The problem was that he believed he was so larger than life that no other currency would matter.
With realistic stories from the hinterland and everyday protagonists, enacted by the likes of Rajkumar Rao and Ayushmann Khurrana, becoming big grossers themselves, middle India no longer needs a champion. Khan needs to realise that with his stubborn swag, he has reduced his status to that of a court jester, palatable only to his shrinking constituency
Written by Rinku Ghosh
April 24, 2023 15:32 IST
Not so long ago, Salman Khan had reasoned why Hindi films were losing out to dubbed versions of South Indian hits. Taking a dig at content-oriented cinema and smart filmmaking as “too cool” and insisting that they didn’t reflect the “understanding” of what people wanted, he had positioned himself as the friendly neighbourhood big brother or the “Bhaijaan” of the masses. But as his latest track record at the ticket window shows — Kisi Ka Bhai Kisi Ki Jaan being his second lowest opening in recent times with some loyalist surge over the weekend — the masses have definitely become “too cool” for him.
For the first time, the man whom Bollywood trusted to generate hundreds of crores so that others could experiment, has lost his equity. And his brand of entertaining fables are anachronistic in a world where flipping jackets mid-air is not about magical realism but an insult to common intelligence. Worst, Khan needs to realise that with his stubborn swag, he has reduced his superhero status to that of a court jester, palatable only to his shrinking constituency.
It’s not that Salman Khan didn’t know his place to begin with. If anything, the son of scriptwriter Salim Khan, has scripted his career path by being sensible rather than ambitious. While Aamir Khan was for the classes, Salman chose to be with the masses, with Shah Rukh Khan comfortably straddling the bridge in between to complete the Khan trinity. With no pretence of being a great performer, Khan began by being the wide-eyed, next-door slacker, Prem, in Maine Pyar Kiya — a loveable mother’s son, all brawn on the outside but mush inside. His many projects with Rajshri Productions, which have patented the virtues of virginal love and the sanskaari Great Indian Family, made him the boy everybody wanted to fall in love with. But once SRK as Raja Sahay of Deewana (1992) showed how to wrest his destiny by the dint of conviction, it captured the sentiment of the entire post-liberalisation generation. The loverboy Salman was literally pushed out of his comfort zone.
So, he switched over to the easy sitcom comedic hero mould, mouthing politically incorrect jokes and indulging in the most unabashed silly humour. But it got the front benches rolling with laughter. He didn’t mind multi-starrers either; his 1994 flick Andaz Apna Apna with Aamir Khan becoming a cult hit. And when David Dhawan was looking for someone in the post-Govinda era of comedies, that in its time, taught us to laugh out loud mindlessly, Salman stepped in with Judwaa, Biwi No 1 and No Entry. There was romance in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Khamoshi and Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam but he lost out to stronger performances and storylines. It was also the time when he was struggling with his own bad boy image offscreen, be it the illegal hunting, the hit-and-run cases or the women in his life.
Just when everything seemed to be plunging hard, two things happened — the blockbuster remakes of southern films, and Aamir Khan, who with Ghajini transcended his physical limitations by developing six-pack abs. It was then that Salman Khan, who had been beaten low, decided to hit back metaphorically in a quasi-Govinda and a quasi-Rajnikanth mould, blending the best of what had worked in both the north and south, a mofussil Robinhood who broke the law to ensure justice to the common man. This was a territory that neither Aamir, who had monopolised the character hero, or Shah Rukh, still a gossamer dream, fitted into or wanted. Post Wanted (2009) and Dabangg (2010), this single-screen approach paved the way for his Rs 100-crore entry ticket to superstardom. Since then, particularly between 2014 and 2017, films for Salman were about cracking the money-churning formula and being larger than life.
The problem was that he believed he was so larger than life that no other currency would matter. He was the genre. Bajrangi Bhaijaan, about a good natured Hanuman bhakt’s efforts to reunite people on both sides of the border, front-loaded with emotion and generous dollops of humour, was the perfect time to craft another persona. But Salman, who has helmed the reality TV show Bigg Boss for more than 16 seasons and made himself available to a cross-section of India, trying to “be human” in their hearts, believed he could still be the arbiter of popular choices, just like he was in his show. Or that its contestants, some of whom feature in his latest films, could bring their own fans to improve bottom lines. So out went the script and the directors, in came the egoism of his persona, some of which may have rescued his fortunes on Eid. However, “being Salman” is just not it.
What Salman needs to know is that the digital citizen of India has evolved faster than he could build his ageing muscles. With realistic stories from the hinterland and everyday protagonists, enacted by the likes of Rajkumar Rao and Ayushmann Khurrana, becoming big grossers themselves, middle India has been validated and doesn’t need advocacy or a champion. It simply won’t be patronised. Instagram has empowered everybody to be a stand-up comic for the world. Even in Hollywood, the success of the Avengers series has shown that a solo superhero cannot save the world. The superhero, in its evolutionary journey then, is collective humanity.
What does his multiverse mean for business? Spreading risks through franchises. SRK has got the first mover advantage with Pathaan, an avenger in a borderless world dominated by gaming consoles. Salman is expected to join as Tiger in this collective spy-verse, one among many — instead of being the only one. In his latest film, he mouths a pungent cheesy line — “Matha phodi ka bohot shauq hai na tujhe? Woh kya kehte hai…brainstorming.” He needs to brainstorm, now. Unless he wants to be dismissed as a poor joke.