The year that produced Parinda, Chandni, Chaalbaaz, Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro, Ram Lakhan and Tridev also introduced the world to the wonder that is Salman Khan. Maine Pyar Kiya, Sooraj Barjatya’s debutant movie for his family’s Rajshri Films banner, was Khan’s first film as a leading man. It ignited many short-lived trends, but its lasting contribution to Hindi cinema has to be the image of the bare-bodied Khan, muscles drenched in sweat, trying to convince his future father-in-law of his honourable intentions.
Maine Pyar Kiya has aged by a quarter century, but has its leading man kept pace? Khan is two years away from 50, but for fans and detractors alike, he is the fountain of youth itself. He will forever be frozen in memory as the vulnerable lover whose heart knows no limits. The typical Salman Khan film is a two-hour-plus showcase of his enviable musculature, his off-kilter sense of humour, his unique terpsichorean skills, and the barely changed persona of a chivalrous, large-hearted hunk who will go to great lengths to save his inamorata, family honour and the nation.
Khan has now reached that sweet spot, occupied by the likes of Rajinikanth, of a critic-proof superstar whose directors only demand that he play nothing more than himself. The bulky star is still single and ready to mingle, and still living life on his own terms ‒ one of the biggest reasons for his appeal among his fans, especially the men. He has no personal attachments and, in good Indian fashion, continues to live with his screenwriter-father, his filmmaker brothers and his extended family in an apartment block in Mumbai that attracts hordes of gawkers. He has matured, in a manner of speaking, and seems to have eschewed his previous wild ways (including allegations of killing footpath dwellers in Mumbai and a blackbuck near Jodhpur) by opting for extremely public acts of charity and largesse.
His enduring appeal despite his advanced age among young men, who call him "Bhai", has even inspired a documentary by Delhi filmmakers Samreen Farooqui and Shabani Hassanwalia. Being Bhaijaan, produced by the Public Service Broadcasting Trust, attempts to explores the myths that cling to Khan as tightly as his jeans through interviews with his fans. Of all the adoring statements the men make about Khan, one sentiment stands out – their yearning for a life lived on their own terms, just like their idol.
Being Bhaijaan is in the same mould as another recent documentary about a male star’s appeal among his largely male fans. Sushma Veerappa’s When Shankar Nag Comes Calling, investigates Kannada actor Shankar Nag’s popularity among autorickshaw drivers in Bengaluru. Both films stop short of critiquing the macho, unreconstructed, and not always pleasant aspects of the roles the heroes have played on the screen.
Nag died tragically and prematurely in an accident in 1990. Khan is bursting with health, at least on the surface, and raring to go all these films later. As public memory of his runs-in with the law and his previous transgressions fade, he is being paid the ultimate compliment ‒ he has become an object of study, a popular culture artefact to be turned over and examined. The best things a scandal-hit public personality can hope for are short-term memory and long-term gains. Salman Khan fell in love in 1989, and 25 years later, it is the only thing he knows how to do. His simplicity has taken the force of a juggernaut that tramples all opposition. His dialogue writers understand this better than anybody else. Hence the line from his most recent hit Kick: “Mere bare mein itna mat sochna. Dil mein aata hoon, samajh mein nahin” (Don’t try and analyse me, I appeal to the heart and not the intellect).
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