalty for licensing the brand.

Apart from eye treatment camps and various educational initiatives, the foundation has partnered with Fortis Hospitals to provide free treatment to children with congenital heart defects. Typically, these surgeries cost anywhere between 1 lakh and 4 lakh; the trust has sponsored more than 1,000 surgeries in the past one-and-a-half years.

“The good thing about the charitable trust is everyone knows isko paise churane ki koi zarurat nahi hai (I don’t need to swindle money)," Khan said. “I’m totally against putting money in these daan petis (donation boxes), you don’t know where it’s gone. When someone donates to us, we make sure we send them hisaab (account) of how many heart surgeries or cataracts have been done. In fact, I would want it to be more transparent and put all details on my Facebook page. But for that, we’d need a team and that would cost money. So, we’d rather do without it and put the money into the foundation."

Running a charitable trust brings other challenges.

“My father and I always think it’s a thankless job. Because each time you think you’re helping someone, they say they want to go to a fancier hospital or want a deluxe suite or something," Khan says with a a mix of sadness and resignation.

As his team says, the needle really moves when you get him talking about his baby.

“There are some really good people now who’ve started taking commission or brokerage from charitable trusts. I really applaud them," he says clapping. “And you see some others parking their cars at a distance, taking off their watches, gold chains and rings and walking in, wearing ordinary clothes. Phokat ka paisa mil raha hai (You’re getting money for nothing). This is another business which is very paying and for which there is no saza (punishment) if you get caught."

But it’s a decision you take when you wake up in the morning, he says.

“It’s not about me feeling good. It’s about the parents and the child who’s found a life. If money can save a child’s life and we have it, we should give it. Only for the ones who really need it."

Like with paediatric heart surgeries, preventable blindness is something Khan wants the foundation to address in the coming months. The man who pretty much championed the gym culture in India in the 1990s is also concerned about growing obesity. Institutional tie-ups and loyalty programmes for his followers on social media are also in the pipeline.

Beyond his record-shattering superhits, the country has found in Salman Khan a celebrity who defies most norms of public judgement and opinion. The story is not just of India learning to survive on the unsubtle, unaesthetic cinema he acts in, but of Khan’s journey to becoming perhaps India’s most-loved bad boy.

Filmmaker and long-time friend Sajid Nadiadwala emphasizes how the challenge today lies not in directing the superstar, but in pleasing his fans once the film is out.

“Only when the film is complete do you realize how the world looks up to him and how everything about him is so anticipated," said the producer and director of Kick. “That is when you’re under pressure. What if you don’t please his fans, what if they are upset about something? We were late by a week in releasing the trailer of Kick and there was madness on social media. When we put out the first look with him in a mask, again they were upset that we hid his face. So, it’s different with him."

An industry expert says quite simply that what Khan commands today is a kind of “blind devotion" from a repeat audience that doesn’t care what he is in; they guarantee him a 100 crore opening weekend.

“I think the Salman public persona is a work of art. Honestly, I don’t think in any country other than India would Salman have a career," said Raja Sen. “There is a level of indulgence given to Salman that the others don’t really enjoy. So, what are you thinking? Is this guy this playboy who’s doing all these things? Or is he not being ironic? Is he trying to sound sincere when he tells Karan Johar he’s a virgin? What are we looking at really?"

At the same time, Khan has a stronger grassroots connect than either of the other two Khans in the Bollywood trinity—Shah Rukh and Aamir.

Amit Diwan, head of marketing communications at Relaxo, will tell you how his channel partners report from tier-two and tier-three towns on youngsters walking into stores asking for “bhai waali chappal".

“That whole bhaijaan following, that whole ‘he is one of us’—that community thing really drives the Salman fan. A large part of his fan following may not even be school-going or educated in that sense," Sen pointed out. “A lot of actors are trying to be urban in their films and their approach. I think Salman does that rarely. He’s not really out there speaking English or trying to be articulate in a language they don’t understand. He’s very desi."

To be sure, the love for Khan, as co-star Kareena Kapoor Khan had one said, does not have to do with one film.

“The love for him is based on love. Other actors at the moment get all the respect and admiration. Nobody thinks they are lesser actors. What extra he gets is the love of the audience," said Salim Khan. “Other than that, he’s a popular actor. For the last few years, he’s done good films and delivered good performances. But some people have this endearing quality. Some people are respected, some are admired, he’s loved."

The father also adds that Salman has taken care of certain things over the years.

“His films are clean, there is no kissing or smooching. I met someone who said he shows his kids Salman’s films without asking around because he knows there will be no abusive or double-meaning language, vulgarity or obscenity—he’s guaranteed pure entertainment."

To be sure, Khan possibly is as simple, flawed and self-contradictory as the guy on the street who watches his films first day, first show. He may jokingly chide a journalist at a press conference for asking him about marriage but he can also sit through extreme heat or excruciating pain, and undergo a sciatica surgery like nothing happened.

He may be irritable during promotional tours, but he will personally look into the eye camps his charitable trust organizes in small towns. He may snap at a host on stage but two hours later, he could suddenly throw a dialogue at you from one of his films, grinning like a child to check if you are playing along. As many women as he may be seen with off-screen, he will not be caught dead doing an intimate scene in a film.

And regardless of the larger-than-life fantasies he spins in his films, he comes back home to his parents’ modest apartment at Galaxy where conversations take place amid multiple whistles of the pressure cooker.

Salim Khan can be heard telling someone, “If he’s getting married, I’m not aware of it," on an elementary mobile phone.

Thank yous are exchanged as Khan patiently complies with the photographer’s requests for different poses. Outside the suite, a barrage of people are waiting to meet him. He gently goes through the ritual with each—handshakes, selfies, smiles.

The attention is not something he enjoys.

“Let me tell you something," he said in the interview. “I don’t go to any of these religious places. I hate going to a hospital. The reason is when I enter those places, people forget what they are there for and they turn around to look at me. If they are at a funeral, they will forget one of their own has died, which is very disgusting."

He adds: “But then, there is another side to it. When I go meet someone who is terminally ill, it brings a smile to their face. It makes them forget their pain..."

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Lata Jha
Lata Jha covers media and entertainment for Mint. She focuses on the film, television, video and audio streaming businesses. She is a graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism. She can be found at the movies, when not writing about them.
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Updated: 25 Jun 2016, 10:51 AM IST
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