Khan was sentenced today to five years in prison for drunk driving and running over a pavement dweller on September 28, 2002. The string of emotional and sorrowful tweets in his favour indicates that the leading lights of the Hindi film industry believe in the supertstar’s innocence and buy his argument that he was neither drunk nor driving his Toyota Landcruiser that night in 2002. Priya Dutt and Milind Deora from the Congress Party and Hema Malini from the Bharatiya Janata Party – all Members of Parliament with connections with the entertainment industry – told journalists or tweeted before the sentencing that they hoped that the actor would not be punished too harshly.
Blinkered, insensitive, or merely supportive? The reaction to Khan’s sentencing has to do with the fact that show business is considered to be a planet unto itself, made up of unique and exceptional creatures who have slipped off restrictions that bind normal people. When a celebrity, especially somebody as adored and imitated as Salman Khan, is dragged into the same muck in which the rest of us wallow, the general response is one of dismay, consternation and deep sympathy that they too must now suffer, just like we do.
Lesser beings who exist on the fringes of this special ethical zone don’t experience the same levels of curiosity over their misdeeds. On December 17, 1993, Raaj Kumar’s son, Puru, a struggling actor, ran over eight people sleeping on a pavement in Bandra, killing three. It was alleged at the time that Puru Raajkumar was drunk. The lack of interest in Puru’s fate (he got away far more lightly than Khan) may have a lot to do with the fact that he never made a dent on critics, the trade or audiences. Nor did Shiney Ahuja, the actor accused of raping his maid in 2009, suffer very much for his crime.
Khan, on the hand, is the master of his own universe. He became a star in 1989 itself with Maine Pyar Kiya. His box-office brilliance has dimmed and brightened over the years even as he made the tabloid headlines for a string of romantic dalliances (some accompanied by rumours of partner abuse), was accused of shooting two blackbuck in 1998, and then killing a pavement dweller in 2002 while allegedly driving under the influence. The trade as well as the public have been extremely forgiving of his excesses. Bollywood trade pundits will point to Khan’s gargantuan popularity as proof that he deserves a second chance, while fans will cite Bollywood’s silent and not-so-silent backing of Khan’s ways as evidence of his virtue.
It’s not as though filmmakers have been shoving Khan down our throats. Khan has lakhs of fans who ensure that “Bhai”, as they fondly call him, always gets an enthusiastic reception at the box office. In fact, Khan’s increasing popularity in recent years seems to be an unregulated expression of comradeship and an act of protectiveness by his devotees, who believe that he has been victimised by the Mumbai police and the legal system. As he falls, his following swells. That says as much about our society as it does about Bollywood.