"Have you grown up to Thums Up yet?"
—Salman Khan in the cola ad
In a world where it's rumoured that women go for the mind, Salman Khan should have been celibate. But he has consistently found mates who can't be dismissed as misled girls chasing his money, yearning for his barren chest. They are all famous, successful, beautiful women. When they eventually toured his mind, it was a short journey. That's more or less the story of how recent casualty and ex-Miss World Aishwarya Rai bade him goodbye. Romeo's reactions to the lady's belated good sense—including a promise to punch the nose of Vivek Oberoi whom he suspected to be his unworthy replacement—fit perfectly in a life filled with lawfully punishable behaviour. If Salman was a woman, he would have been kindly called a victim—suffering from loneliness, despair and what Mahesh Bhatt calls "drug and alcohol-induced schizophrenia". If only he was. But he's an attempt at a robust male, variously regarded in the industry as a moron, a bad driver and "a good person".
The uncharitable say the publicity wouldn't have harmed an upcoming Vivek-Ash film. But even after Vivek Oberoi went public with his accusation last week that Salman threatened to kill him, the general perception didn't change one bit. These are only reminders to the kind of man he is. As are the denials from some people that they know him at all. Model Katrina Kaif, rumoured to be his latest fling, told Outlook, "I don't know him. I have nothing to do with him".
The current conflict in the life and times of Salman Khan began when Oberoi was in Chennai to meet filmmaker Mani Ratnam in March-end. He heard Salman's bodyguards were doing some research on his family address. Alone at home were his "mother and sister", a traditionally vulnerable combination. So Vivek rushed back to Mumbai. From the midnight of March 29 till five in the morning next day, Vivek says, Salman called him 41 times to "abuse in the worst language possible and vividly describe how he had sex with his ex-girlfriends".
Why? "Because he is unbalanced," says Oberoi while defining his relationship with Aishwarya as "friendly" with a point of view thrown in: "She's a wonderful person."
Speaking to Outlook from London, Salman refused to confirm or deny that he ever called Vivek. In the midst of philosophical mutterings about what exactly life is, he said: "Let him do all the talking. He is new and fresh, let him talk. You (the press) should go with him. Hear him out. I have nothing to say about the issue." Asked to comment on himself if not the phone conversation, Salman said ponderously: "I am not the best person to talk about myself. You are never the best person to talk about yourself. We all cannot talk about ourselves. One day I will ask you questions about yourself, let me see how many you will answer."
Deep stuff from a man to whom the IBM campaign "Think" could be an unfair request. Salman has been arrested for hunting black buck in Jodhpur, has beaten up Subhash Ghai at a party, pushed around photographers and journalists while stepping out after an Enforcement Directorate interrogation (though some photographers did goad him, whispering "Dawood Dawood"), has banged the doors of Aishwarya Rai's Mumbai home late into the night, rammed his car into hers on the Kuch Na Kaho sets, and abused Shahrukh Khan in Malshet Ghat during a successful attempt at stealing Rai from the sets. Last September, he drove his Landcruiser over five people sleeping on a Bandra pavement. One of them was killed.
If Oberoi had filed an FIR, it would have been yet another brush with the cops for Salman, said to be under watch for supposed underworld connections. But Oberoi chose not to do it. "My family has a good equation with Salman's.I didn't want things to get dirty. But if he acts funny again, he will get a reply first from my fist and then from the law. I am told I have enough evidence through mobile phone records to make life difficult for him. He has been warned."
Salman's career is at a new low today with very few films in hand. Years of unacceptable behaviour on the sets has done that much. As industry observer Komal Nahata says, "Fears that the law will one day catch up and put him in jail for a long time" have made producers nervous. But there are still people who say he's been "misunderstood", that he may lose his shirt sometimes but is "a wonderful person". Though role model Sanjay Dutt told Outlook he has "nothing to say" in Salman's defence, there are those who recount tales of an astonishing friend. A long time ago (before fame took over), he had what is called a "street" girlfriend. A few boys had once teased her. It isn't clear what he did to them then. He and the girl went their own ways eventually. But years later he identified the guys among a group of fans. He took their new car, saying he would like to take a spin and rammed it many times into a wall. More recently, he had gone to Goa with about 30 or so friends, technicians and lowly workers. When a popular director's wife invited Salman to a party of select superstars, he refused to go unless all his men were invited too.
Time and again he has shown this trait of standing by his ordinary friends. About six years ago, during the shoot of Mukul Anand's Dus in Utah, a catering woman fell off a truck and hurt her head. He not only spent the entire night at the hospital with her but also paid the bill. There are kids who are cancer patients with direct access to him. Salman is a regular for many of the street kids in Mumbai's distant suburbs, who he gifts expensive jeans and shirts to. So it's true that for some of the underprivileged, he can be a life-giving force—unless of course they sleep too often on the pavement.
"To me, he's an endearing boy," says Pritish Nandy who has cast him as Bhootnath in a remake of Guru Dutt's Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam. "As producer, I am not worried. He thinks smart. He doesn't put down others and there is a certain confidence about him." While conceding that he will "have a talk" with Salman about the virtues of good behaviour, he says he cast him because "I wanted to puncture his image of being a careless brat. His role is that of a village bumpkin in the early 20th century who goes to the city". It will be a village boy who will live in a zamindar's house where the mistress of the house (as poignant as it is) longs for her man and sometime during the endless wait finds respite in alcohol. Nandy's take on Salman's plight is interesting, as a situation that arises when "actors slip into their roles". Despite being on the short side, Salman on the screen has, for long, been an ambassador for "real manhood", standing for all things big. It's an impression that men have had about masculinity for long, something that has endured though women started another rumour to guard their own peace of mind. That size doesn't matter.