With the success of Bodyguard, Salman is on a roll, having reinvented himself shrewdly. But other heroes can't seem to get the branding quite right, says Vijay Nair
So the latest release of Salman Khan, “Bodyguard” has set yet another record. Coming as it has on the heels of two bumper hits by the same superstar, “Dabangg” and “Ready”, the film managed to collect an unbelievable Rs. 88 crores in five days. The carping critics are welcome to write as many reviews panning these superstar vehicles as they want to, but Khan and his producers are laughing all the way to the bank. He has been crowned the Rajnikant of Hindi cinema and chances are remote that he will ever play a superhero like Batman or Spiderman in any of his future releases. He doesn't need to. Like his southern counterpart, he just has to play himself in film after film. There is nothing Salman Khan can't do in a routine masala thriller that these larger than life heroes do in lavish spectacles mounted by leading studios of Hollywood.
Khan has a lot to thank Abhinav Kashyap for the new-found Midas touch of his films. It's not as if Salman Khan was not a superstar before “Dabangg”. But Kashyap re-launched him in a manner of speaking. Or rather re-worked the Salman Khan brand. Borrowing liberally from his leading actor's real life, Kashyap created a flawed hero called Chulbul Pandey with a heart of gold and an irreverent sense of humour. Chulbul Pandey struck an instant chord with audiences from Mumbai to Muzzafarpur. The masses loved him because he was someone they could aspire to be and the elite were floored by his goofy charm. But the main reason that Chulbul Pandey proved to be such a hit was because it was difficult to distinguish where the real life superstar began and the character dominating every frame of the film ended. For, if you go by all the reports that the paparazzi is always feeding the national press with, Salman is enfant terrible. He shoots the endangered black buck, runs over pavement dwellers in a drunken frenzy, beats up his girlfriends and has ugly rows with his peers. But when it came to his reel life avatar, carefully fostered by directors like Sooraj Barjatya and Sanjay Leela Bansali, Khan was always the quintessential hero, romancing his leading ladies with aplomb while remaining the loving mama's boy. The divide was almost schizophrenic and the box office too responded in an erratic fashion. Salman would have some of the biggest hits like “Hum Aapke hain kaun”, “Hum Dil De Chooke Sanam” and “Wanted”. But they would be inevitably followed by some of the biggest duds like “Marigold” and “Veer”.
It was left to Kashyap to reinvent Brand Salman in keeping with his real life persona. Chulbul Pandey is unpleasant and nasty but in an endearingly human way. He has strange ways of showing his affection by resorting to macho aggressiveness but we learn as the film progresses that his heart is in the right place. He is petty and generous, goofy as well as garrulous, mean with good intentions. Khan had all along mistaken ‘Being Human' to be only humane. Kashyap set it right for him making the brand wholesome. One aspect of the new Salman Khan as we encounter him in the recent blockbusters is that of Peter Pan — the boy who refuses to grow up and creates his own rules. Who is always searching for his perfect Wendy. And because he is an Indian Peter Pan, the mother is an essential part of his entourage and Kashyap was careful to retain her in his film. Salman Khan continues to reap the benefit of this newly-created brand with every successive release.
What Kashyap did for Salman Khan, Aamir Khan, who is a self-confessed ‘marketing' man has been doing for himself. Once “3 Idiots” caught the fancy of the nation, especially the youth, Khan has been hard at work creating a new-age urban brand for himself. Both as a producer and an actor, his films are either youth-centric or a commentary on social processes with a predominantly city perspective. Even “Peepli Live”, on farmer suicides in villages, has an equal amount of focus on the politics and machinations of television channels. It shouldn't come as a surprise that Aamir has been endorsing Anna Hazare's middle class agitation. He knows this is an uprising of a constituency who swear by his brand. When he was unable to convince them with the seminal line in his blockbuster “All is well”, he has been astute enough to now join them to protest the fact that all is not well. And Aamir is canny enough not to alienate any segment of his fan base. When his presence in Anna's fast, eagerly-lapped up by television channels, was followed by one of the prominent members of Team Anna praising L.K Advani and Sushma Swaraj, Khan came out on the Id day wearing a chikan kurta and wishing all his fans.
The third in this triumvirate, Shah Rukh Khan, in his brand quest, threw the baby out with the bathwater and is now living to rue his miscalculation. Shah Rukh with the loyal production houses of Aditya Chopra and Karan Johar backing him, decided to focus on the Diaspora brand. Whether he was romancing his sweetheart in enemy territory in “Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge” or going through the painful throes of cancer or adultery in “Kal Ho Na Ho” and “Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna”, his screen roles always had an NRI context. Maybe because he believes his brand succeeds in London and New York more than anywhere else. The kind of urbane, wickedly witty image he built for himself echoed more with professional doctors, lawyers and business folks settled abroad and of course the box office collections in Dollars and Euros were more than welcome for a man who has never made any bones about how important money is for him. He is the superstar who never shies away from dancing in high profile weddings to earn a few extra millions.
However, his last few films have demonstrated that this fetish of his has been at the expense of his films losing out with ‘Desi' audiences. “My Name is Khan” was a huge hit in many foreign lands, including West Asia but Indians were not impressed despite a much-publicised row of Khan with officials in an US airport on discrimination a few days before the release. Much now depends on “Ra One” and “Don 2”. But once again both films seem tailored for the Diaspora. In recent times, with the increasing popularity of Aamir and Salman, Shah Rukh's brand has taken a beating and no doubt the actor who is never shy of claiming ‘I am the best' is hard at work currently with script writers and directors to regain lost ground.
Other successful actors like Ajay Devgn, Akshay Kumar, Hrithik Roshan and Ranbir Kapoor have also been trying to create a successful brand image for themselves but unless they have a shrewd marketing mind like Aamir, their films are bound to follow the uneven trajectory of hits and flops in equal measure.
Or else, they can always call on Abhinav Kashyap to make it work for them.