Trials and starry tribulations

Posted on December 14, 2015


So what is the long-drawn Salman Khan trial all about? Baradwaj Rangan wonders.

The Salman Khan trial isn’t just about an actor who may or may not have done the things he’s been accused of, the things he’s now been acquitted of. (Whoever was driving that car has, by now, become as mysterious an entity as whoever fired the bullet that killed Kennedy.) It’s about other things, like our all-consuming fascination for celebrity trials, and how we, otherwise, barely bother to read and react to the news item about the beggar down the road who was mowed down by a car driven by someone who isn’t in the movies we go to see or in the test matches we watch on TV.

The Salman Khan trial is about our social media selves, how we decide someone is guilty, as though we have all the facts, as though those facts established guilt beyond reasonable doubt. It’s about who can come up with the wittiest cracks about a very relieved man returning home to his very worried family. The Salman Khan trial, then, is at least a little about schadenfreude. You have all this money, all these women, all this fame. Now let’s see you in a ratty little courtroom. Let’s see you sweat as you realise your fate lies in the hands of a man who’s one of us. It’s about the perverse satisfaction of seeing someone so larger-than-life being cut down to size, a seventy-mm personality shrunk to the dimensions of a television screen, sharing airtime with commoners he has nothing in common with.

The Salman Khan trial is about how these trials go on and on. A child born the year the driver of the Toyota Land Cruiser caused the accident – then again, maybe the Land Cruiser drove itself – is today a teenager. That’s a lot of time, a lot of newsprint, a lot of airwaves devoted to whether or not a very rich man is going to end up in jail. And in that kind of time, things change. Salman Khan is no longer the womaniser of Saajan, the prankster of Andaz Apna Apna, the lover of Pyaar Kiya To Darna Kya. He’s the innocent of Bajrangi Bhaijaan who, while trying to help a lost little girl return to her home in Pakistan, meets army patrollers at the border and asks them permission to enter the country – this man, we are constantly being told, would never do anything against the law. Heck, he’s so innocent, even sweet old Sooraj Barjatya, upholder of Indian values that Indians didn’t even know they were supposed to value, likes to work with him.

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The Salman Khan trial is about perceptions, about how Salman Khan is a good person, how he’s no longer the abuser of girlfriends, the stalker of exes, the beefed-up gym rat with severe anger-management issues. It’s about how he’s helped and mentored practically everyone who’s a who in Bollywood today, how the industry wouldn’t exist without him. The Salman Khan trial, consequently, is about Bollywood’s clannishess, how it closes ranks around its own, how actors and filmmakers who climb onto social-media platforms and denounce other forms of wrongdoing, by other people, has only this to say about their Bhai (a double-faced bit of colloquialism that denotes both brother and gangster) – that he’s a good person, and that this verdict is a sign that good things happen to good people.

The Salman Khan trial is about movie audiences who know, in some corner of their minds, that the tickets they’re buying are for a film whose hero may have done something very villainous – and yet they buy those tickets, over Rs. 100-crore worth of tickets (in the case of Dabanng), over Rs. 200-crore worth of tickets (in the case of Kick), over Rs. 300-crore worth of tickets (in the case of Bajrangi Bhaijaan). So the Salman Khan trial is about how we cease to care about things a civilised society expects us to care about, how we only care about entertainment, whether we’re getting our money’s worth. The Salman Khan trial is about Bhai’s fans, those fever-crazed people who camped outside his house waiting for a glimpse as their hero returned from court. By fans, I refer also to an adoring national media, for whom this was the biggest story of the day, maybe even the year, given their instant and committed response, something that wasn’t evident during the polls in Tripura or the floods in some state down south.

What the Salman Khan trial isn’t about is what it was really supposed to be about: justice, truth, all those things that say there’s no difference between the man who’s forced to sleep on a pavement and the man who lives in a house fifty stories above that pavement. From the 2002 charge of “culpable homicide not amounting to murder” to the 2007 chemical analysis report suggesting that the actor was drunk at the time of the accident to the 2015 verdict that he could not be convicted on the basis of evidence produced in the 2002 case – what a roller-coaster it’s been, the story of how Salman Khan got out of it. But did Salman Khan really do it? That may be the one thing we haven’t been told by the Salman Khan trial.

An edited version of this piece can be found here.

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