Note: This piece was originally published on June 26, 2016. Actor Salman Khan was sentenced to five years imprisonment in the blackbuck poaching case by a Jodhpur court on April 5, 2018.
Like scores of children skirting the edge of a pool, Salman Khan first learnt to swim when he was pushed off the deep end by an enthusiastic relative. Except in his case, the pool was a well in Indore; a watery cave he shared one afternoon, with a fish, two turtles and a water snake.
“A rope was tied to my leg to make sure I didn’t drown. Someone shouted instructions down at me, and left,” he told a gathering of reporters at Mumbai’s Mehboob Studio on June 18.
“This is what my life has been like ….I do things before I learn them. I’m unique in that sense.”
The swimming anecdote is one of Khan’s favourites among the thousands of Salman-ecdotes (often supplied by the star himself) that go into building the legend of Salman Khan. Bollywood cinema (particularly movies starring big industry names like Khan, Kapoor and Bachchan) has always fed off the personal lives and histories of its stars: producers love casting real life couples or love triangles, new generations of actors with their real life superstar parents, or simply splicing in music from a star’s older hits, creating the impression that the audience is rarely watching a whole new story, but a slice from the actor’s life itself.
As a result, 50-year-old Salman, arguably the most popular of the three ageing Khans, has spent nearly 28 years playing slightly altered versions of the same person – an easily angered, brooding, sensitive man child tormented by the intensity of his likes and dislikes.
Both in real life and on screen, when bhai (as Salman is popularly known to his millions of fans) makes a mistake, it is always only a temporary setback, its ramifications rendered insignificant by the larger narrative arc of his ever increasing fame.
In 1998, Khan and four of his co-stars were accused of hunting endangered deer, while shooting in Jodhpur for the film Hum Saath Saath Hain. Witnesses from the Bishnoi community (a wildlife conservationist tribe), on whose behalf the battle was fought in court, claimed they saw Salman shooting the deer, as well as threatening them with a gun when they attempted to chase down the star’s white jeep. Khan was also charged under the Arms Act for the possession of illegal weapons. After years of litigation, the actor has so far spent a few days in jail and paid Rs 25,000 for breaking wildlife protection laws.
In his book Being Salman Khan, journalist and writer Jasim Khan investigates the incident in some detail, but finally decides the only thing bhai is really guilty of is his own bad boy image. Khan the writer offers up several theories to bolster Khan the actor’s innocence – Salman has Pashtun ancestors, and hunting game is in his blood. The authorities wanted to make an example out of Salman, and went after him with more enthusiasm than they had for an average poacher. The press blew up the story only because three of the five celebrities in the car were Muslim. Salman was actually “tricked” into poaching animals by a racket of wily tour guides and locals.
The chapter ends with the unfairness of sending Salman to a jail meant for ‘hardened criminals’ and terrorists. Fortunately, Jasim notes, the jail’s staff does make some concessions for the besieged actor – he’s given a cooler, a bed and home cooked food, in prison.
Back to last week at Mehboob Studios, where Khan was promoting his latest film Sultan, the story of an underdog wrestler who overcomes heartbreak for eventual triumph – barely a minute had passed before he reeled out another anecdote.
“I just learnt that I’m a state-level shooter. I was at a college campus recently, when I saw some air rifles lying around. Students were practising, all kitted out, while I was dressed in a simple jeans and t-shirt. I picked up a gun and fired a few rounds… now my friend tells me, I beat everyone there and set a record. Just imagine,” he laughed.
It isn’t hard to imagine at all, for anyone that’s seen a Salman Khan film, or remembers what happened in Jodhpur. The black buck case is still pending appeal, and Khan has recently pleaded ‘not guilty’, a fact he recalls as he finishes the story about air rifles:
“You’re laughing with me now,” he chastised reporters, “but I know you’ll turn the story around in the news tomorrow to talk about my legal case,” he said.
Khan wasn’t far off the mark. Hours after the press conference, a different part of his interview began to make angry headlines. Describing his gruelling experience of shooting for Sultan, days of being picked up and thrown about by professional wrestlers on camera, the 50-year-old told reporters that he had felt “like a raped woman” as he walked off the set.
To be fair to Khan, known for his political incorrectness, or for “speaking straight from the heart” as his fans describe it, the actor immediately realised the error of his words and retracted them, but it was too late. Responses flowed in thick and fast on social media. Anti trafficking activist and rape survivor Sunitha Krishnan berated Khan for his insensitivity on Facebook. Another survivor wrote a poem asking Khan to refrain from work that felt like abuse. Singer Sona Mohapatra, who called out Khan on her timeline, found herself at the receiving end of rape threats from Salman bhai’s admirers, who simultaneously insisted the star had been misquoted, despite the entire interview (with offending statement and hasty retraction) being made available online.
On the one hand, insensitive statements about rape and rape survivors, are par for the course in India’s thriving rape culture, where estimates based merely on reported cases, say a woman is raped every 20 minutes. Everyone from politicians, to television commentators, senior journalists, film directors and page three socialites routinely comment on rape – comparing victims to the living dead, calling them prostitutes, questioning the veracity of sub judice rape cases. In most of these instances, public outrage has proven to be an immediate and occasionally effective way of changing the way we speak about sexual violence.
But finally, they’re only words, easily dismissed, soon forgotten. To give them undue attention is to risk missing the bigger, more important picture. When it comes to Khan, the picture of his casual, verbal misogyny is incomplete without the story of his persistently violent and abusive behaviour with the women in his life.
In September 2002, beauty pageant winner, Aishwarya Rai did something unheard of in Bombay – she wrote an open letter to the press about Salman Khan. The letter was the final chapter of a love story turned toxic. In it, Rai swore she would never work with Khan in a film again:
‘After we broke up, he would call me and talk rubbish. He also suspected me of having affairs with my co-stars. I was linked up with everyone, from Abhishek Bachchan to Shah Rukh Khan. There were times when Salman got physical with me, luckily without leaving any marks. And, I would go to work as if nothing had happened. Salman hounded me and caused physical injuries to himself when I refused to take his calls,” she wrote. Khan’s temper had not just caused Rai emotional, physical and mental trauma — it also cost her lucrative projects and damaged her professional reputation.
But Khan’s mania didn’t begin or end with Aishwarya Rai. His first girlfriend from the film industry, Sangeeta Bijlani once described being with Salman as the ‘most emotionally traumatic phase’ she had ever endured. In the following years, when he began to date Pakistani model Somy Ali, film circles were rife with stories of Salman dragging her by the hair, publicly berating her, and on one occasion pouring a drink on her head because despite his own fondness for tipple, he didn’t like the sight of his girlfriend drinking. After they broke up, Ali moved to the US and began a charity for victims of domestic abuse, a move she says was born from the deep depression her last relationship left her with.
Unlike Aishwarya, Sangeeta Bijlani and Somy Ali never spoke to the press about Salman in any detail. At present, both claim a deep fondness for the actor, and a willingness to let bygones be bygones. Only on one occasion, when Khan made a significant donation to Ali’s charity, No More Tears, she clarified the story about the rum and coke to the New York Times: Salman had objected to her drinking, but he had not poured the drink on her head. He merely emptied it on the table where Ali was seated.
Khan frequently discusses incidents like this with the press, adding to his own legend of a conservative, passionate lover. Describing a night from November 2001, when Khan had shown up outside Rai’s door in a drunken fugue, banging on the door for hours, screaming to be let in, threatening to jump off the building until her father was forced to file a police complaint against the actor, he said:
‘The incident is true, but it was overhyped by the media. I have a relationship with Aishwarya. If you do not fight in a relationship, it means you do not love each other. Why would I squabble with a person who is a stranger to me? Such things happen between us only because we love each other. Now, even the police have barred me from entering that building.’
Referring to another incident, when Khan got into a screaming match and allegedly tried to attack actor and then girlfriend Katrina Kaif with a stick on a movie set, because he didn’t like her costume, Salman said:
“It (the blouse) didn’t fit properly, and would have taken away from the beauty of the scene. Eat what you like, and wear what others like. It is as simple as that.”
Every time life has presented Salman Khan with a choice, he’s hurtled down the wrong path. But if you believe the narrative spun by his PR team, Khan’s family and the actor himself, there is always a tragic story, or a simple miscommunication behind every ‘setback’ in Salman’s life.
Hours after Khan’s misplaced comment comparing himself to a raped woman, his father, the screen writer Salim Khan tweeted an apology on his behalf.
“Undoubtedly what Salman said is wrong, the simili [sic], example and the context. The intention was not wrong. Nevertheless I apologise on behalf of his family, his fans & friends. Forgiveness is to pardon the unpardonable or it is no virtue at all. To err is human, to forgive divine. Today on Intl Yoga Day, lets not run our shops on this mistake,”
In a separate interview, Khan’s elder brother Arbaaz said the 50-year old was responsible for his own actions, but that his words had been misconstrued.:
“It was just the kind of (statement) where we compare things… I worked like a donkey’ so now people will say you used the word donkey so some animal activist will come after you,” he said.
Filmmaker Anurag Kashyap agreed that Khan’s comment was thoughtless and daft, but placed responsibility with journalists who published the comment instead of the man who made them:
“How irresponsible it is to make that into a headline. I would have taken that out. It does not send a great signal, it empowers misogyny. Suddenly, people have got issue to jump on,” he explained.
At every point, men like Salman are able to position themselves as the wronged party – he is too passionate, too hot headed, too much of a man’s man, too kind-hearted, women take advantage of him. He beats up his girlfriends because he was hopelessly in love and wanted to settle down, while they were too career minded. He allegedly ran over pedestrians sleeping on the pavement because he was broken-hearted, drinking to forget Rai and her bitter words in the press. It is never really his fault.
In this sense, Khan is only one of the many examples of abusive men never held accountable for their violence, because their dealings with women are disregarded as an aspect of their personal lives, in which they may act whimsical, capricious and occasionally violent, with no repercussions to their professional lives — because they do good work.
This is why a man like Sardar Singh, Padma Shree awardee and captain of India’s national men’s hockey team, is able to speak about how much strength and focus it takes,for him to survive the allegations of rape made by his ex fiancee. Or why Stanford swimmer Brock Turner’s father is able to rue his son’s lack of appetite, ever since that one time he raped an unconscious young woman behind a dumpster.
In the past few weeks, a global conversation on toxic masculinity with regard to men like Orlando shooter Omar Mateen, and rapist Brock Turner has attempted to outline the aspects of maleness that create conditions for violence: the urge to establish dominance, contempt for those the male subject considers weaker, softer, or more ‘effete’ than him.
But let us remember that these qualities do not exist and thrive in a vacuum. They are encouraged and enabled by the active connivance of those (men and women) who seek to benefit from male (or a particular man’s) privilege.
If Salman were to ever find himself in the deep end again, he knows he will be buoyed by the support of such enablers around him, who deliberately choose to remain blind to his faults. It is divine to forgive, after all, and this Friday, we’ll do it again.
Nishita Jha is an independent journalist and New India Foundation Fellow. You can find her on Twitter: @nishswish