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In India, movie stars can do nothing wrong. The aura around them, and the halo are so powerful that they blind their fans to terrible follies. As Salman Khan’s Sultan opens on Wednesday -- in which he plays a wrestler from a small town in Haryana, who fights his way against odds to fetch fame for India -- we all know that the film will pound the box-office with bountiful bucks. And in all this delirious merriment, when Khan’s fans will be crowning him with the title of Sultan, the 50-year-old actor’s several misdemeanours will be brushed below the carpet.
Khan has for a long, long time been Bollywood’s bad boy -- since those early days when he was accused of physically brutalising his then girlfriend, Aishwarya Rai, to the most recent time, when he compared himself to a rape victim. He said he felt like one every time he finished a backbreaking schedule of Sultan. Khan’s words were met with horror by women’s groups, and the general public, who wanted him punished.
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But punishment is something that Sultan Salman has been evading with a cunning finesse that goes beyond the realm of the absurd. The actor’s supposed drunken driving in 2002, when a pavement dweller in Mumbai died and four others were injured, has by now begun to look like a piece of fiction.
Many things happened in that legal case. The police bodyguard, Ravindra Patil, who was on duty with Khan on the fateful night reportedly told the court that the actor was at the wheel and that he was drunk. Patil was under immense pressure to change his statement. It is not actually clear whether he did do so, but he was suspended from the police force and subsequently died of tuberculosis.
Khan has also been accused of poaching a black buck in Rajasthan’s Bishnoi territory. The animal is part of India’s endangered species -- and is also considered sacred by the community.
If Khan has been successfully playing hide-and-seek with the law, he has also been working hard on the cinema front. Probably to clean up his image, he has been choosing characters who have been simply endearing. In Bajrangi Bhaijaan, he plays a devoutly pious man who restores a small Pakistani girl -- who gets lost in India -- to her parents. In Sultan, he is the wrestler who earns his country honour and respect. Earlier, he had essayed a fearlessly honest cop in Dabangg and Dabangg 2.
Cinema has, since time immemorial, served as a personal platform for the rich and the powerful. While Hitler and Mussolini used pictures to propagate Fascism, Dravidian political parties in Tamil Nadu used the medium to move the masses towards a completely new kind of ideology. In Andhra Pradesh, Chief Minister N T Rama Rao played mythological characters like Krishna and Rama to win over the electorate.
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Even today, the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, Jayalalithaa, makes sure that theatres screen short movies publicising her welfare measures, as does Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Salman Khan may not have any great political clout, but he has an enormous amount of money muscle that he flexes to enhance his image and reputation through big films. Fans swoon over these images.
And in the kind of immense euphoria that Khan creates through his works, all his “misdeeds” are not just forgotten, but forgiven as well. Or so it seems.
As one blogger, Honey Mehta, quipped: “To err is human, but to err and get away with it every time is Salman Khan.”
The views expressed are the author’s own