THE MOVIE Sultan had some 4,500 screens booked for its opening week, the largest ever in the country. Trade analysts expect it to gross Rs 150 crore at the box office on its opening weekend, a remarkable figure when you consider that overall collections of more than Rs 100 crore still make a film a so-called ‘superhit’. At the core of Sultan’s pull, between its songs and action sequences, between the marketing acumen of its production house, Yash Raj Films, and the extended weekend that Eid offers, is a phenomenon called Salman Khan. Year in and year out, irrespective of his controversies, moral low points, sub-par acting and repetitive fare, and at a time when other superstars such as Shah Rukh Khan have begun to show box-office frailty, brand Salman remains a money-spinner. Romance, that evergreen genre of Hindi cinema which laid the career foundations of all three Khans (Aamir being the third), usually begins to breach its reliability limits once an actor begins to age. The three Khans of Bollywood are now over 50 and pushing those limits. Salman, over the past few years, has found a way around it by playing larger-than- life characters, often directed by good directors, pulling into his muscular embrace an assortment of filmgoers.
At the centre of Salman Khan’s popularity lies the appeal of a man-child— the eternal bachelor, often misunderstood, but supposedly in possession of a heart of gold
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At the centre of his popularity lies the appeal of the man-child. The eternal bachelor, who, like his films, is a straight-talking and no-nonsense guy, often misunderstood and betrayed but in possession of a heart of gold. It might not necessarily be a carefully constructed image, for many say that he actually possesses many of these attributes, but it has certainly been carefully managed. There was a time in the late 1990s and early 2000s when it appeared odd to count him among the ruling trio of Khans. Several of his films, in which he enacted either serious romantic or comedy roles, had failed miserably. And then, from 2009 onwards with the release of Wanted, he seems to have realised where his true appeal lies—in his own personality. From then on, he has begun to play an exaggerated version of it. His film and off-screen persona, no doubt stage-managed by capable spin doctors, projects this. His philanthropy has been streamlined into a very visible NGO brand (Being Human) that bombards its target audience from hoardings and shop windows and he plugs relentlessly in interviews. Salman has even become more accessible to the media. And he has created an entire ‘bhai’ culture, one drawn neither from the literal word for ‘brother’ nor from any gangster honorific, but something that lies in between.
Every film of Salman’s, however grandiose its idea, is ultimately a projection of the man. He recently told Mint, “If I as a child went to a movie, I would want the hero getting beaten up but coming back in the end. He could be fighting for anything, be it his dog or cat, his mother or father, his country, or for a child he does not know but needs to drop back to her parents.”