On Salman Khan’s birthday, explaining what makes him India’s Most Wanted Bhai
Given the golden run Salman Khan is enjoying at the box office, it is hard to imagine a time when the actor was all but written off. With a spate of back-to-back flops, the blackbuck case and the hit-and-run case still pending and an erratic image off-screen, the actor was far from the box office cert that the Hindi film industry swears by now.
The year was 2008 and Salman had just delivered a bomb, Yuvvraaj. Directed by Subhash Ghai, the film came with an all-star cast and high expectations. Unfortunately, it went the way of God Tussi Great Ho, Marigold or Jaan-E-Mann in previous years – unlamented and unloved. Other than the stray success of Partner, Salman had little to show.
Bollywood can be very forgiving if you have successes to back you up and Salman’s career graph is a case in point. The industry’s leading names have always backed the actor over the years, even when it was a court verdict against him. However, the largesse is not extended to those less fortunate at the box office, or with lesser pull in the industry.
Back in 2015, a CNN article described Salman as “Tom Cruise, George Clooney and Charlie Sheen all rolled into one”. Like Cruise, Salman had the “matinee idol good looks” and has had “a string of high profile, highly publicized relationships” like Clooney in the past, the article noted. However, in 2008 it was Salman’s resemblance to Sheen that was most obvious: a bad boy – maybe a reformed one – who had been accused of everything from temper tantrums to domestic violence.
Salman needed a professional revival and Prabhudeva’s Wanted was just that. A remake of Mahesh Babu’s hit Pokiri about a police officer who doesn’t play by the book, it started an onslaught of south remakes with bent cops in the lead.
Wanted was a B movie and it knew that. With no pretensions, it took pride in its tackiness, targeted to the single-screen audience but happily embraced by the multiplex crowd too. A far more stylised Dabangg was still a few years away and for Bhai fans, Wanted would do till then.
The first film that launched Salman 2.0, it ran purely on the man’s superstardom. It also seems to have set down a benchmark where directors came to realize that they have to create a character that is in sync with Salman’s image.
As Ali Abbas Zafar, who directed Salman in Tiger Zinda Hai, Bharat and Sultan, accepted as much in an earlier interview, “As a director, it is absolutely essential to highlight the USP of a big star in the best possible way. You have to develop the character in sync with the superstardom.” The few times Salman went against the type, the audience reaction was underwhelming, Tubelight being a case in point.
Those times have been few and far between. Since Dabangg (2010), 14 of his films have entered ₹100 crore club with three making ₹300 crore. Even Tubelight, Jai Ho and Race 3, considered ‘flops’, did blockbuster business.
What is his secret fuel? Salman himself gives the credit to ‘heroism’. “I feel when fans go to theatre they should want to be you and they should come out happier. Basically that is my funda to do movies. I don’t think heroism can ever die. There are times when you feel there is too much of it (heroism) so you try and control it, to get the right balance is difficult. I am lucky on cracking it,” Salman recently said.
It has come to a point that it is hard to tell the character from the star. Salman, like his real life image, plays a tough guy with a soft heart, with a sort of blockbuster machismo which appeals to his fans from the ages of six to 60. They don’t stop and ask themselves if that image is out of sync with the changing world, they just pay good money to see their Bhai win one more time. Or, as Salman famously said in his dialogue, “Mai dil mei aata hu samajh mei nahin.”