Hindi Film 101: Salman Khan Part 1, Salim Khan the Motherless Boy

I just did my Hindi Film 101 on Katrina, and it got me thinking about Salman and the need to do a series on him, instead of just dancing around the details of his life. So, here is my start! Starting with his father Salim.

Non-Usual Disclaimer, READ IT: Salman has done bad things. But he has also done good things. And he has had bad things happen to him. Just as the good he has done and the bad that was done to him does not erase the bad he has done, so does the bad he has done not erase his sufferings or the good he has done. In these posts I am going to attempt to balance his whole life with empathy and compassion, as I would for any human being.

Salman is the oldest son of Salim Khan, who was the youngest son of his family. Those two facts, I think, define Salman more than anything else. The oldest son of a younger son, raised with enormous responsibility by a man who had none.

The Khan family are from Indore, and before that what is now Afghanistan. Salim’s ancestors were mercenaries who came from Afghanistan and found employment in the Indore court. By the time Salim was born, the family were working for the new “rulers”, the British. His father was a police officer who reached the highest level possible for a “native” policeman. Salim was the youngest of his family, born when his oldest brothers were already fully grown. He was raised in the family compound, spoiled and loved by his siblings and their wives, never knowing a moment of want or sadness.

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Except for want for a mother. Salim’s mother had tuberculosis. From the time he was 5 until she died when he was 9, she was kept isolated in one wing of the family compound, not allowed to see her own children. Salim tells a story that he heard from her caregiver: one day she was laying in bed looking out the window and saw Salim, who had wondered from his usual playing grounds over to the abandoned wing. She asked her nurse, “who is that boy?” and was told “it is your son, Salim.” She looked a moment longer, then said “he has grown so big, I did not know him.”

Salim grew up to write film after film about mothers yearning for sons, sons yearning for mothers. As a child, he barely thought of this woman that was somewhere in the house, slowly dying, unknown and unseen by him. But as an adult, her absence defines his art. The Indian mother became a living breathing presence for millions of audience members worldwide as Salim attempted to imagine back to life a mother he had never known.

Salim’s father died when he was 14, but his life moved on with hardly a change. His brothers took charge of him, spoiled him, sent him through college complete with his own car. This isn’t to say Salim’s life was easy. There’s some pressure involved in being the baby of the family, being the second chance to get things right for his parents and then his siblings. In this whole big household, Salim was the center point and focus. I can understand why he ran away to Bombay instead of staying in Indore to have his life always lovingly controlled by his family.

Salim was young and handsome and educated, so he thought he could be a movie star. He took the train to Bombay, with his oldest brother seeing him off and promising to welcome him back home when he (inevitably) failed. That promise is what inspired Salim not to return home, no matter what, more than anything.

Salim struggled in Bombay, like many other strugglers. Back then it was easy to get a job in film. Not a good job, but some kind of a job was always available. Salim acted in film after film, playing the second lead, the hero’s friend, the college mate with one or two lines. There was the money coming from Indore to help him out as needed, but he still refused to return home, to give up. And then he fell in love.

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Salim as the hero’s best friend in Teesri Manzil, one of his better roles.

Salma Khan was then Sushila Charak. She was a Hindu, a young woman living at home. Salim was 29, a Muslim failed film actor. Sushila’s family objected, but Salim won her over. They eloped, truly eloped, snuck out of her house and found an Iman to marry them in the middle of the night. On Koffee, Salman and his brother’s told a story of his brother Sohail’s marriage to Seema, another Hindu woman and another elopement. They arrived at the family home in the middle of the night and the brothers went out to find an Iman somewhere. They found one, dragged him out of bed and brought him back to the apartment. He was ready to do the ceremony until he saw Salim and said “No! Not again!” He was the same Iman that, decades earlier, Salim and his friends had dragged out of bed to marry Salim and Salma.

After marriage, Sushila became Salma. Her family had disowned her, but she was happy because she had her husband. And, slightly more than a year after the wedding, she had her first child Salman. Arbaaz came a year and a half later. Then Alvira two years after that. And finally Sohail in 1970. 4 children in 5 years, with Salman the oldest.

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It was the year after Sohail’s birth, 1971, that Salim’s career finally found its destiny. Salim was a failure as an actor, but had started picking up a little work as a writer. He was the assistant to Abrar Alvi, a successful scriptwriter who wanted help with finalizing and finishing his scripts. Meanwhile there was Javed Akhtar, Urdu poet and child of Urdu poets who was hired by Kaifi Azmi, another successful scriptwriter, to help him with dialogues. This is how it still works today, the big names come up with the big ideas and hire young and hungry folks to fill in the gaps. And in this case the two big names happened to be neighbors, which meant the two young and hungry writers got to be friendly as they went back and forth into the homes of their bosses.

Javed and Salim knew each other already from movies where Salim was the hero’s friend and Javed was the clapper boy and general assistant and dog’s body. But meeting again as fellow beginning writers sparked something new between them. And this new spark was noticed by Rajesh Khanna, biggest star of the moment. Rajesh wasn’t the greatest person, but he had an eye for talent (he also helped Yash Chopra start Yash Raj). And he had signed a troubled film, a remake of a southern movie that needed help to make the script work for the north, Haathi Mere Saathi. He asked young Javed and Salim to take a hand and forced the producer and director to accept them.

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Salim decades later visiting Rajesh Khanna on his deathbed, paying tribute and a debt.

There truly hasn’t been a team like Javed and Salim ever before or since in Indian film. Or possibly in any film industry anywhere. What is common in Hindi film is for one person to come up with the broad sweep of the plot, and then hire someone else to fill in the details. This is how Karan Johar works, for instance, he has the first big idea, someone else turns it into a script, and then Karan comes back in and writes and rewrites the important scenes and speeches until they are perfect. Often the person coming up with the big broad sweep of the story is the director/producer, they know the film they want to make and they just need someone else to fill in the gaps.

Part of the reason scripts are like this is because of the “narration” tradition. Before a big star, or composer, or anyone signs on to do a film, they expect a 2-3 hour narration of the story from the director. What is the point of a detailed written screenplay when you are starting by telling the story orally and then writing it after you get people to sign on? It is the narration that matters, not what is written on the page.

Salim-Javed were different. Their stories had broad sweeps and epic feel, yes. But the language in which the stories were told mattered as much as the big ideas. You cannot write the plot of Deewar without “Mere Baap Chor Hai”. And you cannot write “Mere Baap Chor Hai” without knowing what the plot surrounding it will be. Salim-Javed wrote stories that were so good, so unique, that they were bigger than the director, bigger than the star even. You can’t even call them “scriptwriters”, not the way scriptwriters usually are in Indian film. They were something else, something entirely unique. They were Salim-Javed, one name following the other, two men becoming one creative force, story and poetry together.

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As soon as Haathi Mere Saathi came out, the industry realized something entirely new had happened. Within 5 years, they wrote Seeta Aur Geeta, Yaadon Ki Baarat, Zanjeer, Majboor, Haath Ki Safai, Deewar, and Sholay. I could go on, but those titles speak for themselves. After Seeta Aur Geeta and Yaadon Ki Baarat, Salim-Javed had established themselves as the best writers working in Hindi film of their day. After Zanjeer, they established themselves as among the best writers for Hindi film of all time. After Deewar and Sholay, they slipped into their rightful place as the greatest writers Indian film will ever see.

Javed tends to get more credit as a writer than Salim. He is from a Urdu poetry family with words running in his blood. Salim is from a family of mercenaries and fighters from Afghanistan, no great linguistic tradition there. Javed came to Bombay to write, apprenticed with the great writers, and had his talent recognized early on as folks started to throw dialogue work his way. Salim came to be an actor and turned to writing in desperation in order to support his growing family. Javed now is elegant, respected, liberal, and an accomplished poet and lyricist beyond mere film scripts. Salim semi-retired after their collaboration ended and does not interest himself in other writers or artists.

But talent can come to the most unlikely of people. Salim may not have come from poets, and may not be part of the writing community, but that does not take away from what he accomplished. After Salim-Javed broke up, Salim wrote Naam by himself, just to prove to the world that he could.

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They are friends again now, after years of slow thaw that was sped up when they came together to fight court battles in defense of their legacy, specifically against the remakes of Zanjeer and Sholay.

It’s hard to imagine what it was like for Salim and Javed during the high points of their collaboration. It must have been intoxicating, to know you were touched by genius, to have a direct line to the muse, and to know that everyone around you recognized your genius To know you were living the greatest moments of your life in that moment.

And then it all fell apart. Not that the muse died, their last script together, long delayed in filming, was Mr. India. Another all time classic. No, it fell apart because their friendship abandoned them. Javed was working more and more independently as a lyricist, Salim couldn’t move into that world. Salim was already middle-aged with almost grown children, Javed was young and in his prime and eager for new challenges. Most of all, I think, the fragile friendship between two humans could not survive the kind of demands of the almost godlike power of what they could create together. They had a bond that made no logical sense to anyone outside of themselves, and their break-up was as illogical as their initial collaboration, something that only made sense for the two of them but which they understood entirely within themselves. They came together casually, they had a few magic years, and then the broke apart as casually as they came together, in November 1981. As Salim tells it (here), one day he was leaving Javed’s house after a full day of work as usual, and Javed said “I think we should try working separately for a while”. Salim was silent a moment, then said “I am sure you have said this after considerable thought and nothing I say will change your mind”. Javed started to walk him to his car as he usually did, and Salim said “I am old enough to take care of myself”. And that was the end.

Salim and Javed had one final unofficial collaboration. In 2003, Amitabh Bachchan and Salim’s son Salman were co-starring in the film Baghban. Amitabh as a personal favor asked Javed to write his final speech. Javed wrote it, unaware that Salman had asked his father a similar favor for his final speech. In the end Salim-Javed collaborated one last time, a conversation of Salman’s speech followed directly by Amitabh’s. Reading the two speeches together, you can see why the two of them were strong on their own, but stronger together. Salman’s is simple, but all the more powerful for that. We gain an image, and a story.

Good Evening. You must have heard people saying that no one has seen God. That it’s a matter of devotion, faith, and one’s belief. But I can tell you that I have seen God. In flesh and blood, smiling and laughing in every joy, in every sorrow, in every test, and every situation. That’s none other than my father.

I was an orphan. I had never seen my parents. Nor had I experienced their love. But I can tell you with confidence had they been here today they couldn’t have given me the love and affection that I received from my father. I have gotten so much from my father that I can’t ask him for anything more. But of God, I seek one thing. In His world, He must continue to make people like my father. That’s it. I have nothing more to say.

Javed’s speech is a poem. He takes us on a journey through the generation gap, elder abuse, and finally a statement of love in old age, deeper and better than the love of youth (“I exist because you do” is perhaps the most perfect statement of what a married life of decades looks like that I have ever heard). Even in the English translation, the beauty of the phrasing leaps out, especially the final statements. Javed is unarguably the better wordsmith of the two, but his words travel back and forth, go down strange roads and dead ends, before finding the point. He misses the focus that Salim gave to the power of his poetry.

Ladies and Gentleman, I hope you don’t believe everything you heard about me just now. Alok praises me so much because he loves me very much. And he doesn’t love me because I am a very good human being or because I have several virtues. He loves me because he himself is a very nice boy.

Actually, I am not a writer. Writers are those who plunge deep into the ocean of knowledge and come up with rare gems of literature. I have only written what life has taught me. ‘Baghban’ is not about me or any other individual. It’s a book explaining the conflict between the past and the future. It’s a book about a generation gap. It’s a book about the now weary shoulders on which some children had once sat, to see the world. It’s a book about trembling hands. Hands that once held children as they taught them to walk. It’s a book about the parched lips that once sang sweet lullabies which have now been silenced.

Times have changed. Life has changed. If people of my generation will recall we were always caught up in relations and ties that yielded nothing. Our father was our God. At our mother’s feet lay heaven. And now people have become very sensible. The new generation is very clever and practical. For them, every relation is like a ladder which they use to get themselves further. But when they have no further use for this ladder, along with the other broken furniture in the house, old vessels old clothes old newspapers, they dump them in the attic. However, life is not like a ladder. Life grows like a tree. Parents are not the steps on a ladder. Parents are the soul of one’s life. Regardless of its size and fullness, a tree cannot stand on its own once its roots are uprooted.

With humility and respect, I ask those children for whose happiness a father spent every penny of his hard-earned money with a smile, those very children, when their father’s eye-sight weakens, why do they hesitate in giving him light? If a father can help his son to take the first step in his life, why can’t a son give his father support when he’s taking the last few steps of his life? What crime have parents committed, who have devoted their entire life to their children, that they live with tears and loneliness? If they can’t give us any love, then who gives them the right to snatch our love from us? What do these children think? Can the parents that God has united in love be separated and forced to live a life of sorrow? A man has children to live for this? Children perhaps forget that our present will be their future. If we’re old today, they also will grow old someday. The questions we ask today, they will ask tomorrow.

As for me, please don’t worry about me. Because if I am capable of bringing up my children helping them become able and independent then I am capable of taking care of myself too. I don’t expect anything from anyone because I am very fortunate. I am fortunate because life has given me a companion with whom I walk and who has made my path easier. Together with whom my hardships were always overcome. And that companion is my wife.

People often fall in love. However, they don’t express it as often as they should. I wouldn’t want to make a mistake like that. Pooja. I love you very much. I love you very much. Thank you for being with me. I exist because you do. And there’s everything if we are together. Else, there’s nothing. Nothing.

That’s all I wanted to say.

That’s Salim Khan. Spoiled child and orphan, failed actor and brilliant writer, both revered and dismissed today. And he would create a son in his image, one who he pushed to have everything he missed, mother love and early fame and most of all the pressure and expectation of success that Salim, spoiled younger son, never really had.

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15 thoughts on “Hindi Film 101: Salman Khan Part 1, Salim Khan the Motherless Boy

  1. I thought Arpita was the daughter of the second wife Helen and that she was adopted, hence the fact that she does not look like them. There is also Alvira who is the daughter of Sushila.

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  2. I came to read about Salman Khan but this is more on his parents. Will wait for the part(s).
    A little correction there – Alvira is the 3rd child after Arbaaz. Arpita is the youngest in the Khan sibling.

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    • Thanks! Will fix.

      And I always have a hard time figuring out where to start these things, remember my nepotism post that started with a cobbler in medieval England? I resisted the urge to start this in medieval Afghanistan.

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    • Yaaay, justification for starting one generation back!

      Notice Salim wrote Yaadon Ki Baarat? Salman and Aamir have known each other at least since then. And Salman and Farhan and Zoya have an unexpected closeness, at least unexpected to me. There was some film scheduling conflict or something a while back and Salman was asked about it and said something like “Farhan and Zoya will always be my little brother and sister, I can still remember them riding on the back of my bike”. And then you get into Farhan and Zoya being cousins to Farah and Sajid and start to realize how close everyone everywhere is.

      On Mon, Jun 3, 2019 at 10:45 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

      >

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I know someone who knew Sushila Charak quite well back in the day, and through her I’ve heard that Salim was quite impoverished at the time of their elopement, which was partly the reason her well to do parents (her father was a doctor) were so against the match.

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  4. Thanks for this disclaimer and thanks for starting with Salim (Salim-Javed). I cannot imagine Salman without the influence his father had (and still has) on him. I also think that Salim’s youth has shaped the way he would be like a father…and Salim’s relation with/to Javed would have a prominent impact on Salman’s professional way.
    I had to smile about the ‘confusion’ about Arpita and Alvira…I always got the feeling that just the siblings matter as persons, not their age or who gave birth…one exception: Salman is the eldest, has the first position, is the provider…yet still he’s not the one who ‘leads’ the family.

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