Some good reads on Salman and his latest machismo flick:
Seeti-taali hero of all times
Salman Khan is blessed with the tremendous knack of making you want to pull your hair out. You have a thousand-word, sparingly gushy profile of him ready when a TV interview he gave on 26/11 has him giving a clean chit to Pakistan. A not-too-insignificant part of India bays for his blood;you shake your head in exasperation.
That’s Salman Khan for you – India’s true-blue pulp fiction story. Every time you think he is home free, there’s a twist. Each time he escapes unscathed and you put him down finally as a good guy, he goes out and makes you feel stupid. Every time he beats up a villain shirtless, the back-benchers hoot. And every time some news is circulated about him and Katrina, Zarine or whoever, an entire generation of sisters, mothers and daughters wants to know when bhai will get married.
Chew on this: it’s the climax in Dabangg. The arch villain rips off his shirt;he is a good foot taller than our hero and he has six-packs;the viewers wait, mouth half-open, holding their breath for their hero to rip off his shirt too. But he doesn’t. The sweaty six-pack villain beats our shirt-clad hero till the hero’s brother spills the beans on his mother’s death. Our hero gets angry;in a move reminiscent of the Hulk movies, his muscles start ripping and with that, so does his shirt. Even as you gasp, a powerful gust of wind carries the shirt straight off his back. The screen picks up a red tint as our hero beats the villain in action copied straight from Guy Richie’s Sherlock Holmes.
Like Dabangg, Salman’s life too isn’t limited by a leather-bound script – he’s not the good guy, he’s intrinsically flawed, he loses control, makes mistakes, gets angry when someone steals his girl and has a knack for getting into trouble with the law. Fashion be damned, he wears wide-bottomed trousers while the rest of the world is switching to skinny pants. His dance moves can compete against a block of ice in fluidity – and lose.
When you’re just one inch short of dubbing him a kind heart, he acquires an affinity for shooting black bucks and driving over people sleeping on the pavement. When you smile warmly reading news of his large-heartedness with friends, he pours a soft drink over an actress and treats journalists like root canal surgery.
Like every pulp film, Salman’s life is laced with irony and topped with a generous dose of black humour. Like every great pulp film, Salman’s script lacks any apparent plot and is so bad that it’s actually quite good. While other actors have brought shades of grey into their roles, Salman has actually lived these. He is Chulbul Pandey from Dabangg.
The one thing that has changed though is that Salman is increasingly beginning to laugh at himself;he’s getting better at it than his dancing, acting or dressing-up. Some might even put it all down to his desire to seek approval from the masses, which has always eluded him until now – but for him, it’s just another day of being Salman.
There is something else about Salman Khan. A book I was flipping through on Bollywood heroes rather tamely compares him to Jeetendra and Rajendra Kumar, admiring his remarkable durability as a hero. It credits his success to the hyper image-building of male sexuality and points out that this is despite his limited portrayals, a lack of diverse roles and meaningful cinema. I disagree – and not just because it’s tame. If anything, I’d compare Salman at some level with Chuck Norris, the Hollywood martial arts hero. You can love to hate him, but you’d have to love him.
More so, somewhere down the line, we’ve gone on to decide what qualifies as ‘meaningful’ cinema and what does not – a question we’ve conveniently answered ourselves too. Aamir is ‘meaningful’ and Salman is not?
Nothing could be further from the truth. We’re increasingly living in times when what we are told to consider good cinema isn’t always so. What if in this time of ‘thinking’ cinema, we actually want to see larger than life portrayals, essentially plot-less films and cheap thrills with all its bells and whistles? Salman gives you all that. More than any other star, he has never dumped the hooters in the front rows for the popcorn-munching folks in Gold Class.
And the hooters reciprocated by making Salman’s hair cut from Tere Naam a hit. They did it by constantly buying new posters of the shirt-less, purple sunglass-donning star from Pyar Kiya To Darna Kya. If there wasn’t such reciprocation from Salman’s fans, Wanted would not have been as big a hit as it was and Dabangg would not have overtaken 3 Idiots in its collections on day one of its release.
That’s why what Salman does is important. He has never needed to show diversity, exhibit change, pretend to make thinking, meaningful cinema. Above all, he has never forgotten the whistlers and the hooters in the front seats.
Suddenly, though we’ve rather patronisingly dubbed him as ‘kitsch’, the larger than life portrayals are beginning to make inroads even amongst calmer, urban white-collared viewers who loosen their ties and hoot enthusiastically when Salman spins his sunglasses and pins them to the back of his collar in Dabangg. We have suddenly begun to think it’s cool to be rustic and unfinished. People who dubbed his brand of acting and cinema loud, tawdry and crass suddenly term it ‘uber-cool’.
But Salman never sought this patronage and somewhere between then and now, he has managed to show shades of the superstar – something we’d all but pronounced dead. He’s given his fans iconic dialogues, whether it was Wanted’s ‘Ek baar mainey commitment kar diya toh. . . ‘ or Dabangg’s ‘Itney chhed karunga ki confuse ho jaoge ki saans kahan sey ley aur padhe kahaan sey. ‘ Ewww.
In these script-writer and directordriven times we live in, Salman remains unapologetically larger than life. The Dabangg role was said to have been written eight times, so it could accommodate all his mannerisms.
When he does a movie, the heroine is a prop, there are item songs and a sparingly clad woman, but it’s Salman who gets the maximum whistles. And as he spins his sunglasses and tucks them into the back of his shirt, you wonder if in him, India’s north has found an answer to Rajnikanth. The whistles make you feel they have.
In the late 1990s, as liberalisation gathered steam, Bollywood gradually got ‘multiplexed’. Ticket prices soared to over Rs 100 – singlescreen theatres charged Rs 20 for a rear stall ticket those days – the new temples of entertainment became unaffordable, hence off-limits, for the underclass. Cinema halls, once a democratic platform of sharing for different classes, became social ghettos of the moneyed. This, with the rise of the dollar-dripping NRI sector as an important market, created a tectonic shift in Bollywood content. Pretty, young directors made pretty, urban-centric, feel-good movies for pretty girls to watch with their prettier boyfriends. The underprivileged and everything that was construed as uncomfortable to this audience’s tastes were effaced from celluloid.
Dabangg is mainstream Bollywood’s reclamation of that lost world. Earlier this year, two successful movies showed winds of change were blowing;Ishqiya, which was funny but niche in an adult sort of way, and Rajneeti, a political thriller. But Salman Khan’s knuckle-crushing movie marks the thumping return of that delightful subgenre : the unapologetic mainstream masala action flick set in small-town north India. When they clap and dance even in multiplexes, you realise this movie has broken fresh ground. This is the revenge of small towns.
Dabangg – pronounced ‘The Bang’ by those who take pride in failing their Hindi tests – blends Salman’s irreverent masculinity with paisa vasool dialogues and some of the most original action scenes in Mumbai cinema. But the movie is more than the sum of its parts. It appears fullfrontal, but is layered with a larger social subtext.
The film manages to recreate mofussil Uttar Pradesh both in sight and soul, even though the movie was shot elsewhere. The champakal (handpump ), the chakki and the thresher – now forgotten by mainstream Bollywood, form part of the movie’s landscape. The extras dancing on the streets amidst shops of ittar, surma and bangles look like genuine small-town boys and girls. The movie is comfortable in its skin. When the item girl sways to the Bhojpuri-inspired floor-scorcher, Main Zandu Balm hui, darling tere liye, Munni badnaam hui, darling tere liye, she keeps the movie’s symmetry intact. When did you last see a hero in a mainstream Bollywood film drinking from a water tap, dressed in a lungi-ganjee ? To a substantial audience section, the movie evokes something barely remembered.
Dabangg doesn’t exist in a time warp. The movie romances the small town, but never gets mawkish. Rather, it internalises everything that has changed in the kasbah. The lascivious zamindar has been replaced by the upstart bahubali, also a rising youth leader with an eye on the local MLA seat. Even the baddies in Lalganj have footstomping caller tunes on their mobiles.
Amidst all this masala, Dabangg unleashes an anti-hero seldom seen before. In traditional Bollywood, small-town and hinterland heroes are keepers of morality. Chulbul Pandey isn’t. The hero with a name you are more likely to find in regional cinema than a premier Bollywood flick isn’t a cross between a maryada purshottam Ram and a veer Arjun. He hates his step-brother, refuses to touch his step-father’s feet and is abusive and corrupt. It is the sort of thing Shakti Kapoor used to do in the 1980s. Pandeyji doesn’t really have a moral code;only a survivor’s sharpness. And he remains that way for 75 per cent of the movie. That he still remains a hero is as much a triumph of Salman’s stylised acting as what we, the people, have internalised over the years;corruption is no big deal, being ‘smart’ and a winner is. Pandeyji could very well be the ethical template of millions watching the movie.
The film is a personal triumph for Salman. Sleeping on the pavement may still not be a good idea if he is driving around or being a black buck might be risky if he’s in the vicinity. And Pakistan would love to telecast his recent television interview forever. But when it comes to figuring out the people’s pulse, few come closer.
Salman’s biceps in Veergati started the ‘bodybuilding’ craze in mid-1990 s small-town India, an affair that still continues. In every gym, he is Bollywood’s poster-boy Number 1. Yet, a few exceptions aside, his biggest hits were either romantic comedies or emotional dramas such as Maine Pyaar Kiya, Hum Aapke Hain Koun and Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam. On the other hand, Sunny Deol, Sanjay Dutt, Ajay Devgn and Akshay Kumar all began their careers as men of muscle. But as Mumbai cinema got manicured, the action heroes slowly abandoned their fists of fury and re-invented themselves as funny-faced comics and romantics.
The new Salman adroitly filled that gap. True, he was always at home in combat yarns like Karan Arjun. But with Wanted and Dabangg, he has positioned himself as Bollywood’s premier action hero. His dream combo – soft face, tough body – that Dharmendra peddled profitably right through the 1970s ensures that women get plenty to ogle at. In Dabangg, Salman also brings in a dash of irreverence. He is part-Shatrughan Sinha/Rajnikanth and part-himself. There’s symmetry to his performance as Chulbul Pandey, destined to become part of popular Hindi cinema folklore.
What Salman and debutant director Abhinav Singh Kashyap prove in this unstoppable action tale is that there is enough space for ‘unfashionable’ India to be the backdrop of a Bollywood blockbuster and that well-made movies packed with kicks, screams, explosions and gunfire also have a chance. Not everybody digs We are Family. And that includes the pretty girls and their prettier arm-candies in the multiplexes.
Inside Khan Market
Fists fly. Muscles ripple. Bones break and jaws shatter as Salman Khan takes on his opponents in the latest Bollywood blockbuster. Every time Khan decimates an on-screen irritant, rips off his shirt or breaks into a jig hitching his belt up and down or pulling a towel between his legs, we are reminded of how different he is from the other two stars within the same league – Aamir and Shah Rukh Khan. Although the three share their birth year, 1965, and live in the leafy Mumbai locale of Bandra, the similarities end there.
Since Aamir’s debut in 1988, followed by Salman’s entry in 1989 and Shah Rukh’s arrival in 1992, the three have carved out distinct cinematic spaces of their own, demarcating territories in the film market, framing separate sections of the massive gallery they play to with charisma and talent. The division of space between the three has not been a planned strategy;it has grown organically, evolving at its own pace, nurtured by audience tastes, tempered by each star’s predilections. Trade analyst Taran Adarsh explains, “When the Khans came onto the scene, Bollywood was changing enormously. Its focus was shifting from entertaining the masses to pleasing the classes. The NRI and multiplex audience came into focus. These three actors combined with different filmmakers targeting diverse sections of the audience. As sensibilities matched, spaces began emerging.”
The ‘spaces’ gained significance beyond cinema. Image and brand expert Dilip Cherian comments, “Distinctions between the three Khans are clear. Aamir is the Thinking Khan. Shah Rukh is Everyman’s Khan. And Salman is the Poor Man’s Khan. When companies want to launch, staunch or expand their market base, they approach Shah Rukh. He has instant cross-sector appeal. Aamir’s advertisements are more complex. They’re the thinking man’s clever ads. Salman represents mass brands. His appeal is direct and macho at base level. ” Film critic Raja Sen however feels, “Salman is an old-school superstar. He has a larger than life persona with no pretensions. He revels in being an unreal character while the other two strive for reality.”
In the pursuit of reality, the ‘first Khan’, Aamir, has grown into a somewhat nawabi figure, a carefully-crafted artist whose understanding of cinema is becoming legend. Equally comfortable at foreign film festivals or giving viewers promotional haircuts, Aamir began by playing soft-faced lover-boys. He dived deep into drama, gave wacky comedy a go, explored shades of grey, played an ‘ordinary farmer’ in the extraordinary Lagaan, portrayed an uber-urbane playboy, performed action and directed a film exploring a child’s limitation set against the freedom of his imagination. In all this, Aamir’s target viewer seems to be the urban Indian multiplex-goer who pays premium prices to catch the star’s funny, moving, musingly intelligent films. Despite his awareness of the film business, Aamir never discusses commerce publically, focusing on characters, art and politics in his statements rather than money, awards or advertisements. His screen characters are similarly driven not by riches or fame, but larger social goals or finer individual motivations.
At the opposite end of the screen stands Shah Rukh, the only Khan who entered the industry as an outsider and still seems awed by his own phenomenal success. Debuting as a crazed lover, the early 1990s saw a series of movies featuring Shah Rukh as a demented deewana who couldn’t see where social norms and legality began or ended. His blindness to borders was indicative of more to come. With Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, Shah Rukh’s geographical ambit widened while his protagonists, playful, sensuous and stylish, began taking on a standardised sameness, the star playing a ‘Non-Resident Indian’ whose life is neatly folded between consumption, passion and tradition. Keenly perceptive about the times, Shah Rukh embraced the glittering brashness of the arriviste. He gave voice to the nouveau riche aspirant who achieved on his own strength and wanted more with no qualms attached. Success, adulation and money were here and now;the past was nostalgia and the future unknown. Shah Rukh’s target viewer resembles his screen characters;located overseas or in urbanised Indian pockets, driven by aspiration, consumption and contradictions that further fuel the first two.
Then there is Salman, the man in the middle whose career has been the most unpredictable. Of the three Khans, Salman has perhaps been most heavily influenced by American popular culture and Hollywood in particular. From his first success in Maine Pyar Kiya, Salman played the Indian who returns home from America. His very physicality is shaped by the imagery of the Hollywood action star, the sculpted muscles and rippling abs of a Stallone, a Schwarzenegger, a Seagal. His career evolved accordingly;from playing the long-haired lover, Salman stepped firmly into close-cut action. He carefully tempered violence on screen with large doses of humour. His comedy can be loud and crass. However, this just goes into his larger persona.
Salman taps into the audience’s deeper imagining of a Hindi heartland feudal, not a polished nawab or an urbane professional, but a small-town bahubali. This persona’s writ (and vehicle) runs well above the law but he is also imbued with a noblesse oblige that comes from relationships of give and take, obligation and power. Modern legality has little place in this picture. This is a web of strong-threaded, fine-woven emotion tapping into history, hierarchy and homoerotica, all of which feed right back into the ardour with which fans surround their ‘Salman-bhai’. Taran Adarsh comments, “I’m always amazed at how loyal Salman’s fan base is. They hero-worship him. He’s like a member of their family. If anyone says anything bad about him, they pounce on them. He is literally the darling of the masses.”
Salman’s target viewer appears to be the small-town or semi-urban youth living on the margins of the metropolis, who admires the star’s physicality, his ability to crack jokes and bones together and his wooing of women with chivalry and violence. There is another aspect to Salman’s audience. Raja Sen remarks, “Of the three Khans, Salman is the only one with a religious fan base. He is himself secular and comes from a multicultural family. However, he has a massive following of Muslim fans who see him as one of their own, who make time for his movies. Unlike the other two Khans, Salman has never shied away from playing Muslim characters in films. Only now, someone’s name is Khan! But Salman’s been in that space years ago.”
The distinctions are clear. Are they water-tight though? At times, Shah Rukh has dribbled his way into what might be seen as Aamir Khan territory, Aamir has punched his way into Salman’s action zone and Salman, as with Dabangg, has smashed the barriers between metropolis and mofussil, multiplex and single-screen. Interestingly, despite all the talk of rivalries, camps and competition, the three Khans never release their films simultaneously, instead spacing these out with months between them. Evidently, market segmentation is not iron-clad. For a hard day’s night, it might well be that the Indian viewer, regardless of class, location or leaning, would just like some robust, wellrounded entertainment. The three Khans understand this better than anyone else in the industry. That’s why they rule it.