Idolizing Bollywood’s Bad Boy
The Actor Salman Khan is Focus of ‘Being Bhaijaan’ Documentary
NEW DELHI — The actor Salman Khan is often referred to as Bollywood’s “bad boy.” The 48-year-old movie star has appeared in 76 films over his 25-year career. In his movies, Mr. Khan plays physically powerful, self-confident men with old-fashioned values — patriotic, religious, and decorous toward women.
He has also attained notoriety for less chivalrous traits. In 2002, a former girlfriend, the actress Aishwarya Rai, accused him in a public statement of physically and mentally abusing her, though she did not pursue legal action. The same year, Mr. Khan was charged with allegedly running his Land Rover, while drunk, over a group of people sleeping on a pavement in Mumbai, killing one and injuring four. The trial is ongoing.
Over the years, Mr. Khan has become not just a popular star — and one of the highest paid Hindi actors — but also a contentious model for Indian manhood. Mr. Khan’s effect on Indian men is now the subject of “Being Bhaijaan,” a new documentary by the directors Shabani Hassanwalia and Samreen Farooqui.
The film follows a group of young men in a small town who are modeling themselves on Mr. Khan’s tough movie persona. The film opened at the 2014 edition of Open Frame, an annual festival for documentaries, in New Delhi this month to an enthusiastic reception. The men in “Being Bhaijaan” “reveal a yearning for the personal freedom and single status that distinguishes Khan from his peers,” wrote the film critic Nandini Ramnath in the Indian newspaper Mint. An article in the Hindustan Times stated that “Being Bhaijaan” tries “to understand what echo blockbuster-manufactured machismo has on the Indian male already struggling with his identity in a globalised world.” The directors are currently working toward a theatrical release of the film.
“Salman Khan’s fans are mainly in small towns; his appeal is strongest for the men who feel left behind in India’s race toward progress and development,” said Ms. Hassanwalia in an interview at a coffee shop here. To be like Mr. Khan was a way for these men, Ms. Hassanwalia said, to deal with a compulsion toward material success — to “prove themselves.”
Ms. Hassanwalia and Ms. Farooqui wanted to make a film exploring how ideas of masculinity in India were tied to Salman Khan fandom. In 2013, after receiving a grant from the state-supported Public Service Broadcasting Trust, they started to look for diehard fans of Mr. Khan.
“Salman Khan is old-fashioned. I am like him,” says Shan Ghosh, a 32-year-old from Chhindwara, a small town in Madhya Pradesh, and the protagonist of “Being Bhaijaan,” early on in the film. The filmmakers found Mr. Ghosh on Facebook, while going through the “Jai Salman” (Hail Salman) group, a collection of 40 women and men in Nagpur, the biggest city near Chhindwara, that follow the actor (the group has since left Facebook for WhatsApp).
Mr. Ghosh has become their deserving leader. He works hard to approximate Mr. Khan’s appearance, from the shape of his torso to the cut of his jacket. He reveals it takes endless hours at the gym to achieve the same exact cut in his upper arm as Mr. Khan, and that he sleeps only four hours a night to make his eyes appear as droopy as the actor’s. He also says he abstains from sex and won’t marry until Mr. Khan does. Looking like Mr. Khan has its rewards: Mr. Ghosh earns his living by performing to songs from Mr. Khan’s movies at local events. Following Mr. Khan’s pre-performance ritual, Mr. Ghosh stops eating solids four days before a show and cuts out salt two days in advance. He has other ways to make money, he said, like investing in real estate and dabbling in jewelry design. “Warren Buffett said that one must have five sources of income, so that there are always back-ups,” he explains. It was because of his ingenuity, Mr. Ghosh adds, that he was moving from “middle class to upper class.”
If he didn’t look like Mr. Khan, he reflects in another sequence in the film, he would have ended up like any other man in Chhindwara, “with a paunch, a small business, an ordinary life.”
The film’s narrative centers on the forthcoming wedding of Mr. Ghosh’s younger brother, a 28-year-old engineer with a nice salary package who appears to be clearly more prized by the family. The filmmakers follow Mr. Ghosh over a week as he prepares to give his brother “the best gift” on the day of the wedding: a stage performance to Mr. Khan’s songs. Over the course of the week, Mr. Ghosh talks to the camera, with occasional urging from the filmmakers, about everything: friends, girls, career, family, dreams, fears, and how Mr. Khan has shaped the way he looks at the world.
The film also follows two other members of the “Jai Salman” group in Nagpur: Balram Gehani, a 25-year-old textile salesman, and Bhaskar Hedaoo, an 18-year-old training to be a mechanic. There are sequences that show the bonding between Mr. Ghosh and Mr. Gehani, the men vrooming through the streets of Nagpur on their macho motorbikes, swinging Mr.Khan-inspired metal-chain bracelets. None of the men address Mr. Khan’s alleged criminal behavior in the film.
Ms. Hassanwalia and Ms. Farooqui wanted to make the movie in part to explore the attraction of Mr. Khan for these young people. “The youth unemployment rate is the highest it’s ever been; it’s easier for hopeless men to seek solace in Salman Khan, whose image, so often in a police uniform, is that of a protector,” Ms. Hassanwalia explained.
In a sequence from “Being Bhaijaan” that captures the mood in many small-town cinemas in northern India on the first day of a Salman Khan movie, an all-male crowd goes berserk when their hero struts onto the screen, ripping their own clothes off while they hoot and dance in complete abandon.
Mr. Khan hasn’t reacted to the documentary yet. The filmmakers said they tried to reach him repeatedly for an appearance in the film, but never heard back from his team. In an interview in 2010 with the film critic Mayank Shekhar, however, Mr. Khan said he was aware of the degree to which he influenced small town men. “They somewhere see themselves in me,” he said. “There are people who want to be stars.”