Salman Khan: The villain and the hero

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Disclaimer: I am not a fan of Salman Khan. I don’t like his brand of cinema. I have grown up watching his films and cannot find anything path-breaking or life-changing to say about them. Like many of his critics, I also rolled my eyes in disbelief when he was acquitted by the Bombay High Court in the 2002 hit-and-run case. When he was sent to jail this week after the sentence in the 1998 blackbuck poaching case, there was but a pang of disbelief. Had justice finally been delivered in the 19-year-old case? Or is Salman merely ‘bearing the cross’, as Simi Garewal tweeted on Friday, for someone else’s crime?

The questions are many. The problems with any bit of sympathy for Salman Khan, even more.

So what is this charm of Salman Khan? Why does the man find millions of people pledging their undying support for him? Salman sits on the throne of Khandom, if fan-following is anything to go by. Come to think of it, an Aamir or a Shah Rukh has to think of content and heroine and director and *acting*, above all else, before they start working on their films.

Salman Khan, to borrow the words of his colleague and friend Aamir, has an ‘aura’ around him; that of a superstar. But that alone is not what has helped Salman carve this place for himself in the hearts of the many, many people across the world who worship him.

Chief Judicial Magistrate Dev Kumar Khatri, who pronounced the judgment in the 1998 blackbuck poaching case, read from his 201-page verdict while sentencing Salman to five years in prison on Thursday, “The accused is a popular actor whose deeds are followed by people. Despite this, the accused hunted two black bucks. It is not justified to give Salman Khan the benefit of probation in view of the manner in which he hunted by shooting two innocent, moot black bucks that come under the purview of the Wildlife Conservation Act (sic).”

One could use the same to argue in favour of Salman Khan too. Was the order harsher in case of Salman just because he is a ‘popular actor’ whose ‘deeds are followed by people’?

Back when Salman went out hunting, he was hardly the man he is today. The last 20 years have seen Khan mellowing down a lot. Even in his interactions with the media, the actor who was ‘always on a short fuse’, is a lot more calm and composed now. The actor who was known for his unabashed disregard for the right and wrong, is now not the same (apart from, of course, some instances). The Salman whom we saw in a recently-gone-viral video, saying “Jo bolna hai bol lo,” back when he was recording his first statement with the forest officials in the same blackbuck case, is not the man who has set an example for people to emulate today. Justice delayed is justice denied is a popular saying. But in some cases, it is truer than the rest. Here we are looking at justice delivered to a Salman Khan who is not the same Salman Khan who committed the crime. Two decades is truly a long time.

Since his run-ins with the law, in both the 1998 blackbuck case and the 2002 hit-and-run case, Salman has carefully reformed himself. Bollywood’s enfant terrible has mended his ways in the last 20 years since his first brush with law. He has been in and out of jail several times in the two cases that have seen him bidding goodbye to his youth. In 2012, Salman told the media that he ‘would marry’ only after the Jodhpur and Mumbai courts gave their verdicts in his two cases.

Salman said, albeit jokingly, in an interview, “I hope to be acquitted in both cases, but if I marry before the verdicts, will it be fair? Suppose, if there is a turn of events and I am sent to jail, and my wife has to come with our child to meet me in jail. Will it be fair?”

A sword has hung over Salman for two decades. No one would want anyone to languish for 20 long years in the hope of a mere closure; even if the verdict is not in a person’s favour. A sword falling in a day is a lot easier to accept probably. That our system is slow and our courts are saddled with millions of open cases cannot be justification for letting a matter drag on for 20 years.

Salman was 32 years old when he went on the hunting expedition. He was 32, with crores of rupees to spend and fame that had gone to his head. During the outdoor shoot of Hum Saath Saath Hain, the film that would haunt Salman forever, Khan was in the Umaid Bhavan Palace in Jodhpur. He was making demands of his producers left, right and centre; strutting around in the hotel corridors without a shirt on his body and asking for a suite because the room allotted to him was ‘too small’. Salman was not your emulate-able celebrity back in 1998. Judge Khatri should have taken into consideration while delivering the verdict that Salman of today is what youth should emulate.

Since his hit-and-run case, Salman has put his heart and a significant chunk of his earnings into charity. He has been the messiah for innumerable needy people; from cataract surgeries to jobs to, well, even roles in Bollywood films! The court could, by law, make Salman do a lot more than spend five years in jail and furnish a penalty of Rs 10,000. The money is less than insignificant for Salman.

The law could have – can – ask Salman for crores instead and use that towards wildlife conservation. That sure would help wildlife a lot more than sending him in for five years. He has been regular in his court hearings. He has followed rules and appeared in court whenever required, without trying to hoodwink the system like so many we often hear of.

He is not a professional poacher. While wildlife protection and protection of endangered species is of utmost importance, the truth is that rare animals are hunted and smuggled across the country, and in nexus with official apparatus. Reports of brave forest officers dying to protect wildlife and the killers getting away are nothing new in this country. Punishing Salman Khan with mandatory social service in wildlife conservation could be a win-win for both sides.

The reason Salman Khan was a criminal even before his conviction, especially in the blackbuck poaching case, was probably because he was a celebrity.

We want to see the high and mighty fall. We want to set an example by punishing the well-connected, the rich, the powerful. We are giddy with happiness to hear reports of superstars having to eat dal-roti in jail and sleep on the floor, like commoners, because there is a part of us that believes that they deserve it. Even before our courts call them guilty.

Many years ago, Salman’s friend-turned-foe-turned-friend Shah Rukh said, “I think one of the negatives of being a celebrity is that you get judged even before your crime is proven or proved. Aisa Salman ke saath baar baar hota hai. By virtue of the impression that his stardom is giving to people, logon ko lagta hai ki hum iske baare mein kuch bhi keh dete hai, chalega yaar. Woh, I think, galat hai.”

There is truth in Shah Rukh’s words.

Salman is convicted. He has been found guilty of hunting and killing the blackbucks on that night in October 1998. But Salman was not alone. The co-accused in the case were let off. His Hum Saath Saath Hain co-stars were acquitted for lack of evidence.

Though he is convicted, there are statements, only once by him and outside court, that he took the bullet for someone else. That he did not shoot the animal. Simi Garewal tweeted the same day before yesterday. This needed to be probed better as well.

“Case ki pehli taarikh pe mujhe maaloom hota hai mujrim kaun hai. Main yahan baitha rehta hoon, aur evidence ka intezaar karta rehta hoon… File-on pe file-on chadhti chali jaati hai lekin ek paper mere saamne nahi aata; ek paper, jisko main sahi maaine mein bol saku ki yeh evidence hai. Evidence aata nahin hai, mujrim chhoot jaata hai. Aaj tak toh aisa hi hota aa raha hai,” says Saurabh Shukla in Jolly LLB. A lot of judges across the country might echo him.

Is it his celebrity status that Salman just had to pay a heavy price for? In Khan’s words, “I don’t care. If this is the price of being Salman Khan, then it will be a very small price.”

The other side, of course, is spreading flower petals on the road outside the Jodhpur Central Jail and singing and dancing outside Galaxy Apartments to welcome their Bhaijaan back home.