It is not Salman Khan who’s on public trial – it is our framework of judgement

Salman Khan is not new to controversy. He looks like a kid with his hand perpetually in a cookie jar of trouble. In fact, his controversies seem more memorable than his movies. There is something endearing about the man – there is an innocence, an adolescence, a ham-handedness. It is as if he is perpetually goofing his lines. One is forced to conclude that he has a bad script-writer or that he has a touch of a bumbler. Even the bumbling image works as he come out as a vulnerable man.

Sadly, as he grows older, the audience perception of him begins to change. As he ages, he becomes a young man of 50. It s then that his adolescence becomes difficult to take. His choice of language lacks finesse and the slightly vacant look on his face adds to everybody’s sense of bewilderment. I must confess that his role in the shooting accident was not convincing . He does not appear too endearing after that. The recent interview given to promote his film Sultan adds fuel to the fire.

The facts are as follows. Salman steps out to explain how tiring the shooting of a film is. He hints that in real life, the act of wrestling is a one-time performance, a make or break to victory. But in reel life, the sheer repetition, the tedious task of wrestling routines where he has to lift a 120-kg opponent and throw him on the ground over and over again – almost 10 times for five different camera angles for six to seven hours – sounds tiring. The very tiredness makes him grope for an apt metaphor.

Let us read the sequences again.

Enter Salman – there is a tired intensity about him. He describes the world of film, a film on wrestling . He refers to the Taylorist way of making a film, where wrestling is a brutish act, made doubly brutal by repetition. He feels the pain of repetition and wants to convey his tiredness. He summons the idea of a woman raped. The interview turns into a burlesque comedy. He talks of the aches and pains of wrestling, his sense of being victim and then ineptly claims: “When I used to walk out of that rink, it used to actually be like a raped woman walking out”. The metaphor is farfetched. The audience knows he has goofed. It wants to chuckle as its favourite ham becomes more ham-handed. India’s perennially favourite hero complains of rape. The performance is so inept, you want to say cut and ask for a retake. The metaphor of the movie with its constant retakes does not work for real life.

Take II. Salman goes through it again, says, “I don’t think I should have”, tries to explain that he found it hard to walk. He has struggled for a comparison and found the most inept one. He has wrestled with language. The audience secretly knows that what Salman rapes is language. He is endearing as a village idiot but he now plays a bumbler. He is like a footballer who knocks in self goals ineptly. But every spectator wants his pound of flesh. He has said something inept – but rather than reading illiteracy into it, one demands he be punished in this age of political correctness. His father, a man who loves language, apologises. A man who lives in the world of slapstick suddenly became part of a Kafkaesque episode.

The crowd screams: Salman has erred and he must pay. All he did was stumble over language and make a big ass of himself. Yet in this humourless age, the joke is on the star. He has been wrestled with and pinned mercilessly to the ground. With every media retake, he will suffer more. A news starved nation dying for gossip is grateful to him again. In an act of fantasy, it has wrestled him to the ground. It will forget in a few days. Meanwhile, television news is at its hysterical best. No one complains as life promises to be a perpetual B-grade movie.

Looking at the event, I wonder what the excitement is about. Are we impressed that the National Commission for Women has acted promptly? What is his failing? Is it that he is a role-model, an ideal who should set standards of propriety? Then of all the Khans he is the worst choice one can make. Are we claiming language has to be politically correct? Then our politicians murder language everyday, not just rape it.

The event is of a different kind. Deep down, it reveals the double standards, the hypocrisy of a society that will pardon manslaughter and animal killing but condemn a man for an idiotic error. Salman Khan is either comedy gone sour or tragedy gone trite. Either way, he does not qualify for such attention. But more importantly whether Salman or Mr Anonymous, a society has to decide that not every error is a crime and nor is everything offensive necessarily an offence. It is not Salman who’s on public trial – it is our framework of judgement.

 

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