The biggest paycheck in Bollywood this year has landed. It reached a star who's 5-foot 9-3/4 inches and weighs 78 kg. He dresses in clothes chosen by his two sisters and lives a floor below his parents. He sleeps for three hours a day and eats five meals daily. He's Salman Khan. And he's made Rs 170 crore and still counting from Dabangg, Rs 24 crore from Bigg Boss 4, and Rs 15 crore from three endorsements signed earlier this year. He is at the top of the entertainment game, measured in the only language Mumbai understands: money.
For someone who started work at 14 and whose first pay was Rs 75 as a background dancer, becoming the star of Bollywood's second biggest hit ever has not been easy. The pinnacle has come 22 years after he began as a doe-eyed, silken-haired 45-kg son of a famous father, a second lead in the tepid Biwi Ho To Aisi. Salman has reason to be pleased though he cannot look you in the eye, mind you. A little accident with a surgery to fix the unflattering pouches under his eyes has ensured that he cannot take off his dark glasses for another week. But as the star sits on his black leather couch, the centrepiece of his one-bedroom flat in Mumbai, with the steaming cup of coffee to be replaced by successive glasses of Bacardi and Coke as the evening wears on, he knows his fans have seen worse. They have seen him wearing a bikini in Baaghi, dancing with a towel between his legs in Mujhse Shaadi Karoge, being a "manly" Marilyn Monroe in Jaan-e-Mann and in Dabangg, romancing a girl who was a year old when he began his career.
And they are not surprised that he now commands Rs 5 crore for each of his five endorsements; that he's taken the ratings of the opening episode of Bigg Boss 4 to a high of 4.83, bettered only by Amitabh Bachchan's Kaun Banega Crorepati 4 TRP of 6.21; and that his next yet-to-be-shot film is being sold at Rs 75 crore. The bhai who never grew up seems to have finally become the boy who can do no wrong. Or even if he does, it is quickly forgiven. Perhaps because he is seen as someone with his heart in the right place and his tongue in the wrong place. As an equal opportunity offender, who, if he is unprofessional, is so with everyone big or small. As a loveable lout who may be feudal and flawed but is still very funny. As a star who is less about the brand and more about the body. Which may explain why while everybody is busy wearing branded clothes, he's happy taking them off.
Perhaps it's because the audience watching him suspects that behind the bluster is a boy who can still get slapped by his father, scriptwriter Salim Khan, and still stands to attention when he's on the phone. In many ways, Salman is the retrosexual man every boy would like to be. His brothers are his best friends and despite having dated four stunningly beautiful professional actors, he still believes that women should not "expose" onscreen. Unlike middle class darlings Shah Rukh Khan and Aamir Khan, film scholar Shohini Ghosh believes Salman's films echo our more complicated "good and bad times". Movies like Tere Naam and Garv portray him as a brooding hero while even in his most raucous comedies he often loses the girl or gets trumped by another star. Like the young Amitabh Bachchan, despite his elite upbringing, he has a common touch. He can play the folk hero of the masses as much as he can embody the rock star swagger.
Salman hasn't worked with too many star directors and he still cannot remember the dialogue of Pyaasa that he and director Sajid Khan had to learn in acting classes with Daisy Irani, but he seems to have found a new commitment to work. Always known more for his body than his brains, he is not only completing movies in one schedule to maintain continuity of physicality and character, but he has also reserved the right of final edit. "When I see a film now, I see it from the point of view of the audience, not myself. Yuvraaj was 25 minutes too long, London Dreams would have been super 35 minutes less, and for Veer, I just needed more shooting dates. It's my fault that I didn't put my foot down. But I didn't whether out of respect or not wanting a misunderstanding. Perhaps they would have been worse if I had put my foot down," he says.
This article appeared in the India Today magazine dated November 1, 2010. Subscribe to the print copy.
It is rare to find a star so unaccustomed to asserting his veto. Perhaps because Salman regards himself as a worker bee, who's broken every bone in his body, save his head, at least three times. He's always worked, whether it was as an assistant to Shashilal Nair for Rs 30 a day or as a model trying to maintain a Rs 300 bank balance. Which is why, among the Khans, he's made the most films-71 compared to 57 for Shah Rukh and 36 for Aamir. Now the madness has a method. Still, don't expect him to come to work before 11 a.m., kiss onscreen ("why mix business with pleasure," he murmurs), or play a villain ("people need to see heroes"). Also make allowances for the days when he won't want to shoot, or will do so only with dark glasses on, because his eyes are puffy. But then once he's on the set, surrounded by his toys (an all-terrain bike, a bicycle, perhaps his Yamahas R6 and R1, and his four dogs, the oddly named Veer, My Love, Saint and Handsum) expect him to do anything the director demands, from one arm push-ups in his breakout film, Maine Pyaar Kiya, which established him as an all-India star a year after Aamir, to arguing with an invisible sky in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam.
He sees a reason for the phenomenal success of Wanted last year, which was like Ghajini before it, a southern import, and re-established the action genre in Bollywood which involves heroes walking through doors and fighting battles with bare hands. "We've had the angry young man, the action hero who would fight for his family or neighbourhood, the romantic hero, the rom-com loser hero. There had to be a reaction," he says. Enter Dabangg, which put the bhaiya in the bhai, and so was born Chulbul Pandey, to join the iconic character Salman has most often played onscreen, loverboy Prem. He's playing him again in Ready, directed by Anees Bazmee. So it's no surprise that Titanic and Braveheart are his kind of films-it may also explain his strange accent. "I believe the entertainment industry is for children or for the child in everyone. Somebody wants to grow up like you, somebody wants to be you, somebody wants to remember their youth by you," he says.
He's not a great fan of change. "I get attached to things. It took me 35 years to go from the floor above to my house here. And that happened only because Sohail (his younger brother) took over my room when I went on a world tour," he says. Rather than being seen as a provider at large for his family, he believes they have been a great support to him. "I have no responsibilities. My family takes care of me more than I take care of them. They've always supported me," he says. Especially when he's in trouble, which can vary from being in Jodhpur Central Jail for six days in 2007 as Prisoner No. 343 in the blackbuck case to 17 days in Thane Central Jail in the hit-and-run case in 2002. His family bristles at the thought of being seen as parasites: "People behave as if he's been parking money in our accounts. No. The greatest thing about him is that he hasn't alienated us from his success. He wants us to enjoy it with him," says brother, actor Arbaaz who is also the producer of Dabangg.
Film critic Nasreen Munni Kabir says Salman doesn't show himself in real life as the perfect, intelligent man but as a feckless fellow who bumbles through life learning from his mistakes as he continuously makes them. "He becomes human to us in a more meaningful way than the high achievers," she points out. As Salman himself says, "Some people think I'm a total jerk. And some people love me to death." He also has a habit of loving to death, as all accounts of him stalking Aishwarya Rai at the height of their romance indicate. Salman seems to have become philosophical about his love life. "You get somebody better for you. That person gets somebody better for them," he says in his famously cryptic way. He has finally learnt to move on romantically, though there is the odd fixation he has with casting lookalikes of his one-time girlfriends. His father puts it more poetically: "Salman suffers from divine dissatisfaction."
For someone who grew up idolising Sanjay Dutt for his "gaadis and girls", he's quite impressed by his own fitness. "My body is better than it ever was," he says, looking at himself in a mirrored wall conveniently next to the sofa on which he receives guests like a mini-head of state. "The only fat I have is under my eyes," he says, denying he ever went in for hair grafting but quietly writing the number of the Dubai doctor who did the honours in case you need it. He keeps himself fit, whether by swimming, playing cricket or football, or simply trekking or cycling to work. He sleeps three hours a day, usually by 5 in the morning. "Either my mind wakes up and my body is tired. Or my body wakes up and my mind says 'go to sleep'. Sometimes both are sleepy and I'm wide awake." And sometimes he wakes up weeping, his pillow wet, dreaming of his days at The Scindia School, Gwalior.
He's had a chequered academic career, weaving in and out of St. Anne's High School, Mumbai; The Scindia School; St. Stanislaus High School, Mumbai; and St. Xavier's, Mumbai, from where he was thrown out. Why? "Attendance. I always had that problem," he mumbles. He dropped out of third year at Elphinstone College, deciding not to take an exam one day because a cricket match seemed more interesting. He also gave up the idea of admission to the JJ School of Art because he thought the crowd was too "arty" for someone who was the proud possessor of a single pair of Wranglers bought by his mother's brother, Tiger Uncle, from Germany. "I wore them until they tore," he says, recalling a time when the family was short of cash. His father agrees. "Remember I struggled for 10 years as an actor before I began writing. And then too, my first paycheck was Rs 10,000 for Haathi Mere Saathi."
A Bandra boy who would often attend midnight mass with his gang after a drinking session, Salman has grown up with a Hindu mother, a Muslim father, and a Catholic stepmother. In many ways, he is Everyman. "What you see is what you get," says director Farah Khan, who's known him since her mother, Menaka Irani, acted with his father in a film, Bachpan, that ran for just one day. "He's never stopped a movie or not completed it even if he knew it was a turkey in the making. When he's good, there's no one like him."
As he contemplates marriage ("I'd like to have children"), a post-retirement career involving painting and working with his charity, the Being Human Foundation, the coolest thing about the always underrated Khan is that he's happy even with his lack of inches. "It's just a bit taller than the heroines and shorter than the villain." Because, of course, it's fun to beat up the bigger guy. Isn't that what heroes do?