This week marks 30 years of Salman Khan in cinema. On August 26, 1988, Salman made his debut playing Vicky Bhandari, the disco-loving younger son of the affluent Bhandari family, in a film called Biwi Ho To Aisi. The first time we see him, Salman is dancing furiously. It’s morning and Vicky hasn’t had his tea yet. But he can’t stop himself from bouncing like a bunny all over the room. Salman is skinny. His hair flops over his face. His dancing is way better than his acting. I don’t think anyone could have seen this film and predicted that 30 years later, he would be looming large like a colossus.
Over the years, I’ve had several intriguing interactions with Salman – intriguing because I can’t figure him out. His unpredictability is intimidating and refreshing. Like life, Salman is the proverbial box of chocolates – when you walk into his zone, you truly have no idea what you will get.
I first met him in the mid-1990s. I was a reporter with India Today. He was a massive star post Hum Aapke Hain Koun…! but he was largely allergic to the press. It was the ‘Bad Boy Salman’ phase and he didn’t really want to speak with any of us. I had requested David Dhawan’s wife Lali to set up a meeting. Because she asked, he agreed to see me. We met at a restaurant called Shatranj in suburban Mumbai. It was incredibly awkward. He was more interested in the tiramisu he was wolfing down than the conversation I was hesitantly trying to make. I said we really wanted to do an interview. He said he would do it but only if the magazine donated 10 lakh to his favorite charity. His logic was that his face on the cover would sell magazines and therefore we should be willing to pay it forward. I said we didn’t pay for interviews. He ordered a second tiramisu and said good bye.
Another favorite Salman memory is an interview he did with me in 2014. I was hosting two shows – The Front Row in English and Star Verdict in Hindi. We used to shoot both back to back on the same set at Mehboob Studio. The English one went off smoothly. The Hindi version required him to make an entry and walk onto set. He did that. I stood up to greet him. Instead of a handshake or a hug, he lunged down and touched my feet. I burst out laughing. When I asked why, he replied, buzurgon ki respect karni chahiye, kyun ki yeh hamare culture mein hai. It was priceless (for the record, I’m younger).
Over the years, he has become Hindi cinema’s Teflon Man – flops, controversies, criminal charges – nothing sticks
In 2015, I requested Salman for a meeting but it wasn’t for an interview. It was for the Mumbai Film Festival (MAMI). Chairperson Kiran Rao, I and festival creative director Smriti Kiran now led the festival. It had been a gargantuan task to find sponsors, raise money and organize a week long festival that screened over 200 films. We wanted Salman’s support. He agreed to see me. When I walked in, he laughed and said, I really wanted to cancel this meeting. I remember quoting the late film critic Roger Ebert to him. Ebert had written: Of all the arts, movies are the most powerful aid to empathy and good ones make us into better people. Salman said he believed that too. He immediately offered to use his social media handles to promote MAMI and to come to the closing ceremony.
Of course, he arrived late. When he walked in, a member of the children’s jury was giving a speech. On seeing Salman, he stopped and gaped. Salman very sweetly said – don’t worry, I forget my lines all the time. He then proceeded to give a speech about why MAMI is important. He smiled and said, “I know I will never win an award at this festival but I’m here to show my support.” It was incredible.
Salman continues to be mystery – both as a person and as a performer. His oeuvre ranges from the sublime (Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Sultan) to the ridiculous (Bodyguard, Race 3). Over the years, he has become Hindi cinema’s Teflon Man – flops, controversies, criminal charges – nothing sticks. I’ve heard horror stories about him but also tales of astounding generosity and selflessness. Salman remains a walking contradiction. I’m curious to see what the next 30 bring.