A long time ago, much before Salman became the resident demi-god of Indian moviegoers, a very senior journalist — famous for his withering honesty — interviewed the buffest Khan of Bollywood. “He’s a harmless guy,” the journalist later recalled to a bunch of his friends, “definitely not very bright”.
Salman Khan was never considered the smartest cookie in the tin, but the 51-year-old actor seems to have hit a stride of late, milking a long-established, mythical 'real life' personality — that of a simpleton with a golden heart — in a string of gargantuan hits like Bodyguard, Bajranji Bhaijaan and Sultan.
With the announcement of Tubelight, his third project with director Kabir Khan (it is the story of a man child on a mission to find his brother who goes missing during the Indo-China war) it seems yet another film is all set to cash in on Bhai’s artfully cultivated screen image.
The Clueless Superstar
Salman Khan and smarts were never really bedfellows, an observation that was crystal clear to audiences, critics and the star himself, ever since he debuted on screen in the 1990s.
With his floppy hair, wide innocent eyes and hot bod, he rode a crest of romantic hits like Maine Pyaar Kiya, Saajan and Love, culminating in Hum Aapke Hain Koun..!.
Even in the odd ‘angry young man’ role in Baaghi and Patthar Ke Phool, his screen persona remained ‘all heart’. Compared to his contemporaries — a young Shah Rukh who hurled his screen girlfriends from terraces and stalked his love interests with merciless intensity and Aamir, who went from baby-faced Romeo to witty scribe with street smarts in Dil Hai Ke Maanta Nahi, establishing himself as the cleverest of the Khan troika — Salman was always clueless, seemingly driven by emotion rather than intellect or passion.
His on-screen mannerisms — including an ‘I-don’t-know-what’s-happening-here-what-are-these-adults-doing’ eye roll — conveyed the image of a happy-go-lucky himbo, a gorgeous simpleton who couldn’t understand the ways of the world.
His on screen alter ego, Prem, at the peak of success in Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! — and later so painfully repeated in Hum Saath Saath Hain — was a shy guy; naughty but nice, sworn to love his family, the kind you’d like to take home without fear of being thrown off the terrace or hoodwinked at chess and GK quizzes.
Unlike that other iconic simpleton of Indian cinema — Raj Kapoor, a sharp businessman and prolific filmmaker when he wasn’t playing cute on screen — Salman’s on-screen persona was a natural extension of himself. Unlike Anil Kapoor, who laboured to appear sweet and slow in films like Beta and Eeshwar, or SRK, who hammed his way through as the idiot savant in My Name is Khan, Salman was always at home portraying the eternal man child in a fabulously shirtless body. It might possibly have been a stroke of genius from a man least expected to provide any. Bhai never really needed to act.
Bad Boy, Good Soul
Of course, the actor’s off-screen ‘harmless’ reputation soon took a severe bashing (pun intended). Hurling forth into a series of dubious real-life shenanigans, Khan could well have gone down the way of the quintessential bay boy, a hot mess with mean fists, hell-bent on self-destruction. It was here — and there onwards — that his screen image came to the rescue. The actor could always escape culpability for his real life bloopers by milking his naïve on-screen image. He didn’t even need to do it himself, having spawned a massive fan base of other regular guys with ghastly tempers but a good heart beating within all that uncontrollable testosterone. While Shah Rukh ruled the hearts of Punjabi aunties and NRIs of all ages and genders and Aamir appealed to a thinking audience, Salman became the go-to deity of quite another kind of audience.
More Idiot, Less Savant
With the exception of Ek Tha Tiger and Kick, the ageing superstar’s fabulous new armoury of 200-crore hits have taken the lovable simpleton cinematic trope to unprecedented heights of success. It’s to the credit of filmmakers like Abhinav Kashyap and Kabir Khan, who have leveraged Salman’s charisma and penchant for a certain type of physical comedy to carve an entirely new cinematic trope, pulling out the savant from the idiot to present a good guy with no particular intellectual accomplishments but a heart big enough to cross borders and turn on the waterworks while keeping things light-hearted. Even barrel-chested Sultan is motivated by pure love for his lady and not the otherwise more ‘selfish’ and ruthless ambition of a sportsman.
Kabir Khan in particular, hit the goldmine with Bajrangi Bhaijaan — channeling his leading man’s de rigueur buffoonery into a saaf-suthra, sweet character who’s funny enough without annoying any section of the audience. And the duo appears all set for a smashing second act with Tubelight.
Like a super-talented Fairy Godmomma who’s been handed a petulant ward, Kabir Khan has re-crafted Salman’s image, carefully pruning away unwanted elements — goodbye sexists jokes, risqué dialogues, smirking, towel dances and chest-thumping — and retained his hulk-like qualities, to reveal Salman at his nicest, sweetest and purest.
It’s a formidable task which requires a cinematic skill, cunning and genius that the filmmaker’s muse isn’t expected to ever be really capable of on his own. Or is he?
Could Salman be some sort of closet genius, having miraculously inherited that sneaky talent of character re-imaging from his legendary scriptwriter dad?
Because when Khan and Khan turn on the ‘tubelight’ for Eid next year, for a moment there, more than a billion perfectly sane and smart viewers will be convinced he’s really the good guy.