As the new film Sultan sends cash registers ringing, Mumbai’s citizens are raving over superstar Salman Khan who plays a wrestler in the film. The actor will be engaged in a different fight this week when he faces the National Commission of Women over his insensitive remark during a media interaction about feeling like a raped woman after shooting for a grueling wrestling sequence for Sultan. No wonder social media is silent over the film.
I was standing in a children’s goods store in the heart of Bandra in Mumbai, the area where Bollywood actor Salman Khan lives. Three young men at the counter were doing their job by showing me the stuff I wanted to see but whenever I decided to loiter around checking out this and that, they took the opportunity to hunch behind the counter and talk animatedly about the topic of the day: Salman Khan and Sultan.
It was a day after Eid had been celebrated on July 7 in Mumbai, and two days after the release of Salman Khan’s Sultan that has become Rs-2 billion grosser in six days.
One of the men said pretty dejectedly: “I did not go to stand in front of his house on Eid. I usually go every year to see him when he comes out. But heard this year Bhai is not there in town.”
Another said: “I want to go this week. But how can I go? I have not seen the film yet?”
The latter sounded like the school kid who was scared of entering class without learning his lessons.
I looked up from a Minion T-shirt amused. These were three young men, all probably in their mid-20s, engrossed in a conversation about a man who has been facing flak from the media and feminists for his comment at a press conference where he compared his grueling shooting and training schedule for the movie to the harassment of a raped woman.
Salman was asked by the National Commission of Women (NCW) to apologize but he did not and instead made sure his legal team sent them a reply. Now he has been summoned by the NCW and The Maharashtra State Commission for Women too. He has been asked to meet them this week.
But the average Indian, especially the Mumbaikar (Mumbai citizens), could not care less about Salman’s remark whether it is derogatory or sexist or insulting to women.
On the day the film released, July 6, I was in Mumbai traversing the length and breadth of the city in cabs and autos and hearing every radio blaring Sultan songs and Sultan feedback.
Knowing Mumbai’s obsession with the star, every radio station had a representative standing in front of a movie hall asking movie-goers how they liked the film and everyone was raving about it.
The cabbie who was taking me to Vashi, a distant suburb of Mumbai, was hanging on to each word being said on the radio.
“So you are a Salman fan?” I asked.
“Who is not?” was his reply.
Then he added. “I am so excited about Sultan I feel like leaving the cab right here and getting into a movie hall. I don’t feel like working today.”
Just then we passed a movie hall showing Sultan and I gulped. What if the cabbie decided to do what he wanted to do? Cancel his trip midway and walk into the theater? Thankfully, he was not thinking what I was thinking. Like for most Mumbai citizens, work came to him first, then Sultan.
After finishing my work in Vashi, I dropped into my cousin’s home in the vicinity for lunch. My cousin’s 19-year-old son was in a hurry to leave home. He was rushing to catch Sultan with his college friends. He also came back home raving about the film. I didn’t want to be a spoilsport journalist aunt asking him what he felt about Salman’s rape comment after he had clearly enjoyed the movie.
On the way back, I was in another cab. This cabbie’s radio was also on Sultan mode.
“Have you ever seen Salman Khan?” I asked.
“I have stood in front of his house many times. He’s waved at me.”
I don’t know why his smile was shy, like a new bride, but that was how he looked when he talked about Salman.
“And what is your opinion about what he said about being raped?” I asked him.
His jaws stiffened. He looked angry. “These media people are so nasty they only want to malign him. Indian men talk like this always. What has he done differently?”
This Mumbai cabbie very candidly expressed what many Indians feel about the comment. But strangely, even though people are flocking to watch Sultan and multiplexes have an unprecedented number of shows of the film in all the metros in India, social media is silent over the film.
A friend of mine who dared to say that he liked Sultan on Facebook was instantly shot down by a number of people asking how he could be an educated and sensitive human being and still go and watch a film after Salman’s rape comment and then say it’s good. One lady even threatened to unfriend him.
This is precisely the reason why the supposed thinking and sensitized Indian is watching Sultan but not talking about it and the cabbies and the shopkeepers, who don’t care about being politically correct, continue to be blatant about their love for Salman.
Many people like me believe that Salman made the comment on purpose because now the Bollywood publicity machine has realized that negative publicity does more good to a film than bad. There are others who are willing to give the star the benefit of doubt because he has a history of putting his foot in his mouth.
But when the cash registers jingle, nothing really matters. And if one could just release a video of Salman singing Sultan songs to his nephew Aahil, then the public memory becomes deliberately short.
While sitting at the airport lounge in Mumbai, I saw two young girls sitting next to me pouring over their mobile. They went: “How cute! How cute.”
They were watching the Salman nephew video. I am sure the rape comment by the star was the last thing on their mind. (Watch the video clip)
Amrita Mukherjee is a freelance journalist who writes on social issues in India with focus on women. She divides her time between Dubai and India and blogs at www.amritaspeaks.com
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