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Son of scriptwriter Salim Khan (who co-wrote classics like Sholay, Deewar, Zanjeer, and Mr. India), Salman shot to fame as a gentle Romeo in the 1989 blockbuster Maine Pyar Kiya. He then went on to star in some of the biggest hits of the 90s, among them Hum Aapke Hain Koun...!, Karan Arjun, and Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam. In recent years, however, his drama off-screen proved more gripping than any movie. He moved from scrape to messy scrape with the law, the media, and his sometimes girlfriend, Miss World-turned-actress Aishwarya Rai. Columnists bemoaned his bad boy ways. Religious fundamentalists protested his taste in women (he was a Muslim; Aishwarya, a Hindu). But all along, diehard fans swore he was simply misunderstood.
Now he stands accused of manslaughter. And even those fans may reached their limit.
Fall 1998 marked the beginning of Salman's legal troubles. While in Jodhpur, Rajasthan to shoot the 'Mhare Hivda' song sequence for Yashraj's Hum Saath Saath Hain, he and several costars went hunting in the nearby Thar Desert. The group strayed onto a Bishnoi reservation, where Salman shot a black buck, a member of an endangered species that is illegal to hunt. The Bishnoi -- being a tribe that believes in the sanctity of all life, and not at all in the sanctity of film stars -- physically detained the actor, who was then thrown into jail by an unsympathetic magistrate. The scandal sent reporters scrambling for their pens -- which they then used to draw an indelible black mark next to the actor's name.
Media then turned their attention to his rocky relationship with Aishwarya Rai, whom he began to date after acting across from her in 1999's Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam. Rumors already existed claiming that Khan had physically abused a former girlfriend, Pakistani actress Somy Ali. Now the Rai family's rumored displeasure fueled similar tales regading his behavior with Aishwarya. The media gleefully featured reports about Salman's late night visits to Aishwarya's apartment: neighbors claimed he pounded on Aishwarya's door for hours, screaming futile, furious demands to be let inside.
Still, rumormongers had no proof until early 2002, when Aishwarya's parents filed a complaint with the Mumbai police, alleging that an intoxicated Khan broke windowpanes and furniture in Aishwarya's home and made threats against the Rai household in general.
In the complaint, the Rais stated that they "should not be held responsible for any untoward incident involving the actor." (B4U TV, Jan 2002) Then an agitated Khan stormed onto the sets of Aishwarya' upcoming film with Abhishek Bachchan (Ramesh Sippy's Kuch Na Kaho). Khan pushed the actress to the ground, prompting intervention from spectators, who demanded he leave. Before departing, he backed his car into another -- Aishwarya's, by some reports -- leaving the witnesses shocked and, in the case of our fair heroine, bruised to boot. (B4U TV, Jan 2002)A similar incident allegedly occurred
months later, in fall 2002, on the sets of Aishwarya's film with Shahrukh Khan. According to the Hindustan Times, when Shahrukh Khan attempted to intervene in the couple's heated quarrel, he was verbally attacked by Salman, and the two have not spoken since (though, according to the newspaper, Salman has tried to tender an apology).
The last incident -- which some say resulted in Rai being booted from the film -- prompted the actress to break with old habit and go public with her complaints. She told a reporter in September 2002, "Salman and I broke up last March, but he isn't able to come to terms with it... After we broke up, he would call me and talk rubbish. He also suspected me of having affairs with my co-stars. I was linked up with everyone, from Abhishekh Bachchan to Shah Rukh Khan. There were times when Salman got physical with me, luckily without leaving any marks. And I would go to work as if nothing had happened." (The Times of India, September 27, 2002)
[A sidebar: in defense of Aishwarya's claims, Khan certainly did not behave as though the relationship were over. In March, at a Mumbai nightclub called Olives, actor Rishi Kapoor's son, Ranbir, allegedly called attention to an attractive girl by commenting, "Wow, she's good. She reminds me of Aishwarya." Displeased to hear his lady love's name bandied so cavalierly, Salman then attacked Ranbir, stopping only when fellow actor Sanjay Dutt intervened and informed Salman whose son he was thrashing. Appalled, Salman forced a gold watch on Ranbir and sent him several designer shirts by way of apology -- but not before the press found out about the fracas. (Cineblitz, Mar. 2002)]
Not a week after Rai's interview went to press, Khan, returning home from a night on the town, ran his car over four men sleeping on a sidewalk. Two of them were seriously injured, and one died . Despite the fact that a policeman was in Khan's car (Khan had been receiving police protection due to death threats from the mafia), Khan absconded from the scene. He later claimed that he felt his life was threatened by the mob that formed after the collision, but some suspected he'd wanted to avoid a blood-alcohol test. To this, Khan responded that his bodyguard was the one driving anyway. The policeman present at the time of the accident claims otherwise, saying that Khan was the one driving. In an "officially unrelated" incident, the police have revoked their protection services for the actor.
Meanwhile, t he case has yet to go to trial, though many, remembering similar cases in the past, are skeptical that Khan will be held accountable.
On less serious fronts, one of the most popular criticisms leveled against Salman's acting is his tendency to remove his shirt at the earliest opportunity. The issue puts him on the defensive. "I realised that a good body was an asset and hence I cast my shirt off for the film. When you have a good body, why shouldn't you show it off, man? Walking around bare-chested is not new for me. Even in my house, I never wear a shirt. You will always find me in just shorts. If I am driving or walking down the road, and if I feel hot, I just take off my shirt and carry on. I do not care what people say. If you have a problem, get lost." (Rediff, June 1998)
With his longstanding policy of alternately shunning and antagonizing the press, Salman has offered an easy mark for journalists. But rumors of his arrogance anger him. In a June 1998 interview with Rediff, he vented:
"Call me arrogant or whatever you like. I am like this. I try and put forward myself very clearly. I am not scared of speaking the truth. I have been labelled arrogant by a section of the film press, especially those magazines which want me to run around them and accept whatever they write about me. If I call you names, if I write rubbish about your family, will you like it? It can spoil your relationships with your colleagues and family and also land you in a soup. Just because somebody wants to sell his magazine, does it mean I should allow them to make use of me?
"If I am so bad then why aren't people scared of me? Why do children run and come to me for autographs? Why don't parents hesitate to introduce me to their children? Do I behave like a real-life villain? The truth is that only those people are scared of me, who, when I was going through a low phase, wrote a lot of rubbish about me. I was rude to people because of their own mistakes. Most of them were journalists who indulged in yellow journalism, and I refused to give them interviews.
"Since I stopped entertaining them, they wrote a load of bullshit about me. Why should I take all that shit? I am a man who has his principles and will adhere to it." (Rediff, June 1998)
Some would like to know what those principles are, exactly. The rest -- that shrinking circle of Salman-fans -- can wait eagerly for his star turn in the upcoming Hindi-English co-production, Marigold. The plot: when a B-grade Hollywood star is stranded in India, she's forced to accept a role in a Bollywood film to pay her way home. Unfortunately, she can't dance. Khan will star as the dance instructor who saves the day, opposite the as-yet-uncast American actress. The movie -- directed by Hollywood figure Willard Scott (Playing By Heart), with an edited version to play in mainstream American theaters -- will make Salman the first of Bollywood's leading men to brave the Loews and United Artists of American suburbia. Hopefully the man who used to be one of Bollywood's most loved stars can get his life back on track, because his career shows no sign of losing steam -- no matter what some might hope.