The Audacity of Salman Khan, Bollywood’s “Bad Boy”

As we approach the release of Kisi Ka Bhai Kisi Ki Jaan, a short history of Salman Khan’s relationship with stardom
The Audacity of Salman Khan, Bollywood’s “Bad Boy”

The laundry list of Salman Khan’s alleged misdemeanours triangulates between violence against animals, strangers, and lovers — killing an endangered blackbuck in Rajasthan in 1998 (for which he was convicted and is out on bail), a hit-and-run killing one and injuring four (for which he was acquitted), and accusations of verbal and physical abuse made by his former girlfriend Aishwarya Rai Bachchan. To emerge from this unscathed is a testament to the power he wields. It is this power, when viewed from another perspective, that can be construed as audacity. And it is on the foundation of this audacity that Salman Khan has established himself as the bonafide star of the masses, the messiah, the kishmish on top of the Eid kheer, so to speak. 

To be powerful is to get away with things. To study powerful people is, then, to observe how much they think they can get away with. Consider this moment from 2014, when Khan was celebrating Makar Sankranti in Gujarat, alongside Narendra Modi, who was then campaigning as Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate. 

As an image, it is easy to see Khan’s presence as an endorsement. Yet Khan slithers around such connotations. When asked who he will vote for, he laughs, and tries to side-step the question: “I think the best man for the country, for all of us, God should decide who is the best man for Bharat.” When asked if he thinks Modi is that “best man”, he says Modi is a “good man” and turns the question to the crowd, asking for their opinion of Modi, who stands by, looking distinctly uncomfortable. Khan goes on to tell the gathered people that they must vote according to their constituency. His own constituency is in Bandra, Khan tells everyone and he will vote for Baba Sidddique and Priya Dutt — both belonging to the Indian National Congress (INC). To share a stage with a BJP candidate and endorse a Congress candidate? That’s audacity — a sweetly brazen confidence, seeded and burnished by the actor’s commercial successes among those very masses. 

After a dull spell of flops in the aughts, Khan’s star rose with Wanted (2009), in which his character was introduced by folding in the myth of Hollywood heroism and sculpting his heroism from that clay — “Rocky ka baap, Terminator ka nana (Rocky’s daddy, Terminator’s granddaddy). The last action hero.” There was another upward swing with Dabanng (2010), and even more success with Ek Tha Tiger (2012). These films allowed Khan to become the bonafide muscular hero as well as the bonafide moral hero — a dual duty he takes seriously, as seen in the dialogues of his upcoming Eid release Kisi Ka Bhai Kisi Ki Jaan. “Sahi ka hoga sahi, galat ka galat”, the rights will be righted and the wrongs will be wronged, he promises us. Will Khan ever play a negative role? After 35 years of playing the unadulterated good guy, the endearing moral compass, the gruff voiced hero, it seems unlikely, because Khan has fashioned his persona as that of a messiah.

In many ways, Khan has muscled himself into a moral universe through acts of kindness. There is always a snaking line outside Galaxy Apartments, his home in Mumbai, with  people in need of medical help, hoping to attract his generosity of spirit. An extension of this aspect of his persona is the work done by Khan’s Being Human Foundation. It is this combination that fuels his fanbase, who called him “Bhai” or “Bhaijaan”, the protective, sometimes possessive, elder brother. He has positioned himself as their protective shield, holding out a hope of succour and dreams being realised.  

In Shabani Hassanwalia and Samreen Farouqui’s documentary Being Bhaijaan, which attempts to look at the interior life of a Khan fan, we see men thronging to gyms, attempting to build their body in the image of Khan; not drinking water, not consuming salt, so the cut of their muscles mimics Khan’s. According to author Michiel Baas’s book Muscular India: Masculinity, Mobility and the New Middle-Class, Khan’s shirtless performance in Pyaar Kiya Toh Darna Kya (1998) led to a spike in gym memberships, producing an aspirational body that the middle class, emerging from globalisation, began seeking. This is a fandom inscribed on the body — the hair parting from Tere Naam (2003); the silver bracelet with a firoza stone dangling from the wrist; the sunglasses tucked into the collar of the nape; the body building. 

Alongside the kindness is Khan’s campaign to recast his identity from the wild child of the Nineties to that of studied innocence that leaves it to the viewer to decide whether Khan is being deadpan or earnest. Like when in 2013, he appeared on Karan Johar’s Koffee with Karan and said he was saving himself for his wedding night. Over the years, his interaction with the media became less vitriolic. His entry into television with Dus Ka Dum and Big Boss — where he would be shown cleaning vessels and folding bedsheets of notorious contestants to guilt them — cemented his tough love. He went from entitled to endearing. Seen alongside his older abrasiveness, Khan presents a whiplashed personality of stardom that refuses to be contained. A reckless performance of being. 

This don’t-care shoulder shrug works well for stardom, perhaps, but not artistry. A whatever-goes attitude has permeated Khan’s work in the last few years — his lazy-eyed screen presence in Tiger Zinda Hai (2017), the rag-tag quality of Radhe (2021), the embarrassing music videos he shot during the pandemic, his cameos in films like Godfather (2022). Even his auto-tuned singing, the choreography of songs from his latest film — which includes him going on his knees or defying gravity by becoming diagonal — have garnered more memes than reels. Despite this, the reports are that advance bookings for Kisi Ka Bhai… are filling up. On social media, fans have been uploading pictures of their tickets since Monday. 

Last year, there was talk of Khan reuniting with director Sanjay Leela Bhansali,  with whom Khan co-created his image of the outsized lover in Khamoshi: The Musical (1996) and Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1998). A director known to squeeze a performance out of his actors, paired with an actor who now couldn't care less about performing — it sounded like a cataclysm waiting to happen. With days to go for the shoot to begin and all preparation done, the film was shelved. Bhansali would later say in an interview, “We all change as people. So he has changed, in his mind I have changed.”

We will have to wait for another director to yank something else out of Salman Khan, something that will not just match, but further his star power. A director with an audacity that can match Khan’s own. Because right now, it seems like Khan’s star power is so strong, so blinding, his films are merely trying to catch up to it.

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