On a sultry September afternoon in Mumbai’s Mehboob Studio, Salman Khan has just finished feasting on a spread of sandwiches, rolls and pastries on a foldout table next to his vanity van. Someone from his entourage points to a chair next to the actor and without any ceremony my interview with the star begins.
Salman’s feigned disinterest can wrong-foot the inexperienced, but you soon realise he’s simply easily distracted and after 22 years of experience, this is just another day at work. These days he’s hot on the heels of the thumping success of Dabangg (even pain relievers are benefiting); he’s the darling of the media as Chulbul Pandey and the newest host of Bigg Boss. But experience, age and upbringing have prepared him for the highs and lows.
The son of celebrated screenwriter Salim Khan, Salman says he doesn’t care for headlines and reports of his top-rated brand value.
“I don’t care at all. I have not read these reports as a conscious decision. I have seen this with my father. When the going was good, the phone kept ringing, bouquets of flowers would arrive and people were in and out of the house.
Then suddenly there was no work. The phone didn’t ring. We thought the phone was dead. The success didn’t affect him and when he was out of work, it didn’t affect him. I was fortunate to see that while growing up and so it doesn’t affect me at all now,” says Salman. “Right now, because of the film and being on TV with Bigg Boss, it feels like I am everywhere, but in my own life it has pretty much always been like this, right from my first film. For me there have always been highs and more highs – no lows. It doesn’t matter.”
However, congratulate him on the success of Dabangg and his eyes do light up. A smile breaks the stoic, slightly bored expression on his face, and his otherwise constantly darting eyes that are checking out the movements near the studio gates are focused on you.
Did he expect such a response to the film? “During the initial 15-20 days of shooting, I didn’t think so. But then the character started developing on its own. The character was not this but became this, with some improvisation,” says Salman. “Just the moustache changes the character – you start thinking like him. I also got help from the people playing the cops with me, and from Dimple Kapadia and Vinod Khanna. When I went through the journey of the film later, I wondered: ‘yeh kaise aa gaya picture ke andar?’”
He credits director Abhinav Kashyap for bringing in the right Northern nuances and for keeping the film tight.
Bring on the Heroes
In this day of designer costumes, foreign locations and urban cool, a film set in UP crossing between multiplexes and the traditional single screen audience is unusual. Salman agrees that in order to make an impact it was necessary for Dabangg to make – well – a bang.
“I realised we had to take it to another level,” he says. “Since it was UP-based and about a cop, we didn’t have choppers, fancy cars, fancy clothes, no taam jhaam. We made it bigger with the songs and action scenes. Fortunately the clap tracks worked, or they could have been slap tracks for us. If the film had not worked, people would have said, ‘what were they thinking, making a ’70s genre film?’”
What worked, he feels, is the character’s heroism. “We need heroes: romantic heroes, any kind of hero. That works. Wanted was the same, but with different humour and a different heroism. Chulbul is a guy jo sharab bhi pila dega nakli, phir paise bhi bhijwa dega. It’s all chalta hai.”
It’s often said, and not refuted by Salman, that he does not really act in his films any more. Instead, he calls his style ‘not-acting’.
“It’s very casually played. No preaching-giri. As for not-acting – when it works, it works. If it had not worked, they would have said ‘kitna disinterested kaam karta hai yeh,’” he says.
He looks for one quality or element, one point of connection with his character and that’s what it takes for Salman to ‘not-act’. In Dabangg, it was the emotional angle.
“Basically Chulbul's problem is just one thing – he loves his mother so much but suddenly he sees that another man is with her and that gets into his head. There is no other reason for him to be rude to Pandeyji. And he doesn’t know how to feel towards his brother. It’s a weird situation. To keep the film short, we cut a lot of explanatory scenes. Even the bits we have cut are fantastic. We might put some of it in the sequel.”
Yes, plans are on for both a prequel and a sequel to Dabangg. “Both plots are ready but we don’t know what to do. The prequel is about how he becomes a cop. The other is about Chulbul coming to Mumbai. He would have lots and lots of fun in Mumbai,” smiles Salman, his eyes beginning to wander again.
A co-star stops by with her mother to greet him and complains that he seems to have forgotten her, but could he at least take a picture with her maid? He obliges. A struggling master of ceremonies stops by and offers to work on any event for Salman’s Being Human foundation for free. All the time, dozens of people circle the van, staring at the Karan Arjun, Hum Aapke Hain Kaun, Tere Naam and Partner star.
Salman’s big screen personality and boyish charm were brought into homes by the game show Dus Ka Dum and now with his latest role as host of Bigg Boss on Colors. His playfulness, love of dance and general lightheartedness were all seen in his informal interaction with each contestant as he or she entered the Bigg Boss house. If Dus Ka Dum usually culminated in tears of joy, how does he think he will handle the controversies and tears of hurt in Bigg Boss?
“We’ll see how it goes,” he says. “They should just chill and enjoy the ride. It should be fun.”
As the new host, he is not sure yet what personality trait or quirk he will play up. “It will be spontaneous. You don’t know what works till children pick it up. You do one thing they like and that becomes a rage.”
Playing it Straight
While Salman is nonchalant about success and failure, adulation and accolades, the things that do matter to him are his family, his work and his charitable trust.
“That’s the keeda – Being Human. On average, the foundation does about one to one-and-a-half operations a day, treating all kinds of ailments. The only focus it has is that if money can improve your quality of life and longevity, we will help. But if it’s like a miracle thing you need, then we feel really bad but we cannot touch you. We try to help those with curable diseases who have a chance at survival.”
He counts his brothers Arbaaz and Sohail and sister Arpita among his close friends, along with producer Sajid Nadiadwala, actor Mohnish Bahl and director David Dhawan, and says being surrounded by honest people keeps him grounded.
“A compliment feels good. When someone says, ‘you were damn good in Dabangg, what a film’, the first time it feels great. Then you hear it a second time and then a third and after that you’re like, ‘yeah, thank you!’ The first compliment is the approval. The first person who says ‘what a film, yaar’ – that’s the one. Or they say, ‘disgusting film’, and I say, ‘correct, boss’. For example, Aamir (Khan) saw Kyon Ki and he said, ‘horrible, depressing film’. I said, ‘you are 100 per cent right’. He said, ‘I don’t think it will do well’, and I agreed. As long as you know that, na, it’s fine. My friends know me and they know these things don’t affect me. My family is also straight with me. Sometimes they will see a film and say it’s a disaster. ‘Don’t even think of publicising this film.’”
The Moral of the Story
And there have been disasters in Salman’s career. Consider God Tussi Great Ho, Yuvvraaj, Main Aur Mrs Khanna, London Dreams and Veer. He interrupts.
“See, Veer, na, I totally blame myself for it,” he says of the film he wrote and starred in. “I should have put my foot down on a few things I did not want. But I didn’t do it. I wanted to shorten it by 20 minutes. It was too long. I had removed a lot of stuff and they put it back. It was getting awkward, uncomfortable. But you know, I might have done that and it still might not have worked. Anyway, Veer is not a flop; it’s not lost money, but it did not match the expectations of ‘itna bij-ness karegi’, ‘police ko bulana padega cinema main se utarne ke liye’, ‘iss picture ko toh bhagwan bhi nahin utaar sakten hain’ and all that filmy stuff. I was like, all right, dude!”
The learning, even at this stage, is enormous. Salman has realised that no matter what the reality is behind the scenes, to the audience the only thing that matters is the hero.
“And the hero only gets the jhapads. So I have decided that whatever film I do, the final edit will be approved by me,” he says.
Having traversed the wide chasm between romantic hero and dark action hero, he is content to continue with a vast range.
“It depends on what script comes up, what I like and what I am doing,” he says. The scripts he likes now are Partner 2, Kick, Ready and Bodyguard. He’s also writing another script.
“But I won’t write any extra scenes this time and we will have a director – not a writer – directing it,” he says with a hint of sarcasm.
Oh brother, who art thou?
In December Salman, the ‘bhai’ of Bollywood, will turn 45. Sonakshi Sinha, his lead actress in Dabangg, was a year old when he made his debut. But he does not feel that acting with much younger co-stars is an issue.
“We are acting, so what does it matter? See my romantic scenes – I don’t chipko, I don’t kiss. I keep that distance. I don’t do any of that shit just to make a film work.”
But aren’t these the elements of romance? “Romance is in the eyes, in the written scene. Not in putting your tongue in somebody’s mouth and going down her cleavage. That’s not romance –at least not on screen!”
Mention that he is the ‘bhai’ of the industry and he says with mischief: “It’s all Sohail’s doing. And then Sanjay Dutt,
I swear. Sanju made me bhai jaan when he is still called Baba. Because Sohail calls me bhai, everyone calls me bhai. Now even women are calling me bhai! Senior people say bhai and I am like, dude, chill – you are like 20-30 years older than me. Mat bulao.”
The crowds of young men that gather outside his Bandra home, hoping for a glimpse of the superstar, also call him Salman bhai. On his part, whenever possible, Salman obliges by waving at them.
“I also tell them to work. I say go, work. It’s very sweet of you, thank you and everything, but a man has to work. Then they listen and go to work,” he says.
But he isn’t besieged by fans all the time. Often, life is very normal. “When you go for a function with two or three bodyguards and the taam-jhaam of hatto, hatto, hatto, that’s when you get all the attention,” Salman says. “Otherwise everyone is very normal. When I cycle to my sets or ride my motorcycle, people just say, ‘Hi Salman, what’s up, how you doing?’. Sometimes they want to cycle with you or join you on their motorcycles. That’s all good.”
From strength to strength
Twenty-two years in the industry and now working with a third generation of actors and filmmakers, Salman Khan looks back on his career and is glad that, so far at least, he’s never been part of a film that he’s struggled to make it to the sets for.
“I don’t think I have done any film where I have said, arre yaar, iski shooting pe nahin jaana hai. Touch wood. Saying that would mean the script is not good or I don’t get along with my co-stars or with the director or producer. So far it’s been smooth sailing,” he says.
And then his eyes wander off in the direction of an upset reality TV contestant shooting on the next floor. “Everything OK, sweetheart?” he calls out to her, without any ‘taam jhaam’.
So before he tunes out completely, I slip in one last question. On how he keeps fit and healthy and what he thinks of the six-pack obsession.
“It’s good and appreciated but only if it lasts. You can’t just do it for one film and let it go. It has to be consistent and that is difficult. I am fortunate: body type is about good genes and my genetics are good. Destiny is good. I work out hard and give it my best shot. Yes, with age things become harder. But I am only getting stronger. With years and years of practice, I am only getting stronger.”
And you suspect he is not just talking about his biceps here.
Roles close to Salman's heart
Maine Pyar Kiya (1989)
I am here because of that!
Biwi Ho To Aisi (1988)
My first film, without which I may not have got Maine Pyar Kiya.
Karan Arjun, Andaaz Apna Apna, Chal Mere Bhai (“didn’t do well but Sanju and I had a blast”), Dus (“It wasn’t completed, but it was super”), Hum Aapke Hain Kaun (right)
Salman is gifted and blessed. I don’t what his connection is with the audience, but I accept it. I think Dabangg was always meant to do well, but Salman added a lot to the character. His ‘not-acting’ is actually the style of acting for all actors – an extension of their personality. I am glad he enjoyed the role and am happy I was part of that.
I started calling him Big Boss after shooting the promos of the show with him. He’s a dude. We had not worked together before but I found that he was extremely free with himself and comfortable doing anything, which is what, I think, works for him. His style cannot be predicted, and that's what entertains people. With Bigg Boss we have a host who is atypical and we wanted to capture that quality.
It’s not simple to define Salman’s appeal. He’s entertaining, human, charming. On screen, he is great fun to watch. On set, he's very involved in the process and takes care of the people on set. He’s industry blue blood and yet popular in the interiors which is rare because those audiences usually identify with people who make it up the ranks like Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan and Akshay Kumar.
Who’s the real salman? the actor reveals all
You have to make people understand that they have been saying ‘misunderstood’ for the last 20 years. What is taking you so long to understand a person?
Bad boy Salman
Not true. My average is very poor
Not true. But angry Salman is true. Stuff that gets me angry is the s*** that happens that no one does anything about. It could be in your own fraternity, political world, whatever
Bachelor Salman Khan
Hain yaar, kya karein. Abhi thodasa aur jalana hai logon ko