Before the release of his next big film Sultan, we ask why Salman Khan is a trendsetter and Bollywood’s most iconic star
Eid 2016 promises us a Salman Khan who is rather different. He’s neither just ‘playing himself’ nor is he the international jet-setting spy or the coolest cop to ever grace small town India. He is not even the charmer with the heart of gold. This time, he’s Sultan — a 40-year old has-been, a ‘rundown desi wrestler’ with a tad questionable but obvious Haryanvi accent. Anyone who has seen the trailer can feel the sheer palpability of a blockbuster.
Trade pundits and a cursory observation of social media frenzy are hinting that it will be bigger than all previous Salman Khan films — and indeed, it is true; Khan’s only competitor is himself. The film has all the typical elements that have made Hindi cinema tick since its inception; the cherry on the cake is the sports peg — which often means, national pride with a story of personal redemption. So, what really makes Salman Khan so endlessly iconic?
If Aamir is the thinker, and Shah Rukh is the king of sentimentality, then Salman with his ‘mindless blockbusters’, ‘limited acting skills’ and ‘one-dimensional roles’ has mostly been allotted the position of the country’s single-screen messiah, the hero of the working classes (an appeal without which you could not really expect to be a leading man in this country in all the previous decades except the current). Most dialogues and debates on new film content — the ‘low-budget indie’, the ‘multiplex film’, the ‘upper-middlebrow cinema’ and the ‘newstream’ (terms that have been used to describe contemporary Bollywood) have routinely skirted around the mammoth presence of Salman Khan and his brand of cinema, now stronger than ever.
In fact, upper middle-class and rich audiences are often found to abandon multiplexes when a Salman Khan film releases. The pleasures of viewing his films can only be found in the most immersive and nostalgic cinema viewing experience in the country — the single-screen, where you must whistle, dance and perform in the aisles to publicly proclaim your love for bhaijaan. Audiences in North India have rarely felt the desire to express their devotion so overtly since Amitabh Bachchan’s heydays in the 70s.
Mired in endless controversies — volatile, abusive relationships, hit-and-run cases and even killing endangered animals — Salman Khan, Bollywood’s only unmarried 50-year-old superstar, presents us with the industry’s most intriguing case of the actor-as-author of cinematic trends. While much has been said about his superstardom and loyal fan base, how do we understand his contribution to Hindi cinema? Beyond a slew of larger-than-life blockbusters in the last few years, all centering around the cult of bhai, a look at his long career shows that this Khan has really set trends over and over again, and has played a huge part in shaping the popular film industry as it stands today.
In an interview given to Rediff in 2015, Khan was asked if he feels pressurised to do only a certain type of film because that’s what his fans have started to expect. He said, “I feel we are in tandem. The films that I do are the only films that I would watch. I don’t want to do films where people see the trailer and say ‘sweet film lag rahi hai. Badh main kabhi time rahega toh dekh lenge (the film looks sweet; will watch it when I have time later). I want to do films where people have the urgency of watching it. Andaz Apna Apna, my film with Aamir Khan, released on Friday and was out of theatres on Monday morning. It is supposed to be a cult film. Yeh kaisa cult hai? Poor Vinay Sinha (producer) wasn’t able to make a film after that.”
When did it all start? The year was 1989 and the film was Maine Pyar Kiya. I was three years old and hopelessly in love with Prem, the boy who drove a bright red sports car and proclaimed that friendship was a ‘no-sorry-no-thank-you’ zone. I watched the film endlessly, on loop, till everyone in my family had inadvertently memorised the dialogues and songs. It turned out that I was not the only one. Teenagers and young adults across the nation were swooning; the film was dubbed in English and Spanish, and did obscene amounts of business in places as far flung as Lima — years before the golden age of globalisation dawned upon India.
Does the director make the actor or it is the other way round? Looking at Sooraj Barjatya’s subsequent filmography with Khan (Hum Aapke Hain Koun..!, Hum Saath Saath Hain, Prem Ratan Dhan Payo), it seems as though his sugar syrup-laden family melodramas were entirely dependent on Salman’s portrayal of Prem, the charming, softhearted, romantic and dutiful son, and the glue that holds the Indian family together.
No other Rajshri hero (case in point, Monish Behl) was able to become a star, despite Barjatya’s immense successes at the box-office. After Maine Pyar Kiya, came another soft romance, Saajan (1991) and finally the love story moved from the couple to the extended joint family, in another unprecedented blockbuster, in Hum Aapke Hain Koun…!
While Maine Pyar Kiya has been credited with bringing the clean soft romance back to an industry that was just about recovering from the abysmal films of the 1980s, it was Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! that brought the middle-classes (by now glued to their new television sets and VCRs) back to the theatres. It is said that before the film released, the Barjatyas toured several single-screen cinemas in cities and small towns across North India, making sure the toilets were clean, as this was a film meant for ‘family audiences’.
Who would imagine at this point that the apple of the Indian family eye, Prem, would one day transform into the god of cop swagger — Chulbul Pandey. Neither Shah Rukh nor Aamir have at any point in their careers post the mid-1990s surprised us with the choices they have made. Salman could have remained carefully ensconced within the romantic melodrama, working with the Chopras, Barjatyas and Johars, but he had other ideas.
After setting the trend for the ever-popular family drama that became ubiquitous with post liberalisation Bollywood, refined and perfected by arch rival Shah Rukh in the following years, Khan began to beef up, and was the first Bollywood actor to do a shirtless number in the now classic ‘Oh Oh Jane Jana’ from Pyar Kiya To Darna Kya. It was Salman Khan who introduced and set the standard for the contemporary male hero’s body in Bollywood, beginning in the late 1990s.
We began to see glimpses of this new-body-to-come in Karan Arjun, Jeet and even Khamoshi. Fellow actors Sunny Deol and Shah Rukh Khan were nowhere close to adhering to this body type yet. Six-pack-abs and a sculpted, waxed and hairless chest that can be effortlessly flaunted on the big-screen are the first and the most basic requirements for any actor aspiring to become a Bollywood hero today. In fact, most up and coming actors are known to routinely consult the big daddy of body building in the industry, none other than Salman Khan, who mentors them by sharing diet and fitness tips and connecting them to his personal trainers.
Khan has also continuously stunned us with his sheer audacity. Be it the infamous ‘towel dance’ from Mujhse Shaadi Karogi, or his ridiculous accent in Partner, the middle-parted and excessively gelled hair in Tere Naam, or the entire wardrobe of the film Judwaa. Salman was also one of the first and few actors who dared to parody himself in another now-iconic film — Dabangg, sunglasses slung casually behind his collar.
The mega-success of Dabangg that Khan himself had described as a “sten gun assault on the multiplex audiences’’ has shown that despite winning just one supporting actor award in his long career, he is the only Khan to have performed across every genre in popular Hindi cinema and to have found acceptance from the audiences — the romance (Maine Pyar Kiya, Saajan, Har Dil Jo Pyar Karega, Pyar Kiya To Darna Kya, Bodyguard, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam), the comedy (Wanted, Ready, Maine Pyar Kyun Kiya, No Entry), the family romance (Hum Aapke Hai Koun..!, Hum Saath Saath Hain, Chori Chori Chupke Chupke, Bandhan, Baghban), the cross-border peace film (Bajrangi Bhaijaan), the reincarnation drama (Karan Arjun, Suryavanshi),the psychotic lover (Tere Naam, Kyun Ki), the action thriller (Kick, Tum Ko Na Bhool Payenge, Auzaar), the cop movie (Garv), the parody cop movie (Dabangg 1 & 2), the buddy movie (Andaz Apna Apna, Partner, Chal Mere Bhai, Hello Brother, Mujhse Shaadi Karogi), the multi-starrer (Salaam-e-Ishq), the spy thriller (Ek Ta Tiger) and the sports film (Sultan).
Salman Khan’s strategy seems to have been akin to presenting us with a jigsaw puzzle of different kinds of films at any given moment, the dots of which can be joined through his varied performances. In each of these 4-5 films, released within short spans of each other, one of his facets would be showcased a bit more prominently than others.
Within this jigsaw, one film would click with the audiences and set the tone for the next few years for both the industry and his fellow actors. When asked if he feels threatened by Nawazuddin Siddiqui who apparently outshone him in Kick, Salman said, “If that was the case, he would have been doing my role and I would be doing the films he is doing.” Who knows, we may just see an ‘upper middle-brow’ film starring this Khan in the near future. After all, he’s just 27.
Tupur Chatterjee is a PhD candidate at the Department of Radio, Television and Film at the University of Texas at Austin. She works on theatre architecture and film exhibition in India.