"Stardom isn't a profession, it's an accident."
December 29, 1989. Rajshri Productions' 'Maine Pyaar Kiya' hits the screens and scorches the Box Office. The newcomers, Salman Khan and Bhagyashree, become nation-wide heart-throbs. The critics laud film and the female lead, but aren’t so kind to Salman. ‘Another flash in the pan like Kumar Gaurav’ is the common refrain. But destiny and the audience have different plans.
Thirty years later, in 2020, Bhagyashree has long vanished into the wide blue yonder, while Salman is still shimmering as the brightest star in the firmament.
In the last 30 years, Salman witnessed periods of untrammelled domination at the turnstiles where his presence alone turned films into blockbusters. He holds most of the Box Office records of the last three decades — such as the most number of highest grossers of the year, the most blockbusters and many more.
Still, a section of critics continued to dismiss him as a 'non-actor' and gave credit to other actors/factors for the success of his films. But Salman kept marching on, even as his co-stars — from Bhagyashree to Madhuri Dixit — succumbed to the vagaries of time. A slew of flaming controversies and spells of flops threatened to halt his strides, but the paying public continued to endorse and celebrate him unwaveringly.
But, as is the case with many supremely successful people, Salman is possessed of a self-destructive streak, which rears up from time to time. It is apparent that only Salman can fell Salman. Call it paradoxical or ironical, but the superstar who has had the best connect with the audience across the length and breadth of the country is also the one who takes his audience for granted the most.
Be it unabashedly promoting nepotism or choosing to work with sycophants, who willingly dance to his tunes — rather than with proficient directors — Salman's whimsical attitude is directly proportional to the loyalty of his fans.
The abundant, and often blind, love of his hordes of fans gives him the safety net to become complacent and lackadaisical. After all, at present, even his under-performers such as 'Race 3' and 'Dabangg 3' rake in more money than the super-hits of mere mortal stars.
Recently, Salman chose to opt out of Sanjay Leela Bhansali's 'Inshallah' and gave his nod to Prabhu Deva for 'Radhe'. That's because Bhansali is a prodigiously skilful and visionary director who doesn't kowtow to the whims of stars. While 'Bhai' mostly likes to work with directors he can arm-twist and get his way with regard to casting, music and screenplay.
That's the reason, Salman merrily antagonises self-respecting, sterling directors and patronises ciphers such as Remo D'Souza and Prabhu Deva.
Of course, in between come directors such as Kabir Khan and Ali Abbas Zafar who work their way around Salman’s ego and manage to conjure up 'Bajrangi Bhaijaan' and 'Sultan', but even they eventually get browned off by his petulance. Kabir, in fact, has gone on the record to say that he didn't want Sohail Khan, Salman's brother, in ‘Tubelight', but the superstar put his foot down. The outcome was disastrous. The director of the classic 'Bajarangi Bhaijaan' eked out a dud like 'Tubelight' and chose to work with Ranveer Singh for his next film.
His propensity to swamp films with his acolytes, instead of stellar actors, in side-roles also dilutes the impact of his films. ‘Prem Ratan Dhan Payo’, although a super-hit, is a shining example. ‘Jai Ho’ suffered massively on this count where he shoehorned an army of discrads such as Yash Tonk, Ashmit Patel and Mukul Dev. Earlier, the late Inder Kumar and Mahek Chahal were regular beneficiaries of his misplaced benevolence.
'Veer', 'Tubelight', 'Garv', 'Hello Brother', 'Race 3', 'Tumko Na Bhool Payenge', ‘God Tussi Great Ho’, ‘Kahin Pyaar Na Ho Jaye’ — the list of movies wrecked by Salman's rabid interference is a long one.
Make no mistake. In the past, Salman worked with some fabulous directors in his career - Sooraj Barjatya, Rakesh Roshan, David Dhawan and Raj Kumar Santoshi, to name a few - and that’s why he attained the stardom he did. But many a time, he blatantly promoted grovelling filmmakers such as Punit Issar (‘Garv’) Rumi Jaffery (‘God Tussi Great Ho’) and his own brother Sohail Khan. That always prevented him to go full steam and measure up to his true potential.
The other two Khans - Aamir and Shah Rukh - have been far more prudent, conscientious and wiser than him in this matter. Even when they promote a director or an actor, they do it on merit.
He has just witnessed perhaps the best phase (2010-2017) ever enjoyed by a mainstream superstar in terms of Box Office returns. Every eminent director wants to work with him. From Bhansali, Rohit Shetty and Farhan Akhtar to SS Rajamouli, all have expressed their desire many times to work with him, but are antagonised and shunned by him, simply because they aren’t going to pander to his whims and fancies.
As a result, the sheen seems to be wearing off. 'Tubelight', 'Race 3' and 'Dabangg 3' have under-performed at the ticket counters in successive years. In fact, they made more money than they actually deserved. Only a self-destructive megalomaniac can squander his mega stardom and misuse the loyalty of his fans in such a slapdash manner.
This isn't the first time in his career when his mercurial and blase attitude has come to the fore. He has got away with it thus far. But now he's in his 50s and no longer a spring chicken. He no longer has the age on his side. Moreover, his fans also seem to be cheesed off and are no longer in the mood to cut him more slack. Some of them will perhaps still stick around and wait for him to do the right films. He may stay afloat for next few years but will not dominate the landscape like he has. To be treated like a mere mortal after decades of being worshipped would be a stinging blow to Salman.
If one objectively looks at his enviable and an unusually long career as a leading man, there are a host of blockbusters and classics. But given the kind of unconditional and frenzied adulation he has been bestowed upon by the audience, the lingering sentiment is that he hasn't fulfilled the potential of his stardom. While his place among the pantheon of all-time Box Office greats is firmly ensconced, the potential is still waiting to be fully realised.