'We were more successful than most leading pairs'
|Illustration- Ashoke Mullick|
The question doesn’t really come as a surprise. We are having lunch when scriptwriter Salim Khan — one half of the famed Salim-Javed duo — asks me if I am related to Javed Akhtar. “If you were, you wouldn’t have been here,” puts in one of Khan’s friends.
Indeed, Akhtar, whose split with Khan was almost as dramatic as the stories the two penned together, has been popping up every now and then in our conversation. After all, the two were almost inseparable once — almost like the Bollywood twins they so fondly weaved stories around.
We are in his house — Galaxy Apartment — on Bandstand in Mumbai. I was a bit nervous to begin with. Khan had stressed on the phone that we would not discuss his son, the actor Salman Khan. I knew his parting with Akhtar had been bitter, and wasn’t quite sure how to broach the topic. And how would I bring up his second marriage with former dancer Helen?
But Khan, 75, is surprisingly congenial. “I generally do not say yes to interviews but as you have travelled all the way from Calcutta, it’s my duty to talk to you,” he says.
Khan, who worked with Abrar Alvi, the man who created celluloid magic along with director Guru Dutt, writing his scripts for a host of films, gradually opens up. “I’ve promised to give you time, so ask me what you want to — even if it’s about Helenji,” he says.
Though they have been married for 30 years, it’s not a subject that Khan talks about. But the rift that the marriage caused has seemingly been healed. His life, clearly, revolves around his children — Salman, Arbaaz, Sohail and Alvira, all from his first marriage with Salma, and Arpita, whom he and Helen adopted.
Khan first met Salma in 1959. “I courted her for almost five years before we tied the knot in 1964,” he says. But he had come across Helen before he and Salma met. Helen was those days making a mark as a dancer and actress, and Salim was trying to be an actor. They worked in several films together, including Sarhadi Lootera and Teesri Manzil.
“I won’t be able to say when exactly I fell in love with her or decided to marry her. After seeing her for quite a long time we decided to honour our relationship. We got married in 1980,” he adds.
His second marriage created ripples. “No one is a perfect husband or a wife. Things like this do happen,” he says. “There were initial problems, but Salma accepted the marriage and the differences were ironed out.”
But his differences with Akhtar — 29 years after the two split — are still to be resolved. Khan, however, talks warmly about the days the two reigned in Bollywood. “That was the era of Salim-Javed,” he says. “As a twosome we were more successful than most leading pairs,” he says.
Scriptwriters, he points out, bring their own experiences to a film. He cites the example of the mausi scene in Sholay — where Amitabh Bachchan is trying to get his friend Dharmendra married. “This was taken from a real incident where I was trying to convince Honey Irani’s mother to get Javed and Honey married,” he says with a chuckle. The two did marry — it was years later that Akhtar married Shabana Azmi.
The duo’s work, he stresses, forced the industry to give credit to scriptwriters. “Those days, a writer’s status was like that of an untouchable,” he says.
For Khan, recognition came late, even though he was struggling in Mumbai since his early 20s.
He had grown up in Indore, where his father was a police officer. A strict disciplinarian when it came to education, he used to get a copy of The Statesman every day, and insist that his son go through it. “I was only nine then but my father would ask questions to make sure that I’d read and understood what was written.”
The passion for reading grew, and soon young Salim was poring over stories in the pages of newspapers that his parathas or a pair of new shoes came wrapped in. “I have a good memory, and that helped me fit details that I read into the plots I later wove. Perhaps that is the secret of my success.”
Salim was 23 when he decided to go to Mumbai and seek work as an actor. “I had grown up to be a handsome man. The girls were crazy about me. I was even a trained pilot,” he says. A chance encounter with filmmaker K. Amarnath helped him get a role in a Hindi film. But Prince Salim — the name he debuted with — flopped.
“After working in 25 films as an actor I understood that I was not cut out to be an actor because I lacked the art of projection. But by then it was too late — how could I have gone back to Indore?”
Another chance meeting — this time with writer Javed Akhtar — changed his life forever. One day Khan bumped into Akhtar, who was an assistant director for S.M. Sagar’s production house where Khan worked as a scriptwriter. “I was already scripting when I met Javed, who was seeking a break as a director. The moment we met, we clicked.”
The partnership with Akhtar began when Khan was asked by the Sagars to script a film for them. “Javed offered to pen it with me and I agreed. We went on to script not one but 18 hit films together,” he says.
As he speaks about the most talked about chapter of his life, the twinkle in his eyes loses its sparkle. “Javed wanted to use our brand name for the lyrics he penned. I wasn’t interested in writing lyrics. Scripting was my forte, so I said no to his offer. And then one fine day, he said he wanted to split. I wished him luck and walked home,” says Khan tersely.
What followed hurt him more. Khan says the split occurred just when Helen’s mother died, and he had to leave Mumbai for the funeral. When he returned, he found that the break-up had been made public. “I found that Amitabh (Bachchan), whom I had introduced to (director) Manmohan Desai, was endorsing Javed and people were questioning my credibility,” he says.
Khan is bitter that the industry started doubting the strength of his pen. But the angry young man — a role that Bachchan portrayed in many films scripted by Salim-Javed — was his idea, Khan says.
“People never thought who conceptualised the ideas or who gave the story its punch. If writing was the only criterion, all those scribbling letters sitting outside post offices should be thought of as writers.”
An unhappy Khan left Mumbai for London. Then, one day he got a jolt when someone described him as Helen’s husband. “The truth can be bitter,” he says.
He decided that he had to get back his identity in the film industry. He returned to India and started hunting for work. “When I returned, it was the telephone that reminded me how easily people forget. There was a time when I’d make my drink, and then keep the phone off the hook. And here I was, checking the phone every now and then to see if it was working.”
But Khan had his share of admirers. He came back with a bang when he got to script Naam for Mahesh Bhatt. He made his mark — told the industry that he still had it in him — and then decided to take a bow. These days, apart from distributing films in a few select territories, he is happy playing a role in Salman’s non governmental organisation, Being Human Foundation.
Khan, of course, is more concerned about Salman’s films. He admits he had a look at the script of his super-hit Dabangg and suggested some changes that were incorporated in the film. “But that doesn’t make it my script — it was (director-writer) Abhinav Kashyap’s,” he says.
I am not going to ask a question on Salman — since that was his condition for the interview — but I can’t help wondering how the father dealt with his son’s actions — the so-called abuse of his girlfriends, running over people sleeping on a pavement, and being jailed for killing endangered deer.
Khan reads from an article that he wrote for a Hindi paper when Salman was jailed. It’s an emotional piece depicting the pain of a father when he sees the plight of his son.
As I walk out of his apartment, I suddenly see shades of Salman in his father, who, like the son, dons a small earring and a silver chain studded with a turquoise stone on his right wrist. Now I know why the father is so protective about his son. Khan got a bad deal. And he, for one, is going to make sure that, when it comes to his son, history doesn’t repeat itself.