What is Salman Khan about?
unlike say Salman who was the romantic hero, the comedy star of Dhawan’s films, also the one who attempted masala even if unsuccessfully initially or at a smaller scale. Even then it was a challenge for him to remain relevant for most of the past decade. Salman though is in a way an interesting star. He seems to represent the ‘detritus’ of all other stars or a ‘home’ for that which cannot be incorporated under any other star signature. Salman depends on being other to whatever the established order is. He is the true Bollywood ‘joker in the pack’ or the ‘terrorist’ (which might be the same thing) of the system. Which is precisely why his off screen ‘bad behavior’ (ranging from some truly anti-social stuff to simpler examples of ‘bad manners’ where he says impolite things about other stars) is completely comprehensible and even ‘excused’ by everyone. Salman in short depends on never being the topmost star but always serving as a reaction to whatever happens at the top. And so note how when SRK was well embarked on the Yashraj path and Aamir was trying to reinvent himself as a meaningful star Salman had no plan as such except to be a kind of ‘id’ hero. This is what the Dhawan films represented and he never quite lost this persona (so for example he seems a little crazy even in HDDCS.. to make his appear ‘sane’ Barjatya had to almost render him mute in HSSH!) and was eventually able to recycle it into a certain picaresque mode of masala with the over the top hero. But the classic symptom of all this is actually Jab Pyar Kissise Hota Hai, a love story from the late 90s which follows the Yashraj model except for one crucial and quite subversive (for the times) difference — a love child suddenly turns up to haunt Salman’s romance! This is an old 60s/70s trope except that in the clinical, anodyne world of 90s romance/sexuality (but what sexuality?!) it became shocking!
Note how in the SRK/Yashraj dominant ideological system Aamir overcame it by superseding it and by going ‘prestige’. But Salman could also never be accounted by this ‘hegemony’ simply by being who he was! The whole idea that Salman has always been one of the biggest stars misses the point completely in one sense (if the box office is the guarantee of this Salman was nowhere for long stretches, if it was about critical success he was equally non-absent) but is right in a different way (the box office confirms the present hegemony, Salman as the other to this had to be less successful in a literal sense! Therefore it has been sort of received opinion on him, and him alone, to not confuse his stardom with the day to day box office score. It is not just his fans but ‘everyone’ who more or less accepts this. A luxury even SRK cannot afford!).
This is why Dabanng is dangerous for Salman. In terms of its great success it confirms Salman’s stardom but he precisely does not have to prove anything beyond this. Hence if he suddenly got more sensible about his career and if his upcoming films all started doing well he would lose his basic symbolic charge. Because then he would seem like other stars, riding the right Bollywood waves. When he did Dhawan in the 90s and became a kind of heir to Govinda in those films this was rather ‘strange’ given his own romantic past. But pulling off an Akshay in Bazmee’s comedies wouldn’t be very subversive at all. Similarly the better masala path for him is paradoxically Veer not Wanted! In short box office disappointment is built into the Salman narrative (recall how even the Dhawan stuff though it kept giving him successes was deconstructive for the MPK and HAHK chocolate hero) as his enabling factor. Having said that even the Wanted alternative is about being ‘other’ to the New Indian Bollywood that everyone else is following in most ways. In other words such a persona even in rather weak films could potentially argue ‘against’ the present and be seen as subverting New Indian mores to this degree.