The massive success of Bodyguard has confirmed Salman Khan as a phenomenal star, surpassing even his record-breaking Dabangg.
Academics and journalists have discussed Aamir Khan’s extraordinary talent as a producer and marketer as well as his risk-taking selection of roles as an actor, and Shah Rukh Khan’s rockstar qualities, which could launch him internationally if he wasn’t busy getting on with being so successful in India.
But we seem to have forgotten Salman, the third of the trio of Khans that were part of the shift from ‘Hindi cinema’ to ‘Bollywood’ in the 1990s and its rehabilitation among India’s metropolitan elites.
It’s commonplace to think that Hindi cinema belongs in the metro multiplex, in India or overseas, on the internet and DVD, and is part of a huge and powerful media network, recognised as the vanguard of India’s soft power.
Parallel to this, it sometimes seems as if the old Hindi cinema of the lower classes and the working class male disappeared in the late 90s, as the industry scrambled to follow Yash Raj’s ‘glamorous realism’ — a vision of modernising India — currently celebrating its 40th anniversary though tracing its roots back to a more middle class Hindi cinema of the 1930s.
Salman is here to remind us that another type of cinema hasn’t gone away.
Govinda, whose brilliance as an entertainer, dancer and comedian shines in films that present us with what Ashis Nandy called “the slum’s eye view of India” — depictions of the poor and their fantasies of the rich. Hugely popular, it is significant that his comeback film was the blockbuster, Partner (2007) co-starring Salman.
The movie presents us with the worldview that is less of the slum than of the lower stratum of the new middle classes, which are rising in small towns and metropolises.
Salman, whose stardom was inaugurated more than 20 years ago as Prem of the Barjatyas, has taken a wide range of roles from those in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Khamoshi and Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam to the good guy in films such as BR Chopra’s Baghban, took on a more fixed star persona as a comic hero, whereas his latest roles involve far more action — in the style of superstar Rajinikanth.
His more recent characters have memorable names such as Chulbul Pandey and Lovely Singh, perhaps chosen precisely to distinguish them from Salman Khan the star.
In his last few films, a new star persona has evolved, which is closely linked to Salman’s off-screen image. His muscular, shaven physique is now adopted by all the stars, but remains central to the male working class ideal of the body. Salman is willing to parody his famed removal of his shirt to display his torso — an essential part of his screen image.
His roles as a lower class guy pick up his offscreen persona as a man of the people — Sallu and Salmanbhai to his fans — despite his famous family and considerable wealth.
He is not an international figure, the transnational Indian, who wears western designer gear and is as at home in London and NYC as he is in Bombay and Delhi. Salman dresses in an Indian style, with earrings, bracelet, bright clothes and patchwork designs. He lives in the same building as his parents where he grew up, and, though a Muslim, participates in the Ganpati festival.
He is seen as a local boy from Bandra, which itself has shifted its dominant image from a Catholic suburb, via Beverley Hills, to the boho media hub of today.
Salman’s star persona embodies many of the values of the lower middle classes. After girlfriend troubles, the black buck hunting case, and the American Express Bakery incident, many thought that his image was tarnished forever.
However, Salman has virtues that are much admired by his fans, like his devotion to his family and his generosity towards his friends and people who work for him. He is known to pay medical bills, gift expensive watches and make other extravagant gestures.
He is not seen as an intellectual, less rational than emotional, who expresses himself in painting and is a child at heart, protected by his family.
Dabangg, a brilliant and hugely entertaining film set in small town UP, is a romance between a Brahmin policeman and a potter woman. It’s a movie where the hero’s widowed mother has remarried, family members steal each other’s money and the drunken father of the heroine kills himself. It is a curiously unethical film with no admirable figure or sense of morality.
All these strange features are part of the film’s experimenting with Bollywood’s unique form to find a new way of regenerating itself. It’s a film obsessed with textual reference from older Hindi films, not least its stars (Dimple, Vinod Khanna) and the ghostly presence of Shatrughan Sinha — through his daughter who even uses his catchphrase, ‘Khamosh!’ — as well as a host of international films (from Ghost, The Incredible Hulk to The Matrix), as well as to fiction (A Case Of Exploding Mangoes).
A series of set pieces of action and comedy is interspersed with catchy item songs as undeveloped characters wander in and out of the story.
There is only a brief escape from the dystopia of Laalgunj, whose institutions are all corrupt and useless, for a honeymoon to the UAE, where the couple fly falcons, dune bash, take the metro and the great romantic scene in the luxury suite cuts to a fluttering UAE flag.
Perhaps this is a nod to Salman’s huge fanbase in the Gulf.
The success of Ready and Bodyguard shows that Salman’s star persona and cult remain rock solid over the decades, however much the cinema and India have changed. It’s just that the rest of us only noticed it when he came back with Dabangg.
(Rachel Dwyer is professor of Indian Cultures and Cinema at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. The views expressed by the author are personal)