In a small town, illusions can be a code of brotherhood. It’s about everyone looking in one direction, at one thing, even if it is failure, and believing it to be a project, as it were, worth a man’s time and commitment. It is this world of self-conscious masculinity that documentary film-makers Shabani Hassanwalia and Samreen Farouqui explore in their soon-to-be released film, Being Bhaijaan, in which Salman Khan is the trope for exploring the life of Shan Ghosh, a young Salman fan from the small town of Chhindwara in central India.
Hassanwalia and Farouqui were intrigued by the Bollywood actor’s popularity and the mad frenzy his gangster film, Wanted (2009), had aroused in the theatres of small-town India. “Something was happening between Salman and the men of this country that we thought would give a clue to notions of manhood,” says Hassanwalia, “and we wanted to capture what was changing (or not) in this context in India’s small towns.” Their search brought them to Nagpur in Maharashtra and Chhindwara, in Madhya Pradesh, the home of Shan Ghosh, a jeweller-turned-real-estate investor, who had been modelling his life and ‘look’ on the Bollywood actor, and to his extended gang of Balram and Bhaskar — the former, a boy belonging to a family of wrestlers, and the latter, the son of a baker.
A scene from Being Bhaijaan. (R) The poster.
While their admiration for Salman is the common bond, there are other affinities that make them part of the same pack. The innate old-worldism, or conservatism, to which Salman’s films appeal, have a certain pull for the class to which the three fans belong. “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 connect to,” explains Farouqui. “His cinematic persona and his attitudes validate their life.” It is this Salman that Balram, for example, identifies with when he rejects the image of Salman the playboy and makes a virtue of the absence of “kissing scenes” in “Bhai’s films” to explain the romantic vaccum in his own life; or, when Bhaskar talks of ordering a talking door bell beeping Khan’s punchlines to bask in borrowed machismo; or when Shan Ghosh says he wants a girl who is like his mother, “someone who has not had a single boyfriend to date”. The same rule, clearly, does not apply to Shan himself, even though, he stays true to his hero even while setting out on a date, which falls flat, not surprisingly, greeting a girl, as he does, with a ‘Jai Salman’ on the phone to cajole her out of her home.
Being Bhaijaan does not underline the political incorrectness of the boys’ sentiments simply because that is not its agenda. What it does is to try to understand what echo blockbuster-manufactured machismo has on the Indian male already struggling with his identity in a globalised world. In this context, the bad-boy image of Salman, combined with the anti-establishment moves in his films, connects with a section of India that has not been part of the ‘Indian growth story.’ As Shan puts it: “I now exercise, have muscles, people call me Junior Salman, I give performances. What would I have been, had I not been a fan of Salman? Nothing! My stomach would have been out.” Being a Salman fan, for Shan, therefore, means that he can count on social respectability, that he will have a certain cachet in his circle, it means being part of a larger story.