Dabangg and Sultan: Salman’s Mustache Roles

Sultan week continues!  Day 2, I’ve already talked about Salman as a widower, what relationship Sultan may have to Ali Abbas Zafar’s other films, and what connection it might have with previous Anushka performances.  New topic: why a mustache?

Don’t worry, this is not the “real” Dabangg post.  At some point I will watch that movie for the 500th time just to refresh my recollection, and then go through it point by point.  This is just a post where I consider what it might be mean that Salman has similar facial hair in Dabangg and in the Sultan trailers as part of my Sultan week.

This might sound like nitpicking, thinking there is a similarity based simply on facial hair.  But it is so important!  Especially mustaches.  They tell you that this hero is a little old-fashioned, a little macho.  And they tell you that this movie will be a little old-fashioned as well.

In Dabangg, the mustache helped announce a new kind of Salman Khan.  I just took a quick look at his filmography to remind myself of what he had been doing immediately prior.  Yes, Wanted was in there, along with a few other action flicks, mixed in with romances and comedies, but there had been no cop films for a while (“cop” film meaning with him in uniform with underlings and a police station and all the other parts of standard cop movies from CID to Zanjeer), and no “mustache” performances.

His last big “cop” role, in Garv: Pride and Honor (which I just watched for the first time a few days ago), was more of a big city cop, dealing with international criminals and a whole police system with a hierarchy and so on.  But Dabangg is old-school, in the best possible way.  It is small scale villainy, on the ground evil, and our hero police officer is solving it in the same way, on the human level.

One of my favorite things about Dabangg is the very opening, when Salman dances with the bad guy as his cell phone starts up.  Which is a clever gag, but it is also a sign that this is not a hero who sees himself as necessarily better than the “bad guys”.  Yes, he tries to be a good person and to protect those under his protection, whether it is his mother or his fellow officers or, later, his younger brother.  But he isn’t uppity about it.  He has no problem dancing with the random low-level goon, or giving the money they raise to his lowest staff member.  His whole performance feels like that, with a great mixture of serious effort to be dignified and responsible, and simple joy in humanity and his fellow humans bursting through.

Which brings me to the mustache.  It’s a sign, for the character, he is in touch with the traditions of the police force and what people expect of a police officer in his town.  He is proud of his mustache, just as he is proud of his identity as the best kind of old-school police officer.  Not afraid to get down and dirty with the people of his town, criminals and victims alike, but with his own strong sense of morals.

And I like Dabangg because it feels like the movie as a whole isn’t afraid to get down and dirty.  It has the most explicitly inter-caste relationship I can remember in recent times, and it even takes the time to mention the Polio vaccination efforts. And alcoholism, that’s in there too.  Not in an irritating PSA kind of way, but as these issues effect the characters, as they might effect real people living in towns like this across India.

An arty movie would take these stories and try to make them “real” and “important”.  What I love about Dabangg is that it takes these stories and manages to combine their “realness” with a sense of wonder and glamour and magic.  Not so that they become more filmi, but so we the audience have a better sense of how they feel to the characters.  It is this great balance of letting us see both what might be “really” happening and how it “really” feels to the people it is happening to.  It’s also why “Tere Mast Mast Do Nain” is one of my all time favorite love songs.

 

In another, inferior, film, this would be a real fantasy number.  They would be transported to Switzerland or somewhere to sing to each other on a mountain top.  But instead, it shows us how you can be in the same familiar places, but it can feel like you are singing on a mountain top.  I think my second favorite bit (after the hearts in the sunglasses bit which was so good they used it for the poster), is when he sees her in the market and walks to her with the flowers.  The way Salman rolls his shoulders and holds out the bouquet, you can see that he is picturing himself in this huge romantic hero way.  But we the audience can see that he is still just in a normal marketplace offering a normal bouquet of flowers, and then tripping and falling all over himself.

See, I think there is a little bit of that preening and vision versus reality going into his mustache in Dabangg as well.  That Salman is proud of it, is proud of how it makes him feel like a real cop, that is why he keeps stroking and fiddling with it all the time.  Salman the character, you understand, not the actor.  It’s a great character touch, whenever he is thinking or nervous or unsure, he will stroke his mustache, like it reminds him of everything that creates his personality as macho man, cop, village leader, all of that.

And that’s what I think the mustache might mean in the Sultan trailer as well.  Well, two things.  First, that it is part of this character’s vision of himself as a manly man, a sign that he has a certain standard he feels he needs to live up to.  And in the second half, when the mustache is gone and it is just an unshaven look, it is because he doesn’t feel the need to fit with anyone’s vision anymore, he is just himself the best way he knows how to be.

And secondly, the mustache is a sign to the audience that this is going to be another old school traditional kind of movie with a manly mustache man.  To which I say, bring it on!  With the way the box office has been sinking lately, we need an old school traditional kind of movie to save it!

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16 thoughts on “Dabangg and Sultan: Salman’s Mustache Roles

  1. A few observations on mustaches — It may fly in the face of your thesis, but most men in India have mustaches, urban or rural, old-fashioned or modern in outlook. Please don’t think Hindi filmdom represents real life. Heck, even if you just contrast the big stars in the other Indian industries with Hindi ones, you’ll see that having a mustache is pretty much the norm for a man. So I don’t think anything can be deduced about the nature of the film or the character by the presence or absence of a mustache. What I think is more interesting to speculate on is why Hindi heroes refuse to sport a mustache even when playing historical characters who for sure had one — for example, Hrithik as Akbar (there are a lot of paintings of him in existence, so we know this for a fact), SRK as Asoka, and Salman in Veer (a fictional character in a historical setting). Both SRK and Salman chose instead to wear long haired wigs and be clean shaven, when playing characters in times before razors of any kind were invented. I’ve never figured out the logic behind this.

    On Salman’s mustache in Dabangg in particular — the director wanted him to grow one, Salman refused, and said he would use a false one, and they tried several before everybody agreed on the right style and size. Pretty good so far. But throughout the filming, Salman kept complaining about how uncomfortable it was to have the false mustache, it itches, etc. Now men with real mustaches (of any size) do often stroke and smooth it while talking or thinking in my observation. But whenever I saw Salman do that in the film, I kept thinking that he was checking to make sure it hadn’t fallen off. 🙂 I also did think that it fitted in nicely with normal male behavior with mustaches, so your interpretation isn’t wrong or something I disagree with, but I just wanted to let you know that I had a very different reaction to the same actions.

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    • I wish Hrithik had left off the mustache in Jodha-Akbar! It had this strange sort of 70s porn star look to me.

      I thought mustaches were more common in India than they are in Hindi films! Glad to know I was right. So wearing one shows a loyalty to a more “real” version of Indian manhood than the kind usually shown in films.

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      • LOL, did Hrithik have a mustache in Jodha Akbar? Shows how much of an impact it made that I couldn’t even remember it.

        I wouldn’t call Indian men without mustaches any less “real” than the ones with one. It’s just that still the overwhelming majority of men have one. It’s true that the ones without it tend to be younger, urban, and more educated, but that’s still not an iron-clad rule. When they come abroad to western countries, one of the first things they do is to get rid of the mustache, since they see that it’s not the norm here. As a corollary to that, maybe, the present younger generation even in India, which may be aspiring to either immigrate to a western country or to at least ape their modes of dress and appearance, seems to go more toward the clean shaven look, at least in the major metro areas. But this is a strictly unscientific observation, based on personal experience only.

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  2. On the film Dabangg — the director had originally envisioned it very much as the “down and dirty”, “realistic”, “gritty”, and even “artsy” film that you are glad it was not. When the script was brought to Salman, however, he changed all those elements to make the film more commercially appealing, to the director’s vociferous protests. According to Salman, they actually did each scene both ways, the director’s original way and Salman’s more commercial way, so that the director could see that Salman was correct. Well, I don’t think the director ever agreed, despite the film winning all kinds of accolades, and this was a big factor in why he refused to direct the sequel. But I wish we as an audience could have had access to both versions, as special features on the dvd, perhaps, but alas, no such luck.

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