For nine years, he has lived Chulbul Pandey in what he calls is a "parallel existence". If the maverick cop of planet "Dabangg" defines Salman Khan's superstardom more than any of his other screen avatars, the actor has now opted to become a part of the creative process driving Chulbul's mojo. He has turned screenwriter for the lucrative franchise with the upcoming "Dabangg 3".
"Working on a popular character and franchise is not that easy. Audiences have certain expectations from the franchise and it is imperative that the next instalment should meet the criteria," Salman tells IANS.
Getting into the third "Dabangg" film happens with an obvious advantage. "It is indeed a benefit that the material has been tested and approved by the audience in the form of appreciation over the past two instalments," explains the actor, about the blockbuster series that has played a big role in taking his stature as a pop icon to an altogether different space.
If Chulbul has indeed come to share a parallel existence with him, turning writer of the series was in a way a form of self-expression.
"While playing any character on screen, I take 25 per cent of that character back home. In the last nine years, with two successful instalments of the franchise, I have been living this character and seeing constant love from the audiences for the character Chulbul. There have been strong thoughts and curiosity in all our minds about the origin of Chulbul Pandey, and his journey — of how a common man became Chulbul Pandey," says Salman.
"Dabangg 3" traces the back story of series protagonist Chulbul, and brings in Prabhudeva as director. While Sonakshi Sinha returns as Chulbul's wife Rajjo, Mahesh Manjrekar's daughter Saiee makes her debut as Chulbul's onetime romantic interest. Kannada superstar Kichcha Sudeep is the antagonist.
Prabhudheva has primarily worked in the Telugu circuit, Sudeep is a big draw in Karnataka. It is easy to see where Salman and his co-producers, brother Arbaaz Khan and Nikhil Dwivedi, struck the brilliant idea of releasing "Dabangg 3" in four languages. Besides Salman's home turf Hindi, the film will also open in Tamil, Telugu and Kannada on December 20.
Salman underplays the idea that a four-language release is meant to be a winning strategy against piracy. "The franchise has received immense love from the audience and so I am not worried about piracy. I trust my fans. They will only definitely prefer to experience this journey in the theatre. If the content is good, people across the country would want to watch regardless of language and culture," he says, adding with a note of confidence: "Hindi audiences have always shown immense love for South content. The South audiences will give the same kind of love for Hindi films as well."
At 53, he is at an interesting cusp of life and career. A few of his recent films ("Tubelight", "Race 3", "Bharat") have fared below the blockbuster expectations that fans automatically reserve for any release bearing the name of Salman Khan. Yet, with every release –irrespective of the film's fate — his stardom only seems to grow.
Today, Salman Khan seems to be his only competition, unaffected by box-office results, and fiercely propped by an ultra-loyal fan base that will brook no criticism of their hero. Salman would account his success to hard work and, importantly, having a keen hold of the audience pulse.
"I am always intrigued by and aware of what the audience would like to see. The amount of hard work I have done in my first few films is the same amount of hard work I have put in my recent releases, along with a little more experience and awareness," he says, and then adds: "Of course there is a competition from the newer lot of actors, but that's in a good way."
A reason he has stayed ahead of much younger actors, despite never losing touch with the signature larger-than-life image that drives his superstardom, is that he has admirably morphed that image to suit changing box-office tastes over three decades now. The idea is inherent in his accepting stand about the sequel culture, for instance, which he reveals when you ask why his biggest hits lately — the "Tiger" and "Dabangg" series — have been all about repeat mantra.
"Not only me, most of beloved projects are being converted into a franchise. People are curious and eager to watch more on what they like. Indeed I am working on franchises but I am working on individual films too," he lets on.
Almost three decades of tremendous stardom has turned him a box-office demigod, but it has also brought a few storms in its wake. How has he learned to deal with crises and controversies, over the years? "Such is life! Nothing about my life is hidden to people. They know about the challenges that have come in my life and they also know how I have dealt with them, and that perhaps has made me what I am today," he avers.
The conversation shifts to more current subjects from his three decades in Bollywood. "Radhe", his next release after "Dabangg 3", for instance, has already started garnering buzz, long before it is due on Eid 2020. Or the ongoing "Bigg Boss season 13", which has generated abundant fireworks on the telly screen lately.
On "Radhe" Salman is guarded. He won't reveal much beyond the fact that the film is still being shot and that the entire unit is "working hard to meet expectations".
On "Bigg Boss", he is willing to open up more easily. It's been a near-decade's association, and Salman has seen housemates grow more aggressive with each passing season. He finds rationale behind the boorish way contestants often behave on the show.
"They (the contestants) live in another world for those few weeks, and the situations they face are not easy to deal with on a regular basis. Every individual has his or her own reaction to any situation they are placed in," he reasons.
If there is something else beyond Chulbul Pandey that has defined Salman Khan's aura in recent years, it is his charity initiative Being Human. The foundation has changed countless lives for the better. But, at some level, has Being Human changed his life, too? "Being Human is my heart and soul. I have been active and will continue to help around as much I can. Yes, I can says it has changed my life at a certain level."
Enjoying a high that most newcomers only dream of scaling, what is his gameplan for the future? "There is no gameplan, I go with my instinct," he says, with characteristic candour. [By Vinayak Chakravorty]