Mumbai: Outside Galaxy apartments in Tony Bandra near the sea-face, a crowd of youngsters stands, full of enthusiasm and hope, waiting to see if they can get a glimpse of their hero. When, after a long wait, Salman Khan does step out onto the balcony to wave at his fans, a huge cheer goes up. Some start taking pictures, others are too overwhelmed-they cry. News reports even suggest there was a suicide attempt. The crowds are ecstatic that Bhai, sentenced to five years for driving over a group of pavement sleepers and killing one, will not go to jail after all. He has been granted bail and his sentence suspended which allows him to stay out and his high-profile legal team to find ways to defend him.
Less than a kilometre away stands American Express bakery, where the accident occurred. It is a regular sleeping spot for workers from the neighbourhood. It has now become a tourist spot of sorts. “Journalists, photographers and even passers by stop here and talk to ask us questions. Were you here when the accident happened, they say. Some take photographs. I am new here, all the fellows who used to sleep here in those days are gone,” says a young man preparing to bed down for the night.
For his fans and the vast ecosystem of Bollywood, Khan matters a lot. Directors, producers, financiers, actors, technicians, hangers-on, chamchas and the media—they have all made a beeline to Khan’s residence demonstrating the tremendous clout of the man. Their The Bollywood lot have tweeted their love and sympathy for the actor and happily spoken to the media, all the better to ensure that the right message reaches the man: “Bhai, we are with you.” Their affection for him transcends political leanings—Congress and BJP supporters alike were among those who called on him. Is it genuine love, simple expediency or just crocodile tears? Whatever it may be, it was important for all these industry denizens to signal that they were with him in this moment of crisis.
In an industry where Friday’s box office collections is the only criterion that really matter, Khan is King Midas, the alchemist who turns dross into gold on a regular basis. This gives him enormous power – power that can be and is wielded with ruthlessness — and the implicit ability to make or break careers.
The superstar economy works on the basis of one central planet surrounded by a vast number of satellites. When the star nods and approves a project, the others become part of it too. Some are almost assured of their place, others have to jockey to clamber on. Many are left out, for a whole range of reasons. To be on the good side of the star thus is critical if one is to have a future in the business.
The much-heralded solidarity of Bollywood is directly proportionate to the star’s wattage and influence. Shiney Ahuja, who got accused in 2009 of raping his maid, was a promising actor, but found hardly any one standing by him in his lowest hour. Vivek Oberoi, who had in 2003 accused Salman Khan of threatening him on the phone, remains on the sidelines and has worked hard to patch up with the star.
This explains why, for Bollywood, the entire American Express case is about Salman Khan. The film industry is seeing the episode and the sentencing through the prism of how it affects the star and the industry. It is he and his family who have suffered, not the four injured and the one dead in the accident. The film industry’s insularity and sense of entitlement has never been more apparent.
Nor has anyone spared a thought for Ravindra Patil, the cop who was Khan’s bodyguard in the car that night—he stuck to his original statement that Khan was driving drunk and soon after found himself out of a job and out of money, eventually withering away due to TB. The irony that Khan’s Being Human charity, hailed by his peers as an example of his goodness, has distributed 40 crores so far and that the accident survivors got Rs 1.5 lakh as compensation seems to have escaped his supporters.
The crowds at Khan’s home have not thinned in the last few days. The media scrum too stays, looking for glimpses of the man, craving for quotes from the star visitors, alert to signs of star-craziness among the fans. Khan is getting ready to start shooting again. Late on Saturday night, under the street light outside American Express bakery, as cars continue to drive by noisily, the young man lets loose an obscenity. He is fed up of the new found notoriety of the location. “They won’t even let us sleep in peace.”