It is mid-afternoon on a balmy Saturday in Lonavla. Salman Khan has been celebrating all week, with family and friends, the marriage of his youngest sister, Arpita. Last night—this morning—they had wrapped up, finally, at around 6 am. But at 10 am, the reputedly irresponsible, selfish man-child of Hindi cinema had reported in at the Bigg Boss lot.
After freshening up, and briefings from the show’s crew on the happenings of the week, he gets into make-up, slips into a custom-fitted suit, and strides into the warehouse-sized shooting stage around 1 pm.
Since then, he has been holding court. The occasional pauses could be because he’s listening to what the control room is telling him via his earpiece, or he could be falling asleep on his feet. But he stays on those feet right through. He banters with the inmates via the live feed from Bigg Boss House, right across the alley, on the big screen, and in the pauses between sequences, he takes long swigs of some energy drink in an unbranded bottle.
The audience is lapping it all up. They’ve paid to be there, and they’re getting their money’s worth. He loosens the top button of his shirt. Later, the jacket comes off, and is dropped on stage, and later still, shirtsleeves are rolled up. But the swagger stays intact, all the time. This man is enjoying himself.
And then, at 5.30 pm, they’re done, and star and his entourage stride off to the villa reserved for his use. Shooting is done for the episode that will air tonight.
Later—but not very much later—I am sitting in a gazebo in the villa’s garden, setting out my notebook and recorder. The evening light has begun to fade. A figure in track-suit pants and T-shirt, a glass of cola in hand, walks out, slowly, looking a little… dazed. He reaches out a brawny arm to shake hands. I have steeled myself for a bone-crusher, but it is a perfunctory clasp, barely touching.
When he turns 49 later this month, he could be forgiven a satisfied grin as he looks back at 2014. Two movies vaulted into the Rs 100 crore club. (Jai Ho’s net collection at the Indian box office alone was Rs 110 crore, and Kick’s was Rs 233 crore.) He’d even sung a song in one, widening his repertoire. His brand endorsements now also include Astral Pipes, Dixcy Scott, Relaxo. Thums Up and Yatra. Bigg Boss’s eighth season has seen him resume his familiar place in households all over India. Career-wise, this has been the best year of his life.
He sits down, lets out a deep, long gust of a breath. I ask him to reflect on the nature of stardom. His eyes are closed. He seems to barely notice. The fatigue oozes from him. In the gloaming, with only the light from the villa dimly illuminating him, something about him—and it’s not the rippling biceps—reminds me of an older Sylvester Stallone, the one after way too many Rocky sequels.
Then, he opens his eyes, looks at a point just over my shoulder and takes another deep breath, and a long exhalation that, when I listen to the recording later, is almost a yawn. Something he does repeatedly through our chat.
“To look back and say I always knew it, would be a lie. To now say I know what’s going to happen in the future, what level I’m going to take it to, would also be a lie,” he says. “Nobody wants to be a failure. Neither did I. But mere bolne se kya hota hai? [Who am I to say anything?] If it stops with my acting, and then I become a character actor, chilling at some farmhouse with family or children, I’m a failure. My profession has got to continue after my death… for thousands and thousands of years after my death. This...” he gestures around him, “is just a stepping stone. I don’t know if I can pull it off. You never know. But one small mistake. Could. Finish. Everything”.
“A certain amount of fear has set in, which should never have been… because if you want to do something so large, if you want to take it to a different level altogether, you have to be fearless.”
And what about acting? “I’m very fortunate that I’m here in this industry, but I don’t see myself here. It’s not my life’s journey,” he says.
I confess bewilderment. What is he talking about? His acting career should continue after his death? Even for a superstar, that seemed to be stretching it.
He explains, “Every single year, movie-wise, our records are going to be broken. They’re going to charge more money than we do. There are better-looking guys, better bodies, hugely talented, taking cinema to a different level. There will be no way that we will be able to beat them.” Pause. “By ‘we’, I mean me. I will not speak for anybody else. I want them to beat me at Being Human.” You can almost hear the capitalisation. And in case I was still lagging, he makes it clear: “My charitable trust.”
And that, it turns out, is what he really wants to talk about.
He is not unaware of what this might sound like to the more cynical. “People will say I am trying to clear my image. If it’s selfish, but trying to change things for the better, then what is wrong with that? You do it too. If you don’t have all these things on you, it’s easier for you to do it. Most of our time goes in lawyers and courts.” (He is referring to the two court cases that hang over him: The chinkara-hunting case since 1998 and the 2002 hit-and-run, one where a car, allegedly driven by him, ran over five people—killing one and injuring four—on a Mumbai pavement.)
“Because of that, we are not able to put in as much time in Being Human. And if it is about changing one’s image, changing what people think of me, growing as a human, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it.”
Being Human started life as a T-shirt. It is now a clothing brand, sold in 14 countries, with 30 standalone stores and 160 shop-in-shop outlets in India; abroad, there are 80 shop-in-shops in GCC countries and 55 in Europe. (Licensee Mandhana Industries makes, distributes and markets its products; Khan oversees design and communication.) It is now expanding into a lifestyle brand, with fragrances, watches, gym equipment, and other products. In 2013-14, the license brought Rs 132 crore; all of Khan's share it goes to Being Human, the charitable trust he set up in 2007, and to which he has assigned the brand in perpetuity. It has, since then, disbursed over Rs 32.5 crore through its health care and education projects.
We talk of his motivations, his views on how everyone should do some form of charity, on how we seem ashamed, as a society, to do good publicly, but flaunt bad behaviour, and much else.
Then we veer, for a minute, back to stardom, fan adoration: “I would be a fool,” he says, with the first real display of emotion, “if I don’t use this love. Now. Not when there’s somebody else being loved. I am loved, not as an actor anymore; I am loved as the man who started this [the Being Human Foundation]. And I would love it if somebody else comes and breaks all these records. This is what I want. This,” he gestures in the general direction of the sound stage, the waiting fans, the phalanx of brawny security guards, the vanity van, “is my hobby”.
He points to Vivek Kamath, director of Matrix, the company that represents him. “The only conversation I have with him is how to raise money for Being Human.”
Then, some irritation surfaces: “That might be a problem. Depending on how life goes, one day if I don’t have money for myself, people will turn around and say, ‘Uparwale ne itna diya, saala,
idiot.’ [God has given him so much and he’s squandered it.] If I do well, they’ll say, ‘Haan haan, Being Human na. Average actor hai. Ye karta hai, isliye superstar ban gaya
’. [He’s an average actor who’s become a superstar because of Being Human.]
Superstar banney ke liye ye
, toh tum bhi karo
. Mother Teresa se picture kara do. [If this is the formula to become a superstar, you do it. Rope in Mother Teresa for your film.]”
With that off his chest, he gives the example of his parents, who he had always seen as giving, even when times weren’t good. As we talk, Arpita and her new in-laws, who have been visiting the set, are ready to leave. He excuses himself to go see them off.
While he’s away, I chat with his management. Someone quotes an insight Khan had, that led to Being Human’s clothing line. “You ask 10 people if they want to do good, all 10 will say yes. You ask how many have been able to do good, nine of them will say no. But if you ask how many wear T-shirts, chances are all will say yes. So why not do good by wearing a T-shirt?” Khan himself came up with the name, after a drink. As he says later, when I ask him, “Bacardi ka kuch toh faayda hota hai. [Bacardi has at least got some uses.]” ***
When Khan returns, his mood has changed. He leans back, makes an expansive gesture, a rueful grin spreads across his face: “You must be thinking I’m such a f*****g amazing, noble man.” He laughs at the thought. I remind him he’s being recorded.
He laughs some more. “That I don’t care about.”
I bring up the change in the image he projects. Is he maturing? “Work has become a lot better; I’ve started taking it more seriously because of the fear ki yeh income bandh ho jayega toh iska kya hoga? [If I stop earning, what will happen to Being Human?] Somewhere, I needed that. I’m single, I do whatever I want to do. I don’t have responsibilities. This has given me a sense of responsibility.”
He takes a long sip of green tea and goes on. “[Being Human] is an emotionally challenging thing to do. Sometimes, it just—BANG—slams you to the ground. You feel, itna kiya, appreciation hi nahin hai yaar? Hatt, nahi karna hai. [You did so much, yet there’s no appreciation.] Next morning, you wake up and say, start kiya na, abhi jhelo. [You’ve begun, now suffer through it.] And when someone comes up and tells you how Being Human has helped them, you feel, we’ve done this? How cool is that?”
He tells the story of an industrialist, who when Khan asked for a donation, told him that he already did a huge amount of good by employing people. This, he finds inspirational. As the Being Human brand and its product range expand, he is delighted at the thought that it will create more impact merely by creating more jobs.
On his often fractious relationship with the press, he expounds at some length. “Because I never reacted [to negative articles], they took advantage of me. I did react at first and they panicked. But I felt bad also yaar. Then I stopped reacting. Whether I reacted or not, they would write. Likhne do. [Let them write.] Now we can take stuff onto our own Facebook page, our Twitter account. Jitna bhi clear karna hain, ab us pe clear karega na? [We can clear everything there.]”
Over the next few minutes, he enumerates his peeves with the press and social media, and the futility of engaging. And concludes thus: “You’re driving in a car, at 90 kmph; the air-conditioning is good, aur ek kutta bhaunkte huye aata hai tere gaadi ke peeche. Are you going to stop the car and chase him in the gullies? Comfortable position hai, achchi gaadi hai, achchi raftaar mein chal rahi hai, inke bhaunkne se kya ho jaata hai? [When a dog barks at your car, do you stop and chase it down? You’re good, the car’s good, the speed’s good, why bother?]”
And about that bad boy image? “I’m still the bad boy. But to the bad people,” he says. “I’m no saint, dude. I party. I party like hell when I want to. I still do that, but I come back, to this.” The gesture encompasses both acting and the charitable foundation.
But how long will this last?
Being Human, Khan says, is as big as he is. Actually, if this current dream run of success is being attributed to his work with the foundation, and if, in effect, it was the foundation that lifted him, surely it was even bigger than him? Besides, that’s what all the brand extensions and expansions are for: To ensure that the money keeps coming in, and that Being Human outlives him.
Our time is up. “Got what you wanted?” he asks. Not all, I say. He sits down again. I make one final try. Let’s speak, I say, of your 25 years as a star.
“I’ve been really fortunate. I have not done anything to deserve this. Right from my first film, my whole personality has been borrowed; from my father, my brothers, friends, from stories, and then dheere-dheere, karte, karte, karte, karte, [gradually] it’s become me.” He riffs on about how he got that first break despite himself, and what he calls undeserved luck, for a bit. “My life’s ambition was 10 lakh rupees. I crossed it in my second film. So now, wherever it goes, I’m on plus.”
He vanishes, to get made up and don a suit for the next session of Bigg Boss.
En route to the set, he takes a few minutes to pose for our photographs.
And something has changed: The shoulders are set back, the posture is erect, and the smile is on full wattage. He pauses before leaving to exchange a few more pleasantries. Rising up on his toes several times, like an athlete or a dancer raring to go, he shares a profanity-filled anecdote. “If you use that,” he says, “just take out the…, you know.”
I follow him to the set. And there, under the bright lights, with the audience to vibe with, you would never guess how little he’d slept, how much he’d been yawning. “That’s me,” he’d said earlier, while talking about his Bigg Boss persona. “That’s all me.”
This is no beat-up, ageing Stallonesque character. This is the reigning champ. And he’s loving every bit of it.
‘You Need to be Sensible to be Successful’Salim Khan on the maturing of son Salman over the last two-and-a-half decades
In his very first film, he made an impact. I told him, you show reasonable talent as a newcomer, you’re very easy in front of the camera. Given the start that you’ve got, nobody can destroy your career; you are the only person who can.
He had all the requirements of an actor. He only had to choose the right films. Woh kar nahi raha tha. Bahut non-seriously le raha tha. Stardom, he never took seriously. I always felt if he did, he would go a long way. He was not in competition at all. He thought, I have to work, but also enjoy life, party, and sleep late. He would do films for friends as favours. The number of guest roles he has done, I don’t think anybody in the industry has done since Dadasaheb Phalke’s time.
As success came, he became more aware: I have to take care of myself, work hard. This position has not come from charity. There is great competition at the top. If I have to remain here, I have to be extra-careful. Now he is taking things seriously, sincerely, very, very sensibly. You need to be sensible to be successful. And that either comes out of advice or your experience.
He has started rejecting many films to pick one or two. And he is now interested in the whole package, not just his own role. (Which Dilip Kumar used to do.)
Since the time he became serious about his work, he began sitting for music recordings and started giving suggestions to the director.
And he’s choosing good teams as well. He is always on the lookout for new talent and has brought so many people into the film industry.
There is a good line: ‘Art is nurtured in loneliness and exhibited in public’. Now he is getting a lot of time. He is doing very few films, one at a time. He goes to the farm, stays there for 15-20 days, exercises, walks and thinks.
But there’s one thing that has not changed about him. He is still grounded. When I look back at what a good-hearted child he was, that has not changed. Now, if he does something good, you can attribute it to his thinking. But from childhood, he was a good-hearted boy. When you are doing good at the age of eight, you don’t do it for effect.
Thank God, he has not changed his nature or character, but he has changed as an actor, and the results are visible.
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(This story appears in the 26 December, 2014 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)