Phones are whipped out, screeching seetis (whistles) fill the air and money is thrown at the screen. A horde of dark silhouettes dances against the screen as Salman Khan flies off of a balcony and slips, mid-air, into a leather jacket, thus making his thunderous entry in Kisi Ka Bhai Kisi Ka Jaan (KKBKKL, 2023). Welcome to the first day, first show of Bhai’s first solo, theatrical release since Dabangg 3 (2019) at Mumbai’s Gaiety Cinema.
Watching KKBKKJ at Gaiety can make you wonder how you ever sat through a Salman Khan film in the hushed politeness of a multiplex. Although located in Bandra, the haloed grounds of the Mumbai hipster, Gaiety has no time for such pretensions. Part of what is now known as the G-7 multiplex — the cinema has seven screens named Gaiety, Galaxy, Gemini, Glamour, Gem, Gossip and Grace — Gaiety is something of an institution. The tickets are perhaps the cheapest you’ll find in Mumbai, the interiors have none of the gloss of multiplexes, but have all the charm of a cinema that has been a neighbourhood favourite for more than 50 years. And the audiences are the stuff of legends, especially when it comes to a Salman Khan film.
Among all of Bollywood’s A-listers, Khan has enjoyed a reputation of being the hero of the working class. Shah Rukh Khan is the man for the middle classes (and the ladies) and Aamir Khan is for intellectuals. Bhai, as Khan is lovingly known by his fans, with his turquoise bracelet and over-the-top antics is for the everyman — which is the mythology that KKBKKJ leans into heavily as it presents Khan as a hero who is known only as “Bhaijaan”. Its protagonist is a muscular patchwork of Khan’s reel and real personality: He is the magnanimous messiah who built Being Human (which is perhaps why Bhaijaan has a Being Human mug as a prop in a scene), the youth-inspiring muscular god (and brand ambassador for Pepsi, which also gets prominent brand placement in the film), the toxic male role model with a vague distrust in women, and the softie who can become a puddle of male tears in a matter of seconds. Khan’s eternal bachelorhood is given a noble sheen in KKBKKJ and jokes are cracked about his face’s adamant refusal to portray a range of emotions. Most importantly, the film frequently surrounds Bhaijaan with a crowd, creating scenes of wish fulfilment for fans like the ones in the Gaiety audience.
Director Farhad Samji – who has delivered two equally cringey and commercially successful Housefull movies – might be criticised for staging one action set piece after another but watching the crowd at Gaiety makes you realise that he had his work cut out for him. Despite the continuous barrage of neck-cracking, spine-breaking visuals, Bhai’s fans do not tire of the violence. Punches soon become passé and Bhaijaan has to find novel ways of dealing with villains. This includes biting them and deadly headbutts — and the audiences eat it up. When he isn’t beating people up, Bhaijaan is seen (laboriously) dancing to the film’s many songs, which might have been the butt of many Twitter jokes but in the semi-packed Gaiety, they inspire a joyous riot.
Increasingly, it becomes clear that it is this mythical being that crowds flock to, eagerly lapping up the elaborate fancies Khan’s movies add to his public persona. When Bhaijaan lectures on the validity of necessary brutality (he calls it “self-defense”) in the film, it adds a shade of nobility to Khan’s streak of violent film releases. When Bhaijaan, instead of kissing his lady love on the lips, resorts to a flying kiss, he’s being the sanskari playboy who won’t resort to anything vulgar (at least publicly). When he casually spouts the Bhagwad Gita or “Vande Mataram”, it is less about the film and more about the legend of Salman Khan.
At the climax of KKBKKJ, Bhaijaan lies unconscious on the ground and a worried crowd surrounds him. We know the hero will rise again but Bhaijaan’s revival arrives as a tribute to Khan’s fandom, as the people around him begin whistling and screeching his name, urging him back to life. In a stunning unification of devotion, the audience at Gaiety cinema joins the crowd on-screen, chanting and roaring – until Bhaijaan opens his eyes again. Fiction turns to fact, and if that isn’t movie magic, what is?