Stars (the movie variety) are found all over this part of Mumbai, but I’m at Mehboob Studio in Bandra to meet arguably the biggest in Bollywood: Salman Khan. It’s a bright, warm Saturday, and I’m hoping the good weather is a harbinger of good tidings. I’ve had three meetings with Khan scuppered for various reasons—he was busy shooting; his sister was getting married; he had court appearances scheduled. This time, too, I get a feeling that a meeting won’t happen, as he’s caught up with an ad for Dixcy Scott vests.
He finally meets me in the middle of the shoot, where he’s sparring in a boxing ring and baring his famous torso. Weeks after, I am reminded of that first meeting as I watch TV footage of the man, dressed in sober white, heading to court to hear the verdict in a 2002 hit-and-run case where he allegedly lost control of his car and ran over several people; one was killed. The judge finds him guilty of all charges, including culpable homicide not amounting to murder. At the time of going to press, Khan has been sentenced to five years in prison, and has applied for bail. If he appeals against the verdict, the case will go to the High Court, and will possibly take several more years to resolve.
Back to my first meeting at Mehboob. The star doesn’t seem particularly friendly, and barely says hello before wandering off. Khan’s managers intended the meeting to be an “ice-breaker” but it’s not working out that way. With Khan being far from chatty, I opt to speak with his sister Alvira Agnihotri, who runs Khan’s Being Human Foundation. Minutes later, Khan appears and sits at the makeshift table outside his vanity van. He watches closely for a while as she answers my questions. I almost forget he’s there till he suddenly enters the conversation with a sharp: “What’s that?” when Agnihotri mentions his name. She stops talking to me to bring him up to speed, and I realise what Khan is doing: He’s studying how he would be interviewed.
This, to me, defines Khan. A hardworking, enigmatic, larger-than-life figure, yes. But also a shrewd man who wants to know what he is getting into. Khan’s hordes of fans may disagree, but this little incident cracked the much-bandied-about image of Khan as an impulsive, instinctive, seat-of-the-pants guy.
Of course, you don’t get to be Salman Khan without at least a hint of the deliberate. With estimated earnings of Rs 244 crore a year, Khan is perhaps Bollywood’s highest-paid actor (his team declined to confirm or deny that), topping Aamir Khan, Shah Rukh Khan, and Amitabh Bachchan. Put in perspective, he takes home more than the five highest-paid CEOs in corporate India put together. He has 25 million followers on Facebook, second only to Narendra Modi. Four of his movies are in the list of top 10 Indian cinema grossers of all time, and in mid-2013, according to media reports, Khan signed an unheard-of Rs 130 crore contract for the seventh season of the reality show Bigg Boss (or almost Rs 5 crore per episode), earning nearly double what he did in the previous season.
Deconstructing Salman is a lesson in brand management. His bad-boy image, bolstered by the cases against him, is leavened by the roles he chooses. For instance, soon after the 2002 case, Khan starred as the loving foster son with a strong sense of moral values in the 2003 hit Baghban. It may not be as cold-blooded a move as it seems, since films are generally signed on years before filming starts, but it’s an interesting fact nonetheless. In 2006, Khan was arrested for allegedly shooting endangered blackbucks in Rajasthan; soon after, he was seen playing a teetotal prince in Marigold.
What dictates the choice of roles? “He looks at scripts with strong central characters he identifies with because he feels serious movies with messages just don’t work commercially,” says Agnihotri. And once he has decided on a part, he works on his audience.
“A normal ‘educated’ guy will go brush his teeth in the bathroom. A common man will stand on the verandah and brush his teeth while looking out at the world around. That’s what Khan picks up on,” says Bakul Chandaria, owner of Sarvodaya Video Centre, a DVD rental in Mumbai. How does he do it? The old-fashioned way: by engaging in his own focus-group studies. A driver who works for Avis Car Rentals’ Pune office recalls how he chauffeured the actor around Lonavala several years ago. “Khan spoke to me part in Marathi and part in Hindi, and asked all sorts of questions about where I was from, about my family, and all that.” It’s not just empathy, though that’s part of it. It’s about understanding his audience.
Careful construct or just star quality, there’s no doubt that Khan keeps the cash registers chiming. He’s way past his prime (younger competitors such as Varun Dhawan and Ranveer Singh are still in their twenties, and Khan is almost 50), his movies have next to no intellectual appeal, and the urban movie-watching population has mixed feelings about him. Despite all that, he has a large and growing fan base, and his presence in a movie generally spells a windfall at the box office. “It’s a cult-like fervour,” says Alok Nanda, founder of communications and brand consultancy Alok Nanda & Co. In the South, there’s a similar aura around actor Rajinikanth, but South India is also where the most unlikely movie stars are deified. That doesn’t happen in Bollywood. As his father, Salim Khan, himself a Bollywood insider, says: “There is only one difference between Salman and his rivals—he’s actually loved by the people. The others are appreciated and admired, but not loved.”
Some of that love can be seen in the response to his court verdict, with everyone from fellow stars to editors of national magazines trotting out their reasons why Khan is more sinned against than sinning. The reaction from his peers is understandable; as actress Alia Bhatt tweeted soon after the verdict: “It hurts when your own are punished, even if they are in the wrong.” Meanwhile, his legions of fans don’t want to accept that their god has feet of clay.
While the entire episode has shades of Greek tragedy (in typical Bollywood style, that seems to be descending to farce), at heart, it’s all about commerce. Mass commerce, based on mass culture. In mass culture, a brand is established by selling millions of tickets for a motion picture or scoring centuries on the cricket field, but the big difference between the East and the West is that in India, endorsements actually monetise the value of the brand, whereas elsewhere they build the brand. In India, superstars are an aspiration and good at projecting products to those at the bottom of the pyramid, explains Zia Patel, director of London-based brand consultancy Wolf Ollins. “In a sense, [actors] are the new maharajas.”
And that’s why you have thousands of young men across the country buying the trademark turquoise and silver bracelets Khan sports, or racing around on the motorcycles that Khan endorses. He’s also an inspiration for entrepreneurs. Fans recently opened a Salman-themed restaurant called Bhaijaanz on Sherley Rajan Road in Bandra, featuring photographs of the star, as well as a poster where Khan’s face has been morphed onto the torso of the Incredible Hulk. (Yes, it was meant as a compliment.)
In spite of all such attempts to theorise the man and his motivations, it’s that non sequitur randomness that keeps coming back in conversations about him. Khan himself calls it “going with the flow”, and it’s now a part of who he is. Spend a couple of hours with him and it starts to rear its head. Midway through the photo shoot with Fortune India, some 50 people standing in wait, he stops and asks me to come talk to him. I go up to him, and he looks me straight in the eye, and with the frankness that characterises many of his movie roles, says: “I want you to know that I sometimes announce wild crazy targets even if I haven’t met them, so that I feel the pressure to deliver on them later. Do you know what I mean?” I assure him I do, but he repeats this thought a few more times before turning away and resuming the shoot.
That was my second meeting with Khan, this time at ND Studios in Karjat, near Mumbai. Again his day is packed and it looks like it’ll be a while before the interview kicks off. There’s a jewellery brand ad shoot that is to air on a popular channel that night, and its owners have driven up to meet the actor. I’m getting into waiting mode, when Khan’s managers tell me the actor has flipped the schedule, and wants to do the interview with me first. I’m taken to his villa, where he meets me in shorts and a T-shirt; it appears that he has just finished working out. This time too, he’s not particularly chatty, and makes no eye contact. Just a perfunctory nod, a gesture to a chair, and then silence. Twenty uncomfortable seconds later, I realise there’s going to be no small talk, so jump in with my first question on building Brand Salman. How did he go about it, and how much of it comes from his managers?
Khan seems surprised he’s a brand. If it’s an act, it’s convincing. “It’s the amount of money riding on it that determines all of that, I guess,” the actor says. Then, voice lowered dramatically, he adds: “Brands are fragile, and can suddenly expire.” Was that Khan foreseeing life after this verdict? It’s too easy to project the present onto the past, but this line seems strangely prescient.
Khan clarifies that most movie stars don’t see brand equity multiply after they die. “The residual income diminishes,” he says. “But artists are the most non-fragile because their work appreciates further after they die.” Such conversation is unexpected. After all, if the media reports are to be believed, Khan is a simpleton. It’s not difficult to see where he’s coming from, though. He’s looking at what might happen now. The conviction could result in loss of lucrative ad contracts, and movie projects going off the rails. None of this is stated overtly, of course; it’s left up to me to join the dots.
After I leave Karjat and am half way back to Mumbai, Khan calls me to discuss the state of politics in this country. Soon, he’s talking analogies. “Remember, the pack always follows the wolf, not the other way around.”
In all my interactions with Khan, even as the man surprises me with his sharp insight, and the actor with his moodiness, there’s one thing that towers above all else: his team of handlers. When building their teams, promoters hire CEOs based on Ivy League qualifications, operational experience in running companies, and how profitably they’ve run them. The selection process for Team Salman is simpler. “It’s a vibe thing,” he says.
That doesn’t mean Khan appoints team members right off the bat. Track records are checked out and performances of everyone he works with are reviewed closely. He does that even with the directors he works with. Sooraj Barjatya has known Khan for 30 years. Sajid Nadiadwala is more of a friend than a business partner. Kabir Khan met the actor two or three years before he did any work with him and Khan had judged him then.
Kabir Khan says when he was casting for his movie New York, he managed to sign on Katrina Kaif, among Bollywood’s hottest leading ladies. “She later told me that she checked with Salman if she should work with me. He said ‘do it because his [Kabir’s] newfound success hasn’t changed the way he behaves’.”
Khan’s ‘inner circle’ is largely his family, of which dad Salim Khan is the most important member. One of Salman Khan’s schoolmates, who asked not to be named, says it’s Salim Khan who has constantly been rubbing it into the actor that all of his stardom—the adulation, the fans, and the money—is going to be gone one day. Nothing will last forever, and that’s something he has to come to terms with. (When we met much before the latest verdict, Salim Khan admitted that the court cases were worrying, but that the law would take its course.)
And then there’s the biggest non-family influence on Khan: his business manager Reshma Shetty who runs celeb management agency Matrix. People who know both say they have much in common, starting with a love for fitness. Before Khan got into bodybuilding, he was an avid swimmer and a regular at the pool at Mumbai’s Sea Rock Hotel. Shetty, too, was a national-level swimming champ participating at the junior Asian levels. She’s also street smart, a tough negotiator, and known to be all business. It is well known, for instance, that she never hangs around Khan’s farm or home for drinks or dinner like the rest of his crew. When her work is done, she’s out the door. She is also extremely media shy and refused to be interviewed for this story.
In many ways, Shetty put Khan back on track. She nixed his much-talked-about random acts of generosity, took charge of his commercials, and, say most Bollywood insiders I spoke with, helped him recover from the career-threatening slump in the 2000s. “Reshma is one of the few people who can say ‘no’ to Salman, and that’s a big deal because most people who hang around him almost always say ‘yes’ to everything. The bigger thing is that he listens when she says no,” says Khan Sr.
Equally important, Shetty’s the one who put it in Khan’s head that every waking hour of his has a financial value attached to it, so that if he wants to just blow off shooting for a week and go partying to Las Vegas or Dubai, there are crores in revenues that he stands to lose.
There’s also the mandatory coterie that hangs on to Khan’s every word, and rides on his coat-tails. Those are the ones Salim Khan dismisses as the yes-men, but they are as important to Khan’s image as his legion of fans. Kailash Surendranath, ad film-maker and a close friend of Khan’s, isn’t as dismissive of them. “He’s very [perceptive], and if there are people hanging around him, it’s because he wants them around,” Surendranath says.
I take a walk past his Bandra apartment one weekend, just to see if the teeming multitudes outside his house really exist. And oh yes, they do. In Khan’s neighbourhood are other stars: Rekha, Farhan Akhtar, and Shah Rukh Khan. All of them have fans outside their homes, but the crowds around Khan’s never seem to wane. Even when the cops, in a bid to disperse the crowds, wield the stick and thwack them, they scatter momentarily only to come running back. That’s unseen anywhere else on the promenade.
Without people like Shetty and his father to keep him grounded, it’s easy for Khan to lose touch with reality. As it is, says one industry insider who declined to be named, there’s a duality playing out within Khan when he takes the stage on Bigg Boss. “When he takes people to task, it’s clear that he has a deep sense of right and wrong, but there’s a dichotomy between that and how he has lived his life in the past, and it’s a fascinating duality that probably exists off stage as well. He’s probably not even aware of it.” But it’s something his fans seem to lap up.
There are things Khan does outside of his action-hero persona that endear fans to him. (That doesn’t include his philanthropic pursuit Being Human: read more on facing page.) “There are a lot of urban legends around him that go on to cement the mystique,” says Nanda. One is about the spot boy who came late to a shoot because his motorcycle had been stolen. Khan lost his temper, but later bought him an expensive replacement. Another is about the stage hand who fell and hurt his head at Mehboob Studio. Khan ran out in his shorts, stopping traffic and directing cars, so the injured man could be moved to hospital. And then there was the small-town Bollywood aspirant who visited a studio to try for a part. Her clothes were wrong, the makeup garish, and the hairdo out of sync. Khan’s entourage burst out laughing until he stepped in, and ticked them off saying “everyone has a right to dream”. He later organised an instructional makeover for her. You never hear any of that about the other two Khans.
Then there are the misconceptions. Jacqueline Fernandez, who co-starred with him in Kick, says that she figured after decades of being at the top, Khan would probably have it really easy and work at his own pace on the sets. Instead, she ran into an actor who would start his day with a workout, shoot for several hours, then go exercise again and stay up until midnight.
“When you’re acting, there’s a lot that’s being taken out of you. You’re under the glare of the bright lights, it’s hot,” adds Fernandez. She says she would be ready to hit the sack the minute the cameras stopped rolling and couldn’t believe how Khan could roll on with the rest of his day, even squeezing in a second workout. Actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui, who stars opposite him in the movie Bajrangi Bhaijaan, says that on location in Rajasthan, he had resorted to using a sun umbrella because he didn’t want to tan and risk discontinuity of his skin tone. Khan saw him and said: “I’ve never used an umbrella in 30 years, and here you are getting into the habit already.” Siddiqui dropped the umbrella.
“Salman Khan is Salman Khan because of his off-screen presence,” quips producer Sajid Nadiadwala. There’s the samaritan Khan. Then there’s the Khan who’s an artiste. There is the tough guy, and the irreverent Khan whose term of endearment for his one-time Nepali spot boy was “Kung Fu”. The other role Khan has embraced has been that of mentor. Farha, Anna Singh, Sonakshi Sinha, Arjun Kapoor, Jacqueline Fernandez, Katrina Kaif, and Hrithik Roshan—all in some way or the other have him to thank for their current position in the industry.
In a dog-eat-dog world where most stars are only as good as their last box-office hit, it’s something few do. Fernandez recounts how her career had hit a standstill in 2013 after her first few movies. Then she got a call from Khan, whom she only knew from society events and film parties. “He asked me if I was busy shooting for anything, and when I said ‘no’, he asked me to call Sajid Nadiadwala,” she says. She did, and Nadiadwala asked her to come by his studio. She went there expecting to be offered a bit part or an “item number”. “I was blown away when he wanted me to lead against Salman in Kick.” Kick went on to become a monstrous hit, grossing almost Rs 355 crore worldwide. Fernandez has been busy ever since, working on three separate films starring Akshay Kumar, John Abraham, and Amitabh Bachchan.
Another mantle: Khan the technician, the one nobody knows. Colleagues say his understanding of the camera is uncanny. Whether it’s a 120 mm lens or a 135 mm that the cameraman is using and if it’s going to catch him above the waist or in full length is something Khan can guess by just looking at the equipment being used, says Kabir Khan. When our photo editor was shooting him, the entire shoot took no more than 10 minutes, since Khan seemed to know what was expected of him before it was requested. (“That’s it? You all should come up more often,” is what he told us when he said we were done.)
Any entertainer who lives in a fantasy world experiences a blurring of lines, and Bollywood is, in a sense, where fantasy meets Neverland, where actors are expected to stay forever young. That leads to a magnification of the Peter Pan syndrome. Khan, as a leading man, has romanced four different generations of actresses on screen: It started with the Madhuri Dixit and Sridevi years, followed by Juhi Chawla, Aishwarya Rai, Rani Mukherjee, and Katrina Kaif. Kareena Kapoor Khan, his co-star in an upcoming film, knows him from when she was a child who used to sit on his lap during family get-togethers.
The scary thing, says director Kabir Khan, is that Salman sounds almost serious when he talks about doing the same kind of movies when he’s 60. “There will be a saturation point for the roles he plays now and the image he has built. But as long as the public prefers him like that, it’s going to continue. I don’t know how long. And you’re right; it will reach a point when it’s not working. But realise that typecasting isn’t done by me or Salman Khan. It’s something the audience does,” explains Salim Khan, when I ask him if a change in persona was being planned for the star.
For any brand that has an X factor or an unmanageable wild streak, there’s always a risk it could take the brand down, but Khan appears to be the exception. Does the wild child image help market his films? “Of course it does,” says Agnihotri. Does he consciously use it to play to the gallery? She laughs and says that’s something only he can answer.
So I ask him. And Khan comes up with what I recognise by now as a characteristic remark, part philosophy, part starspeak. “It’s so hard to be this person. It’s as if I am stretching who I was in the past to do things that seem impossible but need to be portrayed as otherwise. It’s as if there was a rubber band ... and then you go back to what you have been. This is what I am. That’s my internal struggle. That’s my constant jihad.”