Oh Bhai! Where’s the Salman we knew, asks Anupama Chopra
This is a man whose stardom just doesn’t fade and whose fans remain as frenzied as ever. So why has he stopped trying?
If there was ever a time for an escapist entertainer in which a larger-than-life hero saves the world, that time is now. Those of us still healthy and privileged enough to look for distractions in the middle of this brutal second wave seek, in such stories, much-needed solace. And who better to deliver that than Salman Khan.
In over 30 years as a leading man, he has emblazoned himself on hearts and minds. This is a star so beloved that he is casually referred to as Bhai. His most recent film even has it in the title — Radhe: Your Most Wanted Bhai.
Sadly, this isn’t the Bhai or the film we needed. In 2009, director Prabhudeva jumpstarted Salman’s floundering career with Wanted (a remake of the Telugu film Pokkiri). That film, combined with the blockbuster Dabangg a year later, elevated Salman to what I call Teflon-level superstardom. Controversies, flops, criminal charges, nothing could stick to him.
Through the following decade, he delivered a string of blockbusters (Ready, Bodyguard, the Tiger franchise, Sultan and more) and acquired almost-mythical status. Trade pundits liked to say that even a Salman flop makes ₹100 crore. In small towns, the films of this 50-plus star single-handedly kept single-screens afloat.
Over the last three years, though, the Salman dream seems to have soured. His frenzied fandom might be in place but the films are deteriorating rapidly. In Race 3, Dabangg 3 and now Radhe (a sequel to Wanted and also directed by Prabhudeva), I see cynicism. These films operate from the belief that Salman fans will flock to theatres or streaming platforms irrespective of quality. Their ardour is taken for granted, and so there is almost no attempt at even coherence, let alone craft.
Directors whip together an entry sequence, item songs, a romantic track and action scenes of him beating up the bad guys solo. There’s always a scene that requires him to stand shirtless. These days you’re not always sure why he’s bashing someone up, or how he’s managed to levitate over him to land that fatal punch. It doesn’t seem to matter to him, though. The actor goes through the motions, the film ends. It’s almost as if he couldn’t be bothered to act.
Salman’s persona is super-sized and set in stone, by design. He once told me he would never play a morally compromised character because it might encourage his fans in the wrong direction. Which is why, the actor joked, when he worked in the Race franchise, which is built on treachery, sex and betrayal, he inserted a dose of Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! But even within these strict confines, a few directors have been able to deliver cracking stories — think of Kabir Khan (Bajrangi Bhaijaan, Ek Tha Tiger), Ali Abbas Zafar (Sultan), Abhinav Kashyap (Dabangg). That last one even found the sweet spot between actor and character. As Chulbul Pandey, Salman used his natural irreverence and charisma with aplomb.
Superstars like Salman create their own planetary systems. Around them an entire machinery rotates. Perhaps in that vast network of directors, producers, preferred colleagues, corporations, brands, managers and publicists, they could make room for a scriptwriter. Because what the actor needs most right now is a narrative.
Radhe begins with a thank-you to Salim Khan, Salman’s father and one half of Salim-Javed, the most successful writing duo in the history of Hindi cinema. That might be a good place to start.