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What works for a Salman Khan Film?

In film Kick, which was released in 2014, there is a dialogue which captures the essence of personality of the film’s protagonist essayed by Salman Khan. Spoken in his signature style, the character says, “Mere Bare Mein Itna Mat Sochna … Dil Mein Aata Hoon … Samajh Mein Nahi.” Though it can be understood and appreciated well in Hindi due to its flamboyant and rhythmical touch, it is loosely translated as “Don’t think too much about me. I come straight into the heart. But I cannot be understood.” In metaphorical sense, this line sums up the phenomenon a Salman Khan film has become in the past decade and a half. His films seem to have become critics-proof and the acceptance of his films has been singular and remarkable.

Even his recent film Sultan has received massive opening at the box office and it recorded collections of over Rs300 crore in just twelve days of its release in India itself. This will be his third blockbuster offering after Bajrangi Bhaijaan and Prem Ratan Dhan Payo in over a year. To make the most of this hysteria, it is reported that a leading channel has signed a deal with the actor for satellite rights of his upcoming films. It is reported that the deal value is whopping Rs 1000 crore. So, what exactly works for a Salman Khan film? Is it his personality? Is it his physique? Is it what he represents as a star? Or is it a combination of these factors and something beyond them? To understand this, one needs to look at the way his career has shaped up since his debut in 1988 in film Biwi Ho To Aisi.

The actor before the star

The late 1980s and early 1990s marked the debut of the three Khans—Aamir Khan, Salman Khan and Shahrukh Khan. The debut film of each of these actors had a common theme: Love story. For a long time, these actors chose films which had love story as the dominant theme. Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak consolidated the image of boy-next-door of Aamir Khan, Maine Pyaar Kiya showed ideals-and-honour bound lover whose value system was impeccable in Salman Khan and Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge presented Shahrukh Khan as likeable and intense lover boy who again never lost his value system even when he grew up abroad.

During these times, for Salman Khan, a viewers’ base was being developed which had range. On the one hand, he would work in film like Hum Aapke Hain Kaun, which catered to the urban elite, the haves, and their richness and gaiety and which stressed the importance of family as a unit while on the other hand would he would do a film like Judwa which catered to the have-nots and provided an escapist entertainment. Till the late 1990s, films such as Andaz Apna Apna, Karan Arjun, Khamoshi: The Musical, Love and Sajan, Pathar Ke Phool and Sangdil Sanam, though may not be conscious choices, ensured that his fans in the elite and the lower strata of society remained intact.

In these films, Salman Khan developed an image of a soft, romantic, and immensely likeable hero who could also act. A viewer who has been an auto rickshaw driver for over fifteen years and a self-confessed Salman fan says, “When he started out in films there were three things we liked about his films: story, his personality and songs. He never failed us on these three things.” His selection of films ensured that these three things were never compromised. While Salman Khan did a few action films such as Veergati he seldom came to be noticed as an action hero. It was a title which was earned by his contemporaries who were of the same age as he was and who were slightly older to him. Actors such as Sunny Deol, Sanjay Dutt, Sunil Shetty and Akshay Kumar filled the slot of action and drama films and came into prominence largely because of these films.

The “O O Jaane Jaana” impact

It was the release of film Pyaar Kiya Toh Darna Kya in 1998 a wave began to develop and pervade among Salman Khan’s admirers. This wave not only expanded his image but also gave an endearing and catchy edge. It was the wave of developing physique. It is this wave his admirers say spread gym culture in cities. A 35 years old cinema buff points out, “We had seen heroes removing their shirts or T-Shirts in action scenes. But it was the first time we saw an actor who took off his shirt not for an action scene but for a song. And that song was O O Jaane Jaana from film Pyaar Kiya Toh Darna Kya. In a way, this song became a sort of a refrain with Salman Khan as he would just remove his shirt at the drop of a hat.” He says, “It became almost a conscious strategy in his films and it worked for his films and fans.” Another film buff who credits Salman Khan for the gym culture in youth says, “Just like we had seen Miss World and other beauty pageant winners endorsing foreign cosmetics brands in India, Salman Khan became synonymous with gym culture which promoted model-like gym body which would be completely shaved and which was different from wrestler kind of body.”

It was not just his body that enhanced his fans’ base. Hindi films industry had Sunny Deol, Sanjay Dutt (who is reported to have encouraging Salman Khan into bodybuilding), and Sunil Shetty during the 1990s who were known for their physique. For Khan, there was a combination of two factors that worked. The aforementioned actions had large degree of masculinity in their face. This was not the case with Salman Khan. A female viewer captures these sentiments well. She says, “Post-Pyaar Kiya Toh Darna Kya, Salman’s personality became a combination of a hero who not only had a chocolate boy face but also an enviable physique. Action heroes such as Sunny Deol and Sunil Shetty were too masculine.” She adds, “When he had not made his physique it was his face which was an attraction and quite naturally it appealed to only females. After building an enviable physique, he appealed to both females and males. These elements of his star personality have been constant offerings in his films. And these elements have ensured his star pull and appeal at the box office.”

In subsequent years, Salman Khan’s films worked on these elements. It was in early part of 2000s things began to change. By this time, Aamir Khan had positioned himself as an actor who would do fewer films that would have content and also commercial imperatives. Shahrukh Khan continued with his image of a romantic star barring a few performance-driven films such as Swades, Paheli and Chak De India. Salman Khan continued with a few romantic such as Mujse Shaadi Karoge, Maine Pyaar Kyun Kiya? and Har Dil Jo Pyaar Karega. These films showed less of actor in him but of his personality. With the exception of films such as Tere Naam and Garv, his most films had hardly anything new to offer in terms of his personality, his acting prowess or story structure. As a result of this, he had string of flops in films such as Marigold, God Tussi Great Ho, Heroes and Yuvvraaj.

But it was the film Wanted, which released in 2009, saved his career’s downfall and brought a new facet to his offerings.

The slot

The film Wanted proved to be the most profitable serendipity in Salman Khan’s film career. It came at a time when mass entertainers with larger than life characters were hardly made. Shahrukh Khan had attempted to connect with the masses with films such as Ram Jaane he was not successful. On the other hand, though Aamir Khan had had successfully connected with the masses with his tapori (rowdy) character in Rangeela, he had become conscious of not repeating himself with another mass entertainer. So, the slot for mass entertainers seemed to be unclaimed. This slot of mass entertainers provided a new lease for life for Salman Khan’s career.

An official remake of Telugu film Pokiri, the film Wanted provided Hindi cinema audience the mass entertainers which they had missed for a long time. Released on Eid of 2009, it was a blockbuster which began a new phase in Salman Khan’s career. After Wanted, films such as Dabangg, Bodyguard, Kick, Bajrangi Bhaijaan and the recent Sultan cemented Salman Khan’s position as a star who is known for his mass entertainers. Piyush Roy, critic and film historian, Centre for South Asian Studies, University of Edinburgh says, “There have been certain factors working for Salman Khan films in general – a tested by box-office, safe formulaic mix of comedy, action and romance (filling in the need for Mithun/Dharmendra romantic actioners of the 1980s or the Govinda-esque comedies of the 1990s). But what has been working with Salman’s films especially after Wanted and Dabangg, is ‘Performance’ with a capital P and a technical finesse in presentation that big studios do assure. Salman the star, has finally started pushing the actor within, the last being Bajrangi Bhaijaan.

He adds, “Also he is experimenting with young and new directors and going beyond veteran favourite directors such as David Dhawan, Sanjay Leela Bhansali and Sooraj Barjatya. This has worked for his films immensely.” He says, “Each of Salman’s recent films have been clean, masala entertainers and, with a clear message. They are made with conviction and not confusion (a la Abhinav Kashyap’s Besharam), which some of the equally well-meaning independent films often suffer from.” He points out that the choice of films has been equally important factor that has been working for Salman’s films in recent years.

He says, “Films like Sultan and Bajrangi Bhaijaan are welcome additions to good and old masala films especially in the tradition of Manmohan Desai/Prakash Mehra classics. Take for instance, the film Sultan. The film is a fine blend of thrilling combat and mature romance told with indulgent love for a Desi sport (like khusti) and pride in the famed Jat stubbornness that reveals an adorable side to Haryana that too exists beyond the sorry stories of female infanticides, honour killings and Khap panchayats.” This blend of larger than stories with a social message has worked enormously for recent Salman films. “Salman’s recent films are in tradition with the Desai/Mehra films that entertained with a good multi-emotional story, with relatable characters and a consistent message/concern subtly reinforced throughout. The audience does not mind a message, as long as it is not didactic and sermonising, or lamenting without any offer of hope. Each of Salman’s recent successes came riding on strong social messages on contemporary issues where the star also didn’t mind the story and the support cast to shine where it was necessary, thus letting his superhero superstar a persona, relatable finesse “, he explains.

Another factor that has worked for recent Salman films is the increasing category of aspirational audience who are confused about choices in life. Sanjay Ranade, associate professor, department of Journalism and Communications, University of Mumbai points out, “There is a definite category of audience which like Salman Khan’s films. This includes urban working class youth who is either underemployed or unemployed. These are excess educated labourers from India’s farming, shop keepers, artisan and trading sectors from various parts of the country. These are born in the 1990s. They are definitely educated, have global aspirations. They know what they want but don’t how to get it. They have become aspirational. For them, a Salman Khan film is a platter. They don’t know how to choose. They are confused. But they want everything.”

He explains, “If you observe characters played by Salman Khan in his films, he will do everything—from comedy to action to drama in two to three hours slot of the film.” He adds, “There are contradictions in the characters portrayed by Salman Khan and him as a public figure. But these audiences accept it because they face the same contradictions in their lives. But often the intention behind watching a Salman’s film is to de-stress. People go for de-stressing. It is a small escape. It is like a sauna bath.” He expects that in the coming years the category of aspirational audience which is confused about choices in life will increase and it will contribute significantly to the box office collections of mass entertainers. For Salman Khan, though this category seems to be favourable band of supporters but it may not ensure assured blockbusters in the coming years as he is catching up on age. Roy of University of Edinburgh says, “With films like Bajrangi Bhaijaan and now Sultan, Salman Khan may well be coming into his full acting bloom, finally, on the other side of his 50s. If Amitabh Bachchan’s career after 60 is any reference to go by, Salman Khan has ample time to still ink into his legacy the honour of being an actor of substance too!”