In Salman, they trust

Posted on May 8, 2015


A fascinating documentary shows us what Salman Khan means to an India that’s not quite shining.

One of the more perplexing moments on Season Four of Koffee with Karan was when Salman Khan made an appearance – his first on the show – and declared, “I am a virgin.” He added that he was going to save himself for the one he gets married to. Host Karan Johar stood in for everyone who’s read about the star’s sexual exploits – his eyes popped. But Khan maintained a grave demeanour, as if he’d just announced he was retiring from acting. After all, what performance could top this? Sneakily, Johar let us know that Khan may not have been entirely truthful. Earlier, he’d asked Khan about his relationships. The actor replied, “I’ve never had a girlfriend.” Johar smirked. A little later, he asked Khan how he handled ex-girlfriends when he bumped into them. Khan, apparently, had forgotten he had none. He began, “Some I ignore totally…” And we laughed.

But Balram Gehani didn’t. In Being Bhaijaan, a fascinating documentary directed by Shabani Hassanwalia and Samreen Farooqui, this Salman Khan fan from Nagpur reveals that he liked the word “virgin” very much because Khan accepted that that’s what he was. As proof, he offered this fact: Khan has never done a kissing scene. According to Gehani, it is important to remain a virgin because, during sex, “the sperm that carries the male power is lost to the woman.” Gehani concludes, “I am 100% virgin and will remain one.”

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The fact that a fan models his behaviour after that of a star is in itself disturbing, but there’s more. Gehani believes that India’s population is under control because Bhai’s (as Salman is popularly known) fans haven’t married. “And that’s because Bhai himself hasn’t married. If Bhai gets married, then at least 3-4 crore men will get married. A year later, they will have children. The earth will topple over and the world will end right there. He is like Vishnu’s avatar, who is balancing the whole world on his finger. If he moves his finger even a little, the world will be destroyed.”

Gehani is exaggerating, but not by much. Until Khan was sentenced, he was more or less a god. He was a god to the industry, certainly, balancing the box office on his finger, summoning up blockbusters out of thin air, thinner material. And to fans like Gehani, too, Khan was a god – for the hero of the masala movie is a direct descendent of the protagonists of our epics, an embodiment of good, a vanquisher of evil. And like most of our big stars, Khan created his screen persona with a bit of mix-and-match: respectful to elders like Rama, mischievous and flirty like Krishna, and, off-screen, unattached like Hanuman. (It’s no accident that Khan’s next release is titled Bajrangi Bhaijaan.) Many fans buy this persona totally, at least those from the kind of India mainstream Bollywood has been trying very hard to make us forget.

These are ordinary people. Gehani wants to reopen his father’s bakery on the same street. Bhaskar Hedaoo, another Salman Khan fan and all of 19 when the documentary was made, wants to earn enough money to marry off his sister. And Shan Ghosh, a Bhai lookalike who’s earned the nickname “Junior Salman,” is investing in real estate so that he can move his family from middle class to upper class. (His father worked for the Madhya Pradesh Electricity Board.) But these real-life aspirations come second to dreams of – as the documentary’s title puts it – being Bhaijaan. If you want to know just how much of a god Salman Khan is to Shan Ghosh, listen to how he answers calls: “Jai Salman.” That’s also the name of a Whatsapp group for fans.

Shah Rukh Khan, with his NRI romances and designer duds, embodied, depending on how you look at it, either aspiration or escapist fantasy. Aamir Khan made a name for himself as a thinking-man’s actor. There was no one speaking to the real India – as some might put it – that wants godlike heroes and modern-day myths. Salman Khan stepped in, and, in due time, became the Rajinikanth of North India, speaking to an audience to whom a burning bra is simply an undergarment in flames. Rajinikanth, at one time, specialised in putting his heroines in their place. Ghosh expects his wife to cook, keep house, look after his parents… “These are the things girls should do.” Ghosh emulates his hero’s inconsistency as well. After listing out the qualities of an ideal wife, he says he doesn’t believe in love. Bhai, after all, said that he wanted a girl who’s like his mother, and according to Ghosh, “The marriage market doesn’t have those kind of girls anymore.”

As with many Indian men from smaller towns (Ghosh is from Chhindwara, about 3½ hours from Nagpur), there’s more bromance than romance. Ghosh tells Gehani that he’ll come to Nagpur and they’ll watch the new Bhai film together. It’s practically a date. On his way to meet Ghosh, Gehani wonders nervously, “How do I look? Will he be smarter than me?” At one point, Ghosh is viewing, on his phone, the Fevicol se number from Dabangg 2. Asked about Kareena Kapoor, he says, “Oh, I can’t even see her. If Salman Bhai is on screen, I can only see him.” In the mirror too. Ghosh not only looks like Khan, he’s also chiselled his physique like Khan’s. He has no qualms tearing his shirt off during the first-day-first-show screening of Jai Ho. But why copy someone? Why not create your own identity? Ghosh replies, “Amitabh Bachchan got ahead by copying Al Pacino… If you look at his photos, you’ll be able to see Al Pacino… We copy and that is how we move forward.”

Gehani believes that building a Bhai-like physique is about masculinity. “If a man shows his body, he is successful. It means he’s a man. If somebody beats up two more men, he’s a man. A man needs courage, and what gives him courage is his masculinity.” I asked Gehani if Khan’s sentencing had made him re-evaluate his fandom. He said no. He also said that what happened was “ooparwale ki marzi,” God’s will. Which god, he didn’t say.

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