On a Thursday afternoon -- a weekday mind, a premiere theatre in central Delhi is full of Salman Khan’s admirers. It has been seven days since Bajrangi Bhaijaan released and yet no ticket is to be had for money or love. The film entered the tony Rs 200-crore club on the ninth day of its release, and the chances are it might be the actor’s biggest hit till date.
You would say, no surprises there. Salman is the gold-standard in Bollywood and his popularity is best summed by a dialogue from his last film, "Dil me aata hu samajh mei nahi."
So, let’s put it in perspective: Salman’s biggest hit comes about two months after he was held guilty by a court for driving drunk and running over people while they were sleeping on a pavement, leaving one dead and five injured.
In May, sessions judge DW Deshpande convicted the star for culpable homicide not amounting to murder and for rash and negligent driving. The accident is referred to as 2002 hit-and-run case by the media, the implications clear that Salman never stayed back to help the victims.
Salman Khan waves to fans on the day of verdict after he was granted bail.
The 13-year-long trial saw twists worthy of a Bollywood film: Important documents were lost, witnesses recanted, and singer Kamal Khan – who was also present in the car -- vanished during the early stages of investigation. But the moment which capped all other subterfuges was when Salman’s driver, apparently after amnesia that lasted 12 years, suddenly confessed in the court that it was him, not the star, who was driving the car. The court didn't accept the testimony.
The public denouement of the case may have scarred any other celeb’s image. Salman – going by the numbers Bajrangi Bhaijaan has garnered – has just emerged stronger.
He is Bollywood’s godfather, having launched more careers than you can count on your fingers. He is the universal good guy, the Bollywood brat who rebooted himself as Being Human.
Read: Baahubali vs Bajrangi Bhaijaan at BO
His bhaijaan image has even managed to outlive a damning conviction from India’s lethargic justice system. And that was not Salman’s only misdemeanour. The actor has as many transgressions as he has hits – He hunted Blackbucks and is still undergoing trial in the case, he has physically abused a long list of girlfriends of whom Aishwarya even came on-record, he destroyed careers of people who dared to cross him and he has had face-offs with his colleagues on several occasions.
Many would opine that there is a separation between reel and real and not everybody going to watch Bajrangi Bhaijaan is a Salman fan. Well, here’s the answer from the film’s director Kabir Khan: "I often tell him (Salman) that if we film you sleeping on a bench, it will make Rs 80 to 90 crore before people will say, 'Arre Bhai toh utha hi nahi hai (Oh Bhai hasn't even woken up).’"
Salman has reached a level of stardom where what is personal and what is public have simply merged to make an image that people simply can’t get enough of.
"There is a very active PR machinery which paints Salman as a generous and charitable man. He consciously chooses films that also show him as an innocent, do-gooder. There is so much mythmaking involved in what is Salman’s image today. There is a certain section of people, especially young men in smaller cities, who are die-hard fans of his machismo and anti-establishment onscreen persona," says Anjali Monteiro, professor and dean at School of Media and Cultural Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.
Documentary filmmakers Shabani Hassanwalia and Samreen Farouqui set about exploring what fuels the popularity of this contentious model of Indian manhood in their film Being Bhaijaan. "In his films, Salman loves his woman, but he is not owned by the relationship. When he loves, or even when he kills in his films, he is detached, and it is this quality that they (his fans) connect to. His cinematic persona and his attitudes validate their life. Being a Bhai is a logical aspiration for them," the duo had commented to HT earlier. For his fans, Bhai signifies "aukaat" or standing.
So, what would Salman’s dedicated fans take away from his real-life persona? That you can drink and drive, you can run over people and you can leave the scene of crime. As long as you have "aukaat", you can get away with it. And get theatres full of fans in bargain. All you need is aukaat.