The birthday boy was missing, but his fans made sure they marked their attendance.

The white minivan that stopped in front of one of the best-known apartment complexes in Mumbai around 10:45 am disgorged a massive, vanilla-frosted cake. Fans clad in bright white tee-shirts paraded the confection, whose weight corresponded to the number of years its intended recipient has been on the planet.

The lettering on the cake was a tribute to the birthday boy’s latest feat: Avinash Singh Rathore/Tiger.

Salman Khan was away from Galaxy Apartments in Bandra on the occasion of his 52nd birthday, but his absence did not deter his fans from making their pilgrimage. The occasion was marked by a double celebration: apart from Khan’s birthday, his devotees are thrilled that his unshakeable hold over the box office has caused records to tumble yet again.

Khan’s latest release Tiger Zinda Hai, directed by Ali Abbas Zafar, has raked in a reported Rs 173 crores since its release on December 22. The movie is poised to go down as one of Bollywood’s biggest blockbusters, cementing Khan’s position as Hindi cinema’s most salable star.

Tiger Zinda Hai marks the return of Research and Analysis Wing agent Avinash Singh Rathore or Tiger and Pakistani spy Zoya (Katrina Kaif). The movie centres on the rescue of nurses trapped in a war zone in Iraq. One of the movie’s themes is co-operation and peace between India and Pakistan – and Khan’s fans thoroughly approve.

“India and Pakistan should work and live together peacefully like Bhai says,” said Nitin Rathod, who had travelled to Mumbai from Surat to mark the star’s birthday. “There will be a unity among everyone.”

Faheem Khan, an auto rickshaw driver, added, “There should not be any discrimination, especially between actors based on their countries, and it is great that a unity is suggested in Tiger Zinda Hai. An artist is an artist. An artist has no religion or country.”

The Salman Fan Group club. Image credit: Sruthi Ganapathy Raman.

Although Tiger Zinda Hai opened to mixed reviews, on the pavement outside Galaxy Apartments, there was no surprise over the movie’s gargantuan success and only praise for Khan’s achievement. Prakash Narayan, a member of a local fan club called the Salman Fan Group, repeated a line from the movie: “Shikaar toh sab karta hai, lekin tiger se behtar koi shikaar nahi karta.” A software engineer, Narayan was the mastermind behind the huge cake. “He is 52 years old, so I have brought him a 52-kg cake,” Narayan said.

The fans included those who had quite literally worn their love for the bulky star on their bodies. Vishal Vasant Kamble had Khan’s customary turquoise-tinted bracelet on one wrist and a bandanna from the actor’s Being Human Foundation wrapped around his head.

Tiger Zinda Hai was outstanding,” the 25-year-old admirer from Bhayandar declared. “I consider myself the biggest fan of Salman Khan. I get a lot of inspiration from Salman Bhai’s films. I have thought of coming here every year, but this is the first time I could come.”

Kamble had brought along two photo books with stills of many of Khan’s movies since Tere Naam (2003). Singling out Tere Naam as Khan’s finest performance, Kamble explained that the macabre film, a remake of the Tamil hit Sethu (1999), was a turning point for the actor. “The film was so real and he acted like as if he was the same character in real life,” Kamble said.

Vishal Vasant Kamble. Image credit: Sruthi Ganapathy Raman.

For Khan’s fans, every one of his movies is a gem – even Tubelight, which landed on its face when it was released earlier this year.

“I don’t know why many people didn’t like Tubelight,Mohammad Zakir, a caterer, said. “In the war between China and India, we had only 120 soldiers and they had over 2,000. The film educated the audience about this, but I don’t know why the public did not like the film.”

Perhaps it was because Khan played a timid character with a child-like mind in the movie, they opined. “War makes people cry, not laugh,” Zakir said.

Despite courting controversy repeatedly – the latest incident involves the use of the casteist slur “bhangi” on a dance show – Salman Khan is only getting stronger. He will team up with Ali Abbas Zafar again for the T-Series production Bharat. A co-production between Khan’s brother-in-law Atul Agnihotri and T-Series, Bharat has been billed as “a human drama that is bound to touch you beyond measure” and will be released during Eid 2019.

Fans getting ready the bring out the cake. Image credit: Sruthi Ganapathy Raman.