Tigers don’t talk about hunting but if they ever did, I imagine it would be like listening to Salim Khan talk about films. Like a predator he effortlessly picks the right words and every single one is there for a reason. His sentences play like some of his iconic lines — they create the right silence. At 77 you might think that the man, who transformed the Hindi film landscape with his sharp writing, might have lost some of his edge but that couldn’t be more further from the truth.
Although he grew up in a family of police officers, Salim Khan dreamt of being a cricketer. But when he realised that he’d never be as good as his idols he headed to Bombay. He trained as a pilot, but his dreams ended up reaching for the stars. The smart-looking young man tried his luck in front of the camera but destiny beckoned him to the other side.
While struggling with small acting jobs he met Javed Akhtar, the son of poet Jan Nissar Akhtar, on the sets of SarhadiLootera (1966). Akhtar was the director SM Sagar’s clapper boy who had ambled his way to become the film’s dialogue writer. Once Salim grasped that his “art of imagination” was much better than his “art of projection” he called it curtains on his acting career.
The more interested Khan got in screenwriting, the stronger his friendship with Akhtar became. Little did he know that this creative partnership would transform Hindi cinema forever.
There were Hindi films with great lines long before Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar happened. One might never forget Mughal-e-Azam (1960) and its immortal lines like “Hum apne bete ke dhadakte hue dil ke liye Hindustan ki taqdeer nahin badal sakte” but very few remember the men who wrote them. The names of writers Aman, Wajahat Mirza and Ehsan Rizvi don’t mean as much to the fans of Mughal-e-Azam.
By contrast the mere mention of Salim-Javed makes people rattle off the classic lines such as ‘Mere paas maa hai’, ‘Kitne aadmi the?’, ‘Tumhara naam kya hai Basanti’, ‘Don ka intezaar to gyarah mulkon ki police kar rahi hai’, or ‘Yeh police station hai, tumhare baap ka ghar nahin.’
Besides creating characters like the Angry Young Man, Basanti, Gabbar Singh and Mogambo, Salim-Javed bought credibility to a profession that had previously been relegated to the background.
Salim-Javed singularly changed the way Hindi cinema looked at writers. Salim Khan’s filmography might have had no additions for the last 17 years but when your writing credits include the likes of Zanjeer (1972), Sholay (1975), Deewar (1975), Trishul (1978) and Don(1978) amongst others, you really don’t have anything left to prove. A keen follower of Hollywood films, it was Khan who thought of the plots and the story while Akhtar concentrated on the detailing. More than the films themselves it’s their contribution to the craft of screenwriting that separates Salim-Javed from others.
Today, when his former writing partner is championing the cause of present day writers by helping usher in a new copyright law that would give them rightful ownership over their work, one can’t help thinking of Salim Khan, the original crusader for the writer.
Although they split in the early 1980s and have rarely met in decades, Akhtar hasn’t forgotten or undermined Khan’s contribution to their success. It was Khan who decided that the writers’ names should adorn the posters. He believed that if five songs could get the lyricist a credit on the poster then why not those who wrote the whole damn thing? The two hired a painter and set him off to stencil ‘Written by Salim-Javed’ on Zanjeer’s posters on the night before the release of the film. Khan reminisces that the poor artist was drunk and ended up painting their names all over the posters, and at places even on the faces of the actors, but the message was conveyed.
It’s not like Khan has always been right. While on the rolls of Sippy Films Story Department, Khan once famously mentioned that a day will come when writers would get paid as much as the star. He was wrong. He and Akhtar made more money than the stars they wrote for.
For a man who changed the morality of the Hindi film hero, Khan is unfazed by the missing spotlight. Or at least he appears to be. When asked, he looks at you silently for a while before answering. He assures you that he misses it and you’d be a fool to believe that people don’t miss the high.
But more than anything else, Khan prides himself for being a “sensible” man who realizes that nothing lasts forever. He believes that if one chooses to ignore things, everything could blow up in the blink of an eye. He cites the example of Rajesh Khanna and just how fleeting success can be.
The star might have given Salim-Javed their official break as a team but it was their script that gave Khanna his first colossal hit in the form of Haathi Mere Saathi (1971). He muses that Khanna could never come to terms with the reality that his glory days were long gone.
Khan thinks his superstar son, Salman Khan, too, believes somewhere within him that the Rs 100 crore streak and all things celebrated can last forever. The successful screenwriter within him understands the unparalleled success that make stars like Rajesh Khanna and his son believe in their immortality. But the father in him continues to be the voice of reason for Salman, something that Khanna never had.
Khan diligently watches his son’s films and habitually stops to discuss them at Salman’s ground floor apartment in the same building before coming up to his own apartment. A few years ago when he saw Kyon Ki… he didn’t bother talking about it and when Salman came up to enquire about the film Salim simply told him that it was a bad film. When Salman said that everyone else seemed to think otherwise, Salim, the original dabangg told him he’d be mad to expect yes men and fans to tell him the truth ever.
Salman might have disagreed with his father that night but Kyon Ki’s abysmal performance at the box-office surely reminded him that no matter what his father still says it the way it is.