#Law and order under the Modi government has gone for a toss. I put two tickets of Race 3 in my car. Some idiots broke the window and left two more.
A surfeit of tweets—some hilarious, others acerbic—has swamped social media of late, cocking a snook at Salman Khan’s latest outing, Race 3, as ‘the biggest bore of the decade’ and ‘a sure-shot cure for the insomniacs’. This year’s much-vaunted Eid release has been mauled just as savagely by film critics, a few of them trashing it as simply insufferable.
Worse still, the film has made it to the IMDb list of ‘lowest-rated movies’ where it shares the dubious distinction with the likes of Ram Gopal Varma Ki Aag (2007), The Legend of Drona (2008), Tees Maar Khan (2010), Himmatwala (2013), Humshakals (2014) and Kya Kool Hain Hum 3 (2016)—all unmitigated disasters of our times.
In fact, some of Salman’s die-hard followers appear to be so disappointed with this movie that they have, for once, asked him not to take them for granted. ““Bhai,, don’t do films like Race 3,” a distraught fan tweeted in anguish after seeing the film. “It is not up to your standard.”
Under the best of circumstances, such reactions ought to have set off the alarm bells for a lesser star, but not the reigning monarch of B-town. Far from it, Bhai, as Salman is affectionately called, is having the last chuckle—he’s laughing out loud all the way to the bank. Remo D’Souza’s directorial venture has already crossed a commercial milestone, having notched up more than Rs 160 crore in India and Rs 250 crore worldwide in just about ten days. Quite an achievement for a film pilloried for its tacky plot, sloppy direction and deadpan acting!
But then, in an industry where stars are made and maimed every Friday, nothing matters more than what a movie ultimately earns at the ticket window. Race 3 may have been dismissed as a veritable affront to the aesthetic sense and sensibility by many a connoisseur of good cinema, but its box-office figures have only underlined the enduring mass appeal of the 52-year-old warhorse, who remains a darling of the dress circle regardless of his receding hairline and protracted court cases.
But why is a star with unexceptional histrionic prowess still so popular with the masses? What are the factors that have sustained him as an alchemist at the cash counters? Ali Abbas Zafar, director of two of Salman’s recent blockbusters, Sultan (2016) and Tiger Zinda Hai (2017), puts it conclusively: “It is very important for a superstar to connect, communicate and maintain a relationship with his audiences through his films. I think the audiences see absolute honesty in the way he leads his personal life, as also in the way he portrays his roles,” Zafar tells Outlook. “It invariably touches a chord with the audiences who flock to the theatres to watch his films over and over again. It’s a factor that simply cannot be defined.”
Zafar, now at the helm of Salman’s next, Bharat, believes every movie has its own journey and destiny as far as commercial success is concerned. “We cannot measure it against the superstardom of an actor. While making a movie, nobody knows whether it will click or not,” he says. “It is something indescribable.”
The young auteur thinks that he is fortunate to have worked with as big a superstar as Salman at the outset of his career. “As a director, it is absolutely essential to highlight the USP of a big star in the best possible way,” he says. “You have to develop the character in sync with the superstardom.”
Zafar avers that the audiences are disappointed only when they find a star’s stardom putting his character in the shade. “But if the character and the stardom complement each other, as they did in Sultan, Tiger Zinda Hai and Bajrangi Bhaijaan (2015), then it creates pure magic,” he states.
Noted scriptwriter Rajat Arora considers Salman’s loyal fan base to be the biggest factor behind his success. “What is remarkable is that people from all age groups, from kids to elderly people, like him. In fact, the release of his movie is a celebration of sorts of the star, idolised by his legions of followers.”
Arora, who scripted the Salman blockbuster Kick (2014), says that is why nine of his movies have done business of more than Rs 100 crore while four others crossed the Rs 200-300-crore mark. “He has really worked hard over the years to maintain his stardom. He simply gives to his audiences what they really like to see.”
Figures, of course, don’t lie. Salman has had an unparalleled run in the past decade or so. Since Dabangg (2010), his 13 consecutive movies have minted more than Rs 100 crore, a figure considered to be the benchmark for a Bollywood blockbuster. Only a couple of them, such as Jai Ho (2014) and Tubelight (2017), are considered flops. But that is because of their high production costs; otherwise they too made it to the elite 100 crore club effortlessly.
Curiously, all this has happened despite Salman’s apparently cavalier attitude towards his career. At a time when his illustrious contemporaries—Aamir Khan and Shahrukh Khan, the other two of the holy tinsel town trinity—are constantly striving for content-driven cinema, commensurate with their expertise and experience, the youngest of the three 1965-born Khans functions within his own world, relying more on his popularity than the script of his movie. More often than not, he takes up a project purely for emotional reasons and shows no qualms in helping out his family members and friends in bolstering their careers. From Sonakshi Sinha in Dabangg to Athiya Shetty and Suraj Pancholi in Hero (2015), many star kids owe their launches to him. As for Race 3, he has gone a step further, as its entire cast, save Anil Kapoor, appears to be piggybacking on his charisma. High on his success, Salman seems to care too little for the criticism that he turns a movie into an extended family enterprise these days.
Critics, however, believe that the Midas touch may not last for long. “He’s not serious about picking good subjects. I thought Salman had turned a new leaf with Bajrangi Bhaijaan and Sultan but Race 3 demolished my hopes,” rues film writer Deepak Dua. “The film has too many non-actors who are in it primarily because of their close ties with him.”
Dua says Salman probably knows his range as an actor and that’s why he restricts himself to his comfort zone of masala entertainers, unlike Shahrukh and Aamir. “Let alone Aamir, even Shahrukh has been trying to do things differently since the days of Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani (2000) and Asoka (2001),” he says. “It’s an altogether different matter that he has not been successful in that.”
Dua fears that Salman, at this juncture of his career, may end up committing the same blunder as yesteryear star Dharmendra. “Dharmendra did many eminently forgettable action flicks like Baghavat (1982) and Hukumat (1987),” he says. “I am afraid Salman is veering towards the same rut, playing a he-man over and over again. Race 3 is yet another pointer to that, ” he adds.
Race 3’s success, Dua points out, is the outcome of a number of factors. “The film benefited from the brand name of the Race franchise, besides Salman’s superstardom,” he says. “Also, it was released on Eid, an occasion when even his really bad movies have done well. But it has to be borne in mind that the success of a bad movie like Race 3 will only spawn films of similar or worse quality.”
Trade pundits, however, see the success of Race 3, in spite of the trenchant criticism, as yet another confirmation of the saleability of Brand Salman. “Jaako raakhe Salman, maar sake naa critics (No critic can harm a Salman project,)” says veteran film trade expert Atul Mohan, twisting a popular adage used by the actor in Race 3.
Mohan, the editor of Complete Cinema, further says that Salman has never been serious about film scripts and yet he has been consistently delivering what the audiences like. “Without the audience’s support, it would not have been possible for Race 3 to earn Rs 160 crore in the first ten days of its release,” he elaborates.
Mohan even goes to the extent of saying that the criticism against and the potshots at Race 3 on social media are part of a ‘sinister campaign’ by a few people who are acting with vested interests. “When somebody becomes popular, certain people try to bring him down,” he says. “In the case of Race 3, social media was used by many as a tool to harm the prospects of Salman’s movie. But people are still flocking to theatres, despite all the trolling.”
That probably sums up the prolonged magic that Salman has cast on the audiences in recent years. Even though most of his movies are bereft of the nous of an Aamir-starrer or the purpose of a Shahrukh project, he remains the ultimate talisman at the box office—somebody who wears his X-factor like armour and lives by what his character says in the film Kick; “Dil mein aata hoon, samajh mein nahin (I come into the heart, not the mind.)”