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Brawn power: (left) Khan’s debut film Maine Pyar Kiya; Khan jokes that he has to work much harder to do an action film now.

Brawn power: (left) Khan’s debut film Maine Pyar Kiya; Khan jokes that he has to work much harder to do an action film now.

When Salman Khan turns hit man

When Salman Khan turns hit man

The speakers are blasting a tune that Salman Khan, holding an electric guitar, is lip-syncing to in front of a crowd which is going hysterical—holding up banners, throwing caps in the air, singing along in chorus. Sporting a bright orange bandana and a black vest that he rips off his back and flings into the swarm of screaming fans after wiping the sweat off his face with it, Khan swaggers across the stage and high-fives the drummer. The cheers are deafening. The director yells, “Cut."

Brawn power: (left) Khan’s debut film Maine Pyar Kiya; Khan jokes that he has to work much harder to do an action film now.

At a far-flung mill area in Vikhroli, the producers of London Dreams have constructed a makeshift concert hall where, for the last four nights, Khan has enthralled about 600 extras, playing out the part of a pop star. Jostling among themselves for a spot in the first row from where they can observe the star closely and possibly touch him, the extras, mostly in their 20s, are clearly having a good night. In between shots, you can hear them discuss Khan’s ripped jeans, his “mast smile" and the body they could kill for.

Flamboyant star, romantic hero, temperamental, bad actor, the guy with a “good heart"—he is all of these things. But lately, Salman Khan is trying to be more. He is switching to the action genre with his next film, Wanted, in which he’s cast as a cold-blooded hit man who does risky stunts and mumbles his lines. In the period action film Veer, which will follow early next year, he’s gone all brawn again, and sports long hair.

“It’s tough these days," says the star jokingly, stretching his legs and flexing his muscles. “Everything’s creaking. But it keeps me on my toes." Wanted is an important film for Khan, who has not had much success in the recent past. Directed by rubber-man Prabhu Deva, the film was delayed by well over a year because, according to rumour, Khan was stingy with his dates.

It’s hard to put your finger on what makes Khan tick. Over 20 years, he has acted in 70-odd films and emerged as a poster boy for the slacker generation. He’s given hope to thousands of talentless wannabes who are convinced that chiselled features and rock-hard abs can be the passport to tinseltown. Think about it, it’s difficult to come up with even five films in which Khan’s work can be described as a “performance".

And yet, success has never eluded him. Bursting into the public consciousness as the shy, US-educated romantic in Maine Pyar Kiya in 1989 was a “happy accident", Khan says. “I didn’t want to audition. The Rajshris made very traditional films and I didn’t want to do those dhoti-kurta kind of roles," he recalls. It was after his dad, screenwriter Salim Khan, coaxed him to give it a shot that he agreed to show up at Sooraj Barjatya’s office. “But I demanded taxi fare, which my father’s friend ultimately gave me," he says.

Maine Pyar Kiya may have turned him into an overnight heart-throb, but the rave reviews went to his co-star. That trend continued with all his biggest hits. In Hum Aapke Hain Koun, it was Madhuri Dixit who walked away with the accolades; Kuch Kuch Hota Hai belonged to Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol; Aishwarya Rai and Ajay Devgan got the bouquets for Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam; and Karisma Kapoor staked claim to the success of Biwi No. 1.

Not that it mattered to Khan, who responded to the incessant criticism against his sleepwalking style of acting by famously declaring: “I don’t know how to act. I simply react to situations." His best work has been in films in which he wasn’t even the main protagonist. Such as Khamoshi: The Musical, directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali, in which, as the affable musician Raj, he served as the perfect foil to Nana Patekar and Manisha Koirala’s intense father-daughter relationship.

He’s had better luck with comedies. Establishing a winning partnership with David Dhawan, who was the first film-maker after Rajkumar Santoshi (Andaz Apna Apna) to recognize his flair for buffoonery, Khan delivered a string of hits, including Judwaa, Biwi No. 1, Dulhan Hum Le Jayenge, Mujhse Shaadi Karogi, Maine Pyar Kyun Kiya? and Partner. “He’s the only actor, after Amitabh Bachchan and Govinda, who can turn even the most ordinary scenes around with the slightest voice deflection, or by delivering the same dialogue differently," Dhawan says.

To give credit where it’s due, Khan’s lethargic body language and lack of self-consciousness work as a perfect leveller to the more hyperactive players Dhawan casts against him. In Partner, for example, Govinda’s relentless energy is matched step-by-step with Khan’s calm confidence. In Maine Pyar Kyun Kiya? he allows his younger brother Sohail Khan to steal the show with a twitchy, manic tic of the face while he settles for the seemingly simpler straight comedy.

The recurring complaint against Khan has always been about his indifference, his lack of respect for people’s time, and his general unwillingness to follow directions—even from his directors. There have been instances of punches being thrown around even on sets.

But if there are many detractors, there are many in the industry who vouch for his “good heart". Directors such as Bhansali, Dhawan, Boney Kapoor and Sajid Nadiadwala have repeatedly signed him on. Khan himself seems to have got a little rattled by the success of contemporaries such as Shah Rukh Khan and Akshay Kumar. Ask him the career question today, and the answer is introspective. “For years directors have told me to trust in them and go along with their ideas, their vision. I have disagreed with them vehemently on occasions, but they’ve always insisted that they’ve been around longer than me," he says. “But when those films flop, they’re counted as Salman Khan’s duds. So now when they ask me to trust them, I say: ‘You trust me. I’ve been around just as long as you have. Let me do it my way.’"

Rajeev Masand is the entertainment editor and film critic at CNN-IBN.

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