How Salman Khan's Tryst with Notoriety Led to the Peculiar Nature of his Stardom

06 May 2015
In September 2002, Salman Khan ran over five persons sleeping on a pavement outside a bakery in Bandra at Mumbai. After a trial that last twelve years, the actor was convicted and sentenced to five years in jail.
Roy Madhur / REUTERS

Today afternoon, in conclusion to a 12-year-old trial against Salman Khan for the infamous hit-and-run case of 2002, the actor was sentenced to five years in jail in a Mumbai Sessions Court by Judge DW Deshpande, on the charge of culpable homicide. The accident, which took place on 28 September 2002, when Khan’s car swerved onto a pavement near a bakery in Mumbai, claimed the life of one person and injured four others. In this excerpt from Shohini Ghosh’s piece on Salman Khan prior to the release of his movie Ek Tha Tiger in our October 2012 issue, Ghosh explores the peculiar nature of Khan’s stardom and how his off-screen persona has come to take a toll on his presence onscreen. 

Salman Khan began his career as a romantic hero in Maine Pyar Kiya (1989) and followed up its super success with hits like Saajan(1991), Hum Aapke Hain Koun…! (1994) and Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999). While romantic comedies like Andaz Apna Apna,Pyar Kiya to Darna KyaJudwaaBiwi No. 1No EntryMujhse Shaadi Karogi and Partner consolidated his box-office success, his star persona was created through action films like VeergatiBaaghiAuzaarKaran ArjunJeetGarvTum Ko Na Bhool Payenge,Tere Naam and Wanted. Straddling the borderlines of legality and criminality, the protagonists in these films confront a world of moral anarchy.

“Despite his unquestionable star appeal, box-office clout and exclusive membership of the Khan trinity, Salman has been largely sidelined as the B and C centre hero, the one loved by the masses and inconsequential for the classes,” wrote Namrata Joshi in Outlookin 2010. But the resounding success of Dabangg changed everything. An action-comedy set in the rural badlands, Dabangg was not only a sensational hit in Salman’s traditional fan-base, but also captured the imagination of the urban middle-classes, who were prone to deride Salman-starrers as lacking “class” and “taste”. Salman Khan described the film as a “sten-gun assault on the polite multiplex crowd” who he hoped would “whistle and dance on the chairs”. That is precisely what happened. Reeling under the shock ofDabangg’s success, magazines like Outlook, India Today, Tehelka and Brunch carried cover stories that tried to understand the star’s appeal. The stupendous success of Bodyguard the following year confirmed Salman Khan’s stature as a hero of both the ‘masses’ and the ‘classes’.

Even though Salman is a part of the ‘Khan Triumvirate’ with Aamir and Shahrukh, his stardom has always stood out. Salman possesses neither Aamir’s acting versatility nor Shahrukh’s on-screen charisma. Unlike the duo, he has seldom worked with top directors or big banners and has begun to be selective about his films only recently. Shahrukh started his career playing dark and unconventional roles in films like BaazigarDarr and Anjaam but stopped experimenting after achieving stardom with big-budget entertainers like Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge and Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. His career now remains parked within the safe confines of corporate respectability and countless endorsements. An inventive professional and exceptional actor, Aamir Khan is the hero of urban multiplex audiences and, as testified by the success of Satyamev Jayate, the new poster-boy for corporate social responsibility. Both are admirable icons for an optimistic and upwardly-mobile, post-liberalisation generation spread across India and the diaspora. In contrast, a very large slice of Salman’s traditional fan-base is comprised of those for whom the changes unleashed by the forces of globalisation did not accrue any immediate benefits. Provincial towns, suburban areas, urban slums and mohallas are spaces where Salman reigns. This is also a constituency that matters little to the multiplex economy. This expansive cross-class appeal is what makes Salman Khan’s stardom distinct.

But despite his popularity, Salman Khan is a troubled ‘hero’. Print and electronic media as well as the annals of cyberspace are replete with stories of his violent fits, unstable personal life and criminal allegations over the hunting of protected blackbucks and driving rashly over a sleeping pavement dweller. These stories—of which many versions exist—cast a long shadow over his success. Equally popular are the stories about his generosity and philanthropic work, but even at the best of times, Salman Khan walks a risky tight-rope. There is no telling when he will slip and fall from the Olympian heights of superstardom into the dark crevasse of notoriety.

An extract from The Irresistable Badness of Salman Khan published in the Caravan's October 2012 issue. Read the story in full here

Shohini Ghosh is Sajjad Zaheer Professor at the AJK Mass Communication Research Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia.