Bollywood star Salman Khan was sentenced to a five-year prison term on Thursday for killing endangered blackbuck in Rajasthan in 1998 during the shoot of the movie Hum Saath Saath Hain. While actors Saif Ali Khan, Tabu, Sonali Bendre and Neelam, who were also accused in the case, have been let off, Khan was indicted under the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act. In 2017, the actor had been acquitted by the Bombay High Court of the charge of running over a man while allegedly driving drunk in Mumbai in 2002, but the blackbuck poaching case has proved to be a bigger legal hurdle for the star and his minders.
Khan’s arrest has put a halt to his movie projects, including Race 3 and Dabanng 3, and his television shows. Race 3 is targetting a mid-June release during the lucrative Id holiday weekend – a prospect that will become reality only if Khan posts bail. The film trade will wait for Khan, as they have in the past.
Khan has been nailed to the cross and resurrected more frequently than any deity. Scandal and notoriety have invariably eased his path to box office domination. Indeed, commentators who have tried to analyse the maniac appeal of the man who is one of Hindi cinema’s most limited actors and biggest stars agree only on one thing: the more controversial Salman Khan becomes, the greater his popularity.
As the justice system catches up with him, Khan’s image as a wronged celebrity who has been targetted more for his fame than for his crimes has gained strength. Like politicians accused of rioting, businessmen of swindling banks and athletes of breaking the rules, Salman Khan is sought to be forgiven each time with the explanation that it is perfectly valid to take short-cuts or detours in a broken-down system.
Khan’s alleged assaults on his various girlfriends? They used him to get ahead and dumped him when their goals had been achieved. His reported alcoholic binges and violent behaviour? Mischief created by moralists who do not understand the pressures of stardom. He is only human, his supporters say – a belief brilliantly captured by the name of his foundation and fashion label, Being Human.
As his troubles have escalated, the ticket-buying public and filmmakers invested in Khan’s success have grown even more protective of him. They have neatly separated the star from the human being. His numerous acts of charity are cited as proof that he has reformed himself. His ability to draw crowds is evidence that he is an unstoppable force of nature, a phenomenon that can only be experienced rather than understood.
Khan’s box office appeal powered one of 2017’s most mediocre movies, Tiger Zinda Hai, into the record books. His magic touch did nothing for his other 2017 release, Tubelight, but its relative failure was blamed on the character that he played: a child-man who believes he can perform miracles.
Khan’s lack of interest in media interviews – possibly because he wants to dodge tough questions – and his naive remarks are held up as evidence that he is beyond hyperbole and above conventional thinking. The pleasure that Khan’s movie antics give his devotees is balanced with the pain at seeing him suffer for his troubles. How can one so loved, so successful, and so awesome be punished in this way?
It is telling that Salman Khan and Hindi cinema’s other consistent scandal-monger, Sanjay Dutt, are referred to the “bad boys of Bollywood”. Did these Hindi movie stars, both now in their 50s, ever grow up?
Dutt is set to be mythologised by the film industry that sustained him in Rajkumar Hirani’s upcoming biopic Sanju. Dutt and Khan are spiritual cousins in some ways: their screen personas have eclipsed their achievements and aided their acceptance. Before Khan, Dutt was the prodigal son forever in search of redemption, “the template, the pioneer” of Bollywood entitlement, Yasser Usman writes in his recent biography.
“He was a model of masculinity in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and perhaps the only star in the Hindi film industry to have become synonymous with drugs, guns, leather jackets, rippling muscles, long hair, drinking, smoking and partying,” Usman writes in Sanjay Dutt The Crazy Untold Story of Bollywood’s Bad Boy. “He was open about his many girlfriends and was extremely popular in small-town India. His staunchest fans were men who imitated his macho personality. Sanjay’s image inspired directors to cast him in roles that mirrored his real-life personality. If you scrutinise his most iconic films – Naam, Sadak, Saajan, Hathyar, Khalnayak, Vaastav and Munna Bhai MBBS – you see that the characters he was playing on screen were actually an extension of himself.”
Khan’s childhood and adulthood are by no means the stuff of tragedy. He was immensely popular right from his first movie as a hero, Maine Pyar Kiya (1989). Despite suffering his share of flops and failures, Khan has always lingered somewhere at the top of the table, weathering the ascent of Shah Rukh Khan in the 1990s, the reinvention of Aamir Khan in the 2000s, and the rise of various second- and third-generation film family members over the past two decades.
Khan has far surpassed Dutt in his ability to convince audiences of his innocence, fearlessness and sincerity. Journalists, petitioners and police officials have been cast as the villains seeking to derail Khan’s true destiny. His valourisation is on par with the sneaking admiration for the scamster and the glamourisation of the gangster. Khan’s acting talent is immense enough to perhaps fill a thimble. But the perverse admiration for his disregard for the rules that bind mere mortals could fill a bathtub. Scandal helped Dutt last longer than he should have. In Khan’s case, his undeniable charisma and popularity have helped him weather the worst storms. What can a slain blackbuck or a dead human being do to tarnish his greatness?