Oh boy! The big controversial thing that is the first/only thing people think of with Salman! How fun for all of us to discuss it, and perhaps later be sued for libel.
Non-Usual Disclaimer READ IT: Salman has done a lot of bad things, but he has also done good things. And just as the good he has done has not erased the bad he has done, so has the bad not erased the good. I will try to treat his life as a whole, good and bad, with compassion and understanding as I would for any other human.
I purposefully put off dealing with this section until after we learned about Salman’s family background, his childhood, his work struggles and responsibilities. Too often Salman gets limited to this one thing. No one should be limited like that, human beings are more than just one label. So yes, this is part of who Salman is. And so are those other things.
Part of why I wanted to discuss the other parts of Salman is because I think often his abuse is seen as part of a pattern that doesn’t really fit. He isn’t abusive because he thinks he is above the law, or because he thinks he is better than other people. He isn’t a Golden Boy in public and abuser in private. There is no need to reveal the hidden “truth” and shame him. Salman is already a terribly humble person and a tortured person. He does not abuse because of his privilege, if anything it is a result of his personal damage. That does not excuse his behavior, but it puts it in the proper context.
Intimate partner abuse is one of those things that partly depends on society drawing a line, which helps you find your own personal line. If Salman were to actually hit a woman he was dating, backhand her hard across the face or punch her in the chest, I think he would be horrified. I think he would question everything about himself, take time off to do a deep internal inventory, find the source of the behavior and resolve it. And also immediately break off contact with the woman. Salman knows that behavior is wrong, all of society knows it is wrong. Wrong to such a degree that it must be addressed.
But when Salman shouts at his partner in public, throws a drink in her face, drags her from a room or grabs her shoulder to get her attention, he is not crossing a line in his own mind. This is not a line that society has drawn for him. To hit a woman, that is wrong. To cause her pain, to frighten her, that is just a thing that happens.
I don’t believe that Salman is lying when he says he would never hit a woman. I don’t believe there is worse abuse that we do not know about. I also don’t think Salman is proud of his behavior in those moments, he himself has said it was wrong and he is sorry. But I don’t think he sees it as abuse, I don’t think he understands that this is not healthy behavior in a relationship.
Think about the Indian movies we have all watched and the way men and women are shown together in relationships. Not the over the top dramatic action films with the hero threatening the heroine until she falls in love, but the films that pretend to show something closer to “real life”. Dil Chahta Hai, for instance, Preity’s fiance was possessive and occasionally threatening towards others (but not her). She was also afraid of disappointing him. She left him in the end, and that was the happy ending, no one in the movie wanted her to stay with him. But no one in her life stepped forward to say “he is abusive, you have to leave”. He is just a bad boyfriend, that’s all. In Awara, Raj Kapoor is angry with Nargis, grabs her and shouts at her, and she accepts it and apologizes. Even Devdas, Dev does not know how to express his feelings and ends up being cruel and insulting to both Paro and Chandramukhi while they endure it. These are not supposed to be the best moments of the relationship, or the best possible relationship, but it is acceptable. When you are in love, you are passionate. You shout, you get angry, and a properly in love woman will then forgive you and quietly accept your behavior. Mani Ratnam in Kaatru Veliyidai set out to show this kind of unhealthy abusive relationship and to show it as abusive (even if he never hits her), and yet the audience still read the film as an epic love story.
This isn’t to say that all of Indian film or all of Indian society is filled with angry scary men. But if you are a man who is verbally abusive to your partner, no one will necessarily question it. Even you yourself will not be encouraged to question your behavior. Certainly your partner won’t question it.
When a man behaves in that way in some other societies, it means he is so angry, so lost to shame, so out of control, that he is willing to break the bounds of society with his actions. When Salman behaves in this way, he is not breaking social bounds. He is staying with in them, just barely with in them but still within them. That does not minimize what he has done, but it makes me more willing to believe he has not done more in private, that he is not completely dangerous and out of control. Especially since his relationship history does not support the idea of him being a monster in private and a saint in public.
When Salman was young, after having seen his parents’ marriage fall apart, being forced into a role of responsibility for others and adulthood before he was ready, seeing his mother then forgive his father and love him anyway, he went out and found himself a girlfriend. I think it makes sense that he would go out and try to find a partner, a woman who would always love and understand and forgive him, one where he could be himself instead of the perfect son and the perfect brother. And he found her, a neighbor girl who was studying to be an air hostess. He was in love, he wanted to get married, they would be together forever and ever and his life would always be perfect. And then she left him, didn’t want the life he was offering, maybe didn’t want the passionate overwhelming need he was offering. She went on to be an air hostess, married, had a nice normal life. Salman was left heartbroken and lonely.
His next relationship was public, after his acting career started and with a fellow celebrity Sangeeta Bijlani. She was a model turned actress, more famous than he at the start of the relationship and also a few years older. He was in love again, intoxicated by this older woman who seemed to know what she wanted and could fit into his life. He brought her home and his family embraced her, accepted her, they had a serious mature relationship for years. And then they planned marriage, her family agreed and his family agreed, they ordered wedding cards. And Sangeeta called it off at the last minute because she learned Salman was cheating on her with young Somy Ali. And a few years later, Somy Ali broke up with Salman because he was cheating on her Aishwarya. And a few years after that, Aishwarya started fighting with him partly because he was still in touch with Somy and helping her with her father’s health issues.
Salman’s first girlfriend broke things off because they just weren’t right together. His next two serious girlfriends broke things off because he was cheating. And then Aishwarya specified his abuse as why she left him.
I don’t think Aishwarya is the first partner Salman abused. But I think, perhaps, his previous partners just did not see his behavior as abusive. Somy and Sangeeta both had lines he could not cross and would leave him immediately (even while a marriage was planned) if he crossed them. But it was not lines of abusive behavior, it was cheating. And because it was cheating, limited to that one area of trust in their romantic relationship, they have remained friends with him after the break up. Friends to the point of Somy calling Salman for financial and emotional support when her father became ill, Sangeeta visiting his family home whenever she is in Bombay.
It’s easy to call Salman a misogynist, a chauvinist, to write him off as being hurtful and hateful to all women. But that doesn’t really hold up. He is a bad romantic partner, but in every other situation he is a good man for a woman to be around. Somy Ali, in the middle of a fight he poured her drink on her. But after they broke up when her father was dying in America, he was the first person she called. Katrina Kaif, we have all seen how he cares for her. He is the first to defend her in any public scandal, he makes sure she gets hired for films and gets hired in good roles, he even produced a movie to launch her little sister. He treats his ex-sister-in-law and his stepmother with respect, both women who are in relationships to him that should make him disrespectful, and women who are most known for dancing sexually on screen. He has long term loyal friendships with actresses from Tabu (upperclass old school intellectual of his own age) to Karisma Kapoor (friend and colleague since youth) to Preity Zinta (independent international ambitious businesswoman). Heck, he’s the only figure from Hindi film to endorse Hillary Clinton for president! This is not a man that hates women, or disrespects women in general.
Let’s look at the story of him yelling at Katrina for the dress she was wearing. Salman says that he was concerned because the director was making her wear something inappropriate, it wasn’t right, it was going to hurt her career and her as a person, make people look at her the wrong way. So yes, he yelled. And then Kareena Kapoor was pulled over from a nearby set to come calm him down.
Salman was in the wrong, no question in my mind. You should not resort to angry yelling instead of calm discussion. You especially should not angrily yell at a friend. And you should not yell and posture in such a way that is an implied threat to a woman when you are a powerful man. And there’s the whole thing with Kat not even being the one he should be yelling at, he should be yelling at the director who put her in the dress. All of this is why he is abusive, leaping to angry yelling without worrying about how it makes the other person feel, how inappropriate it is to the situation. And when it is part of an intimate relationship, when the place where you should feel the most safe becomes the place where you feel the least, that is abusive.
On the other hand, if Salman had had those exact same concerns, that a particular costume was not appropriate for the character, or a good career move for his friend, and he had pulled Katrina and the director aside to discuss it calmly and express his concerns, I would have no objections. The actual mindset and opinions are not a problem. Salman is not crushingly patriarchal, he has old-fashioned opinions but he is aware that woman don’t have to follow what he thinks just because he thinks it. Salman was not beating Katrina in public just for wearing a short dress any more than he judges his stepmother for her past, or his sister-in-law for divorcing his brother and moving on with her life. Or his other girlfriends for their life choices.
But Salman didn’t pause and calmly express his concerns, nor did he think about what it would feel like for Kat to have a large angry man, a man she had an intimate relationship with, shouting at her. The story going around is that he also hit her with a stick and drove her back into her vanity van. Personally I don’t believe that exactly. But I believe he may have picked up a stick, a cane, anything laying around and raised it in the air, hit the side of the van, used it as an instrument of fear. And I believe Katrina retreated to the van in fear.
As I said, Salman is an abusive partner. But he is also Salman Khan, a particular person in the world. I don’t want to limit him down to just one element, or broaden him to try to make him fit with every other abusive partner in the world. He is a man who will allow himself to lose control, to show extreme anger to his partners, to the point of terrorizing them. But he does not see all women as objects for his rage, he does not hate women, and I do not believe he has crossed his own internal lines of physical violence towards woman.
There is also the fact that Salman comes across poorly. He is not verbally gifted, has a hard time explaining himself in interviews, makes bad jokes or goes down blind alleys. Sometimes (I suspect because of his TN), he appears almost drugged, responds to questions that were not asked, or seems not to hear questions that were. It is off-putting for an interviewer, or anyone who only has a brief interaction with him. He is also large and muscular in appearance. Currently he is most known as an action star, and his fans come from the male lower classes primarily. It is easy to see him as an abuser, a bad boyfriend. And perhaps he is given that label because it is easy to see him that way, his sins expanded beyond what they truly were, and moved into areas where they do not belong.
Just as a challenge, to make sure we are treating people equally and evenly, I can give you some more names of abusers from Hindi film and what they have done. Rishi Kapoor, Neetu had to call the police on him while they were married and had young children in the house. Om Puri, respected intelligent character actor Om Puri, was accused of violent abuse by both his first and second wife and his son. Sanjay Khan, minor actor and producer and Sussanne Khan’s father, hit his girlfriend actress Zeenat Aman so hard he broke her eye socket. Salman is not the only one, or the worst one, and yet he is carrying the label while others escape.
Partner abuse is just one area where Salman has been given a label. I will be getting into his other crimes tomorrow. All of them are areas that can cause a deep visceral reaction in people. And it is easy to look at Salman, odd famous aging pudgy faced perpetual bachelor Salman, and let our emotions go. To see him as a convenient symbol of everything that is wrong. But he isn’t a symbol, he is a person just like any other person, and he deserves to pay the price for his own sins, no more and no less.