I have often been told I am soft on Salman. Maybe I am. Only he can make me dance to a ‘Dhinka chika’ after a show of the nonsensical Ready (2011) or make me whistle from the balcony during Tiger Zinda Hai (2017) when he emerges from a room filled with poison gas, bare-bodied, and goes on to obliterate an entire army. Who cares if the critics call his adventures improbable and his fantasies impossible, Salman has never professed to be an ‘arty’ actor. He is an industry kid, a producer now, and for him, films bridge the divide between the classes and the masses. It doesn’t matter if he doesn’t win awards, what matters is that the theatres are full so those who invest in the film earn money from it. When Tubelight (2017) flickered and fused too soon, he returned money to the distributors with a heartfelt apology.
After three collaborations—Sultan (2016), Tiger Zinda Hai (2017) and Bharat (2019)—Ali Abbas Zafar, a biochemistry graduate, believes that the reason behind Salman’s enduring appeal is his earnestness. His communication with his audience is simple and direct. No matter what character he plays, there’s always a bit of Salman Khan in him and that is why he has remained a larger-than-life superhero even after three decades.
For me, Salman always makes great copy and I wait to meet him. However, his on-off equation with the press has made him an intimidating figure for many of my colleagues. I remember reaching Film City studio during Tere Naam (2003) for a promised one-on-one, only to find him prowling around like an angry tiger because of an article that had appeared in a daily that morning. The reporter who had written the piece was there too and that only made him angrier. It took hours to persuade him to a joint press conference. While many from my fraternity, including the one who had erred, kept a safe distance, I pulled my chair up right to his side so I could hear his murmur more clearly and get his attention too. When I asked him if he had liked Devdas, there was dead silence. After a long pause, just when everyone was expecting him to fly off the handle again, he replied that he hadn’t because it didn’t make him cry.
There was a time when Salman didn’t like journalists because of their biased reportage and for years, didn’t give interviews. But that didn’t stop stories about him from appearing in magazines or being recounted in newsrooms. I heard about how he had chased a scribe who had written something derogatory about his then girlfriend around the studio, with every intention of beating him up. I also heard about how he had walked another up three flights of stairs at Mehboob Studio, then back down, up again and down, finally, telling the huffing-puffing reporter that he wasn’t in the mood for an interview! I heard how he had kept a senior colleague standing in the blazing sun for a good part of the day, then, on learning that she was fasting and feeling faint, had rushed her into his make-up room, revived her with fruits, sweets and juices, and given her the interview of the year, only to tell her at the end to erase the tape as the conversation had been for her ears only.
I can add a few stories of my own to these. One evening, I raced into the studio, a few minutes after him, only to be told that tired of waiting, Salman had retreated into his vanity van to ‘take a shower’. ‘But didn’t he just arrive from his home, which is just around the corner from the studio, five minutes ago?’ I asked, baffled. His publicist nodded, unable to explain why he needed to suddenly take a shower at six in the evening. I had simply taken a chair and parked myself outside his vanity van. He stepped out, thirty minutes later, looking like a rock star. We did not mention the shower.
On another occasion, I arrived at a suburban five-star hotel only to be told that he was late. The publicist guided me towards the buffet table and insisted I have a bite while I waited. I was in the middle of lunch when the publicist reappeared, looking flustered, and asked if I would like to have the first go at Salman who suddenly wanted to do a few interviews before the press conference. I was ready.
I was ushered into a ballroom crowded with the entire marketing team of the brand he was promoting. Everyone was standing in attention, because well, Salman was on his feet too. I swallowed a chuckle. After we were introduced, he nodded curtly, and still standing by the table, rapped out, ‘Start.’ I flashed him a smile and asked sweetly, ‘Can we sit down first?’ There was a minute’s silence when you could have heard a pin drop. Then, chuckling, he waved me to a chair, taking the one facing me. And everyone else sat down too, with sighs of relief. Phew!
Twenty minutes later, I got up to leave and reached for my cell phone that was on the table between us recording our conversation. It had pinged every time a text came through and even rung a couple of times. It pinged again as he was handing it over. ‘Your phone rings more than mine, who’s calling you so often?’ Salman frowned. With a poker face I replied, ‘Shah Rukh Khan. He has a press conference today at a hotel in the vicinity and is wondering why I am still here with you.’ I swear I heard the congregation groan. Those were the days when ‘Karan’ and ‘Arjun’ were not even on talking terms. So, to bring up Shah Rukh’s name in a conversation with Salman was suicidal. Everyone waited for him to pronounce, ‘Off with her head.’ The silence stretched… Then, he broke out into an appreciative guffaw. Salman, I discovered that day, is not an ogre, he only pretends to be one.
Excerpted from Matinee Men by Roshmila Bhattacharya with permission from Rupa Publications.