Will India’s cinema help Salman Khan stay out of jail?

Cinema in India has for decades served as platform to spread social values and political ideals. In Tamil Nadu, the Dravidian parties — including chief ministers like Annadurai, M.G. Ramachandran, Karunanidhi and the present incumbent, Jayalalithaa — have written stories, and acted in, movies that were blatant political propaganda. In neighbouring Andhra Pradesh, one-time chief minister N.T Rama Rao, essayed Hindu gods like Rama and Krishna to tug at popular sentiment, and this did win him votes. Even the nationalist Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) now ruling in New Delhi and several states used movie stars to up mass appeal.

Salman Khan being escorted to court

Salman Khan being escorted to court

So, it is only a given that Bollywood’s “bad boy,” Salman Khan, 49,  should have chosen to co-produce and perform in a film, Bajrangi Bhaijaan, that pushes not just a strong Hindu doctrine of love and peace, of truth and non-violence, but also for a rapprochement between two warring nuclear neighbors — India and Pakistan. (Carved out of the subcontinent into two nations in 1947, they have been fighting over Kashmir with each claiming the region as its own.)

Accused of physically assaulting his former girlfriend and actress of repute, Aishwarya Rai, Khan’s popularity dipped. Later, when he was charged with poaching the endangered black buck in  a territory whose people held the deer in sacred reverence and finally convicted after 13 years for driving in an inebriated state his luxury car on sleeping pavement dwellers in Mumbai, killing one and injuring four others, Khan knew he was in  hot broth. Now out on bail  with a five-year prison term waiting, and with millions of rupees riding on his movies, his producers too are anxious to see the star remain free.

So, a film like Bajrangi Bhaijaan comes along and Khan jumps at the chance it possibly offers him to try and clean up his image and reputation.  The movie has done singularly well, being the fastest Hindi-language work to reach Rs 100 crores ($15.7 million).

Scene from Bajrangi Bhaijaan 1

Scene from Bajrangi Bhaijaan 1

Khan plays Pawan or Bajrangi, a devotee of the Monkey God Hanuman, ardently worshipped by Hindus. Pawan would not eat meat, would never lie,  would illegally cross the border along Pakistan, but plead with the soldiers there to give him  “official permission” to go into their country without a visa. For, he has a divine mission to fulfil, that of uniting a mute six-year-old Pakistani girl with her mother, a child who gets lost during a pilgrimage to a Muslim shrine in Delhi.

Khan wears many hats here in the film: a devout Hindu in a country where Muslims have had an uneasy relationship with the ruling BJP, a seeker of truth and a noble samaritan who would go to any extent to get the girl back home, even if that means being called an Indian spy and beaten out of shape. Scenes of him bowing his head in veneration every time he sees a monkey may be both hilarious and loaded with the kind of message Khan wants to send  out to the powers that be. What is more, the scene of people on either side of the border uniting over Pawan’s valiant and successful bid is a tear jerker all right — the right ingredient to let the heart rule.

Maharashtra where Khan lives is run by the BJP and the hold of the Shiv Sena, another Righwing Hindu political party, is also particularly strong there — and the actor needs their support if he were to stay out of jail.

This may not be easy, though he managed to dodge conviction in the drunken driving case for 13 years. He tried desperately to ensure that the verdict never came. At one point, he even asked  his driver to lie to the court that he, not Khan, was at the wheel on the fateful drive.

Scene from Bajrangi Bhaijaan 2

Scene from Bajrangi Bhaijaan 2

In India, where popular sentiments have often played a role in judicial proceedings — with the media sometimes — conducting its own trials on television or in print — Khan might just about hope that movies like Bajrangi Bhaijaan, where he is seen as a do-gooder, would  help him win public sympathy and affection — and in the process keep him out  of prison.

This is apparent when we watch the climax in Bajrangi Bhaijaan: the crowds on either side of the border break the iron barrier between India and Pakistan to help Pawan walk into his country as a free man. The Pakistani forces are shown covertly helping him by becoming mute spectators, while the little girl herself finds her voice. A victory for Pawan,  a brownie point for Khan.  Or, so he would like to presume.

Gautaman Bhaskaran is an author, commentator and movie critic, who has worked with two of India’s best regarded daily newspapers, The Statesman in Kolkata and The Hindu in Chennai for 35 years, and who now writes for the Hindustan Times, the Gulf Times and The Seoul Times.

Categories: Asia Times News & Features, South Asia

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  • Mr. Bernard Wijeyasingha

    The Indian cinema is the largest and one of the oldest industries in the world. During the last decades of the British Raj, Great Britain brought the “moving picture” to Calcutta from the 19th century Paris exposition. The region we call “India’ (which at that time included Pakistan and Bangladesh) got into the movie industry just a few years before Hollywood did.
    The movie industry was a game changer. India’s masses were now able to watch Hindu epics usually reserved in classical dance to theater, on the screen. One could state that the Indian movie industry brought to the masses India’s high culture, be it classical dance such as Bharatanatyam, to her epics such as the Ramayana or the Mahabharata, to her kaleidoscopic history be it the anals of the Rajputs, the splendor of the Mogul Empire, the Ashokan Empire, etc. Simply put, the Indian cinema industry stated in a dozen languages or more, and in many cultures, played in movies that are 3 hours long, on average, with around a dozen songs per movie, became the entertainment, means of mass education and finally a place to escape the mundane aspects of the real India. At around 1400 movies per year India’s movie industry remains the world’s largest and most diverse movie industries anywhere.
    There is a dark side to this industry. The actors and actresses go out of their way to look as European as possible. From Plastic surgery to bleaching the skin, they emerge as a close copy of a European as possible. The starkness of this can be seen between the dusky skinned audience and the extremely fair, European featured Actors and Actresses. It has led to an India where extremely fair skin is related to beauty.
    the social effects of it has created a society where the darker skinned person finds it harder to get a wealthy, educated spouse, or a well paying job, It has cut across the entire Subcontinent. Darker skinned people in India have to fight harder for practically everything. From matrimonial ads to comments on the internet, including Models on the Times of India to Hindustan Times show Northern European models (not even Mediterranean models and certainly not African of East Asian models) on articles that deal with issues strictly Indian.

  • Bandy Banerjee

    Common man of India has forgiven him long back. It’s a mere accident and people understand that. People stood stoically behind him even before bajrangi bhaijaan. He doesn’t need to make a film for that. Same goes for his charity work. Bribing concerned people clandestinely is much cheaper and much easier than giving away hundreds of crores to people who he doesn’t even know. Salman is doing great work and he is an asset to the society on social, cultural and economic parameters. This type of articles only show that media is running out of bad things to say about salman.