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Khan of Khans

The industry has taken to calling him the Rajinikanth of the north. Once the Bad Boy of Bollywood, 45-year-old Salman Khan has suddenly become the darling of the masses, a man who, by his sheer presence, can yank a film to superhit status. It’s not just his handsome face or his gym-toned torso. As one industry insider puts it, “His charm is deadly, it can ensnare you; it’s his X-factor.”

That jaw-dropping X-factor is at work again. After the phenomenal success of Dabangg last year, Salman Khan is turbo charging yet another film, Ready, to box office gold. It’s a witless comedy, but to his millions of screaming, adoring fans, it’s classic Salman Khan and they can’t wait to have enough of it.

To decode the magic that’s Salman, you have to travel deep into Khan territory to his father’s sea-view apartment in a building that’s nondescript and middle class, albeit expensively located at the turn of a prominent promenade in Bandra, Mumbai’s upscale suburb. Salim, the 75-year-old patriarch, is legendary as much for his scriptwriting credits (think Sholay, Naam) as his hospitality, and serves up crackling wit, chicken curry and Alphonso mangoes, as he talks about his most famous son.

People drift through his home with accustomed familiarity his younger daughter Arpita who goes over the paperwork, his younger son Sohail, the family physician Dr Sanjeev Chopra. They are all nice and likeable, qualities that seem to attach themselves to people around this clan. And on the ground floor lives the superstar, whose pizza bills are apt to make their way up to his father’s house.

“A star father was complaining bitterly about his son moving out of the family home,” says Salim Khan. But he has the opposite “complaint”, he says wryly, for his family never wanders far from one another, no matter what their professional fortunes are.

In recent years, the charismatic Salman Khan has been on a dream run. His ability to turn in blockbusters regularly makes you forget his occasional duds like Veer or London Dreams. Dabangg turned out to be one of the biggest hits of all times, and overtook 3 Idiots in top opening week collections. It raked in Rs 48 crore in net collections in its first week (3 Idiots garnered Rs 42 crore) while Ready, his latest release, has done Rs 40 crore in the first few days. “It is stupendous; usually figures drop on Mondays and Tuesdays, but even on a Wednesday it was phenomenal,” says Komal Nahta, editor of Film Information and koimoi.com.

Among his peers, he is no longer the last in a Khan triumvirate. You can say Salman, Aamir and Shah Rukh in whichever order, instead of “and Salman Khan” as said previously. Indeed, if you have to rank them according to the last hit films, it’s Salman who makes it to pole position.

Even on television, his debut turn with Dus Ka Dum raised a faltering channel (Sony) to third rank and last year’s Bigg Boss 4, which he hosted, scored big eyeballs. From ‘Bad’ he has gone to ‘Blue-eyed’ Boy, as director-choreographer Farah Khan, who has known him since their childhood, puts it. “What he is doing is irrelevant, audiences just love him,” industry insiders say.

“It’s very rare for a 45-year-old to bounce back like he has. He is almost recreating the glorious days of Hum Aapke Hain Kaun. He is the darling of the guys, the girls, the classes, the masses,” says Nahta.

That evening “the darling” is at home, dressed in a trendy frayed jeans and a snug white T-shirt emblazoned with “Get Ready for Chillar Party”, a reference to the first film produced by his charity, Being Human (BH). He looks slimmer than he does on camera, and has obviously had a good night’s sleep.

Khan’s own take on why people connect with him is simple: “Somewhere, the common man sees himself in me. I am very easily reachable. What I do they can do too. I connect with people because what I have done is real life stuff.”

Not really most people have not romanced a string of beautiful girls. “If they can handle it, they are more than welcome,” he shoots back with a smile.

“He is a working class hero, the ultimate tough guy and a man’s man as evidenced by his association with the advertisement for Pepsico’s Mountain Dew (the ad had him doing a stunt jump from 10,000ft). But he is also the eternal romantic and a ladies’ man, a trait that the Sangini jewellery ad (with Kareena Kapoor) captures,” says Vivek Kamath, director of celebrity client company Matrix India Entertainment.

Kamath explains his client’s brand positioning. “On the big screen, Khan plays different characters. On TV he plays himself. The success of Dabangg and Bigg Boss proved his appeal on both the formats.” While Kamath won’t put a figure to his total portfolio, he says Khan makes between Rs 6 and Rs 8 crore from each of his brand endorsements. His take-home from films, which includes a share in the profits as well, could range anywhere between Rs 15 crore and Rs 22 crore, reckons Nahta.

In Ready, Khan does his trademark pastiche, getting away with stunningly low-brow humour and pelvic thrusts that, for some strange reason, come across as less lewd than comic. “For Salman you choreograph stuff that only Salman can do. Remember the towel movement (imagine a bronco bucking a towel!) in Mujhse Shaadi Karoge? Can you imagine any other hero carrying it off,” laughs Farah Khan. She is convinced Salman Khan the choreographer lurks somewhere inside Salman Khan the actor.

He has been controversy’s favourite child in the past, be it his many troublous affaires des coeurs, a drunk driving mishap that claimed three lives, or jail time in Rajasthan for allegedly killing a protected blackbuck during a spot of hunting with other actors. He brushes off the nightmare of the Jodhpur jail with an “I was in Miami, in a one bedroom suite.” His uncle who saw his ‘suite’ dissolved into tears, earning a rebuke from Salim Khan: “Kaunse Pathan ho?

The Khan family tree has its roots in the Pashtun Akozai (or Alokazai) tribe in Afghanistan. Five generations ago, Salman’s forefathers drifted into the British cavalry, and later settled in Jawda in Madhya Pradesh. His grandfather was a senior police officer in Indore, where the actor was born. His mother, Salma, is Maharashtrian while his stepmother is Helen, the former dancing queen of Bollywood, who has acted with him in some of his movies.

In Ready, Khan is once again a character called Prem, a recurrent moniker since his first film where he played the lead, Maine Pyar Kiya (1989) although Dabangg’s Chulbul Pandey is probably a more apt nomenclature. “The roles that I am doing right now are the right ones. A 19-20-year-old guy can’t be a Dabangg,” says Salman who still counts MPK as his best film. “If I do it now, I will mess it up big time. I lack the vulnerability and innocence. It’s not there now. You see me like this, same boy 20 years older but the innocence is gone,” he says simply. He felt like the “biggest fraud” in Baghban, where he played a dutiful, soft-spoken man with a heart of gold. “That was not me at all. I was feeling the hollowness of it all.”

Evidently, he is so used to being dissed that any praise for his performances in films like Khamoshi or Dabangg or Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, brings a self-deprecatory dismissal. “You can catch me doing anything. You can’t catch me acting. My father always says you are working to 2 per cent of your capacity. I am increasing it to minus 1,” he grins.

The key to his appeal is his likeability and unusual candour. With this Khan, what you see is what you get. “What do you care,” he heatedly retorted when a gaggle of TV reporters asked him about marriage plans with ex-girlfriend Katrina Kaif. He can laugh at himself and do his signature movements on TV, he will have previews for the underprivileged, and do charity often quietly and always impulsively.

It’s a standing joke among his close friends that he can turn any occasion into an impromptu blood donation drive, pulling in everyone from his entourage from bodyguards to star buddies like Aamir Khan.

Salman’s charity Being Human was launched in 2006 in an effort to streamline his philanthropic work. Dr Chopra, who is a practising gynaecologist, looks after the non-profit organisation, and gives away cheques to patients who can’t afford medical treatment. Chopra was Khan’s senior at St Stanislaus School in Bandra, and can reel off endless anecdotes about his friend’s generosity.

Two of them are worth telling. A truck driver casually asked a capped and unrecognisable Salman the time as they drew up alongside on a highway, and minutes later found a Rolex watch on his wrist. Another time, a midnight walk by the sea ended with Salman hailing an autorickshaw. When Chopra went back to the actor’s house, he found the bemused auto driver tucking into dinner.

He also paints; one of his creations sold for Rs 1 crore. He has auctioned his paintings to raise funds for his charity, and also gifted them to friends like Aamir Khan, Sushmita Sen and Sridevi.

Ninety per cent of the organisation’s corpus comes from Khan who admits that he was hurt by the industry’s indifference to the cause. Akshay Kumar (Rs 50 lakh), Karan Johar, Katrina Kaif, Sonakshi Sinha, Sanjay Dutt and Sajid Nadiadwala were among the few who contributed. Khan rolls his eyes as he recounts how some stars who have their own charities will lend only their name to them but no money.

“A friend asked me, ‘How is it that you’re able to spot distress?’ My response was, ‘Par hum rukh jaate’. Others move on. When I was about 15-16, I had a bike accident and found myself on my back with everyone peering at me but not doing anything to help,” he recalls.

The star says he is damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t. “I have always been outspoken, since childhood. I will frame a sentence with abusive language but I say what I feel. But that is sometimes distorted. Imagine you are having a conversation in your house and the next day it’s in print. Even you will squirm,” he points out.

Farah Khan feels that the actor is truly transparent, “He means what he says, he has no agenda. If he likes you he will love you whether you are the president or a spotboy. If he hates you, he will hate you whether you are the president or the spotboy. He has that childlike quality that I see in my children. In the industry there is a lot of ruthlessness and game playing. He is innocent of all that.”

Known in the industry as Bhai, this superstar Khan wears his heart on his sleeve. He believes he gets docked for misdemeanour where others get off. “Main karoon toh saala character dheela hai” (I am crucified for what others get away with, to translate loosely), the chartbuster from Ready is his riposte to the world, if you will.

Khan turned in some of his biggest hits for his brothers’ films. Big bang Dabangg was the first film produced by younger sibling actor-turned-producer Arbaaz, who was catapulted from lame duck to derby horse, as their father puts it. Actor and youngest brother Sohail is a co-producer of Ready. Sohail, who has previously directed both his brothers in the blockbuster Pyaar Kiya To Darna Kya (1998) and produced the hit Partner (Salman and Govinda), jokes that he got into production and events management “because I can only get Salman Bhai’s dates once in two years.”

He roped in Bhai as the icon of his Mumbai Heroes team in the Celebrity Cricket League event, to pull the crowds. Khan’s next release in August is also a family affair, produced by his brother-in-law, actor Atul Agnihotri.

Professional jealousy doesn’t singe the tight-knit trio. They were done with their violent fights as kids (Salman apparently jammed a pencil into Arbaaz’s chest). “When we were around 14-15, we got very close. We brothers stick together like mercury,” he says mysteriously, his fingertips rubbing together to illustrate the point.

At 45, having romanced beauty queens and actresses like Sangeeta Bijlani, Aishwarya Rai (with whom he had a very public break-up) and Katrina Kaif (they will be co-starring in a Yash Raj film), the question he is asked most is when he will marry. “Bhai, tu shaadi kar le,” a concerned netizen beseeches. “Even God doesn’t know when he will,” says Farah Khan. His father wishes Salman would marry, for “marriage will bring stability in his erratic life,” but the problem, adds Pappa, is “that marriage is never on the agenda for the women stars who come in contact with him. And if he does marry, to make it work he will have to sacrifice some temptations.”

Claims an actor friend who does not want to be named, “Except for one, Salman is on good terms with all his exes.” A rather humble Bhai took the blame for all his break-ups. “I must be at fault,” he said on a show. He demurs when asked his idea of romance, “You won’t understand.” On urging, he says “My idea of romance no candlelight dinner, no chocolate, roses. My idea is hello, what happened, you ok? Good. Bye bye.”

Life’s experience has been his biggest teacher, he says, reflecting on the journey so far. “In my 40s, I am the same guy I was in my teens but you lose the innocence or naivete. But innocence today is considered being stupid, bewaqoof. So, what does one be,” he smiles.

Going by the public response, he seems to be just fine. The hysteria at the Ready premiere in Dubai, or the previews for children, or a TV host archly feeling his biceps and leaning to hug him on a scarlet bed, or fans literally launching themselves at him he handles them all with an array of comic gestures or eye roll, and sometimes, even the odd display of annoyance.

When everyone wants a piece of him, how does he stay in touch with reality? His gesture sweeps his apartment, “See where I live,” he smiles. It is a minimalist one-bedroom flat on the ground floor of the same building Dad stays in. He won’t move to a swankier flat he owns five minutes away. That would be 300 seconds too far from his childhood home, where he has lived almost all his life.

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