The curious case of Salman Khan

SK1Since arriving in India for a business trip on Wednesday morning, there was been one story that has been dominating newspapers and TV channels: the trial of Bollywood actor Salman Khan.

In September 2002, Khan’s car mounted a pavement late one night in Mumbai and ran over five people. One person, Noor Ullah Khan, died. In the years that followed, no one was convicted for this hit-and-run, and Khan has always denied that he was drunk and that he was driving the car.

This story has also made international news publications. The BBC News has regularly been posting updates since Khan was found guilty of culpable homicide on Wednesday and the Times of India, Pune edition, noted that the story has even made it to the Chinese media, as the story was featured in a news bulletin by the state broadcaster, the China Central Television.

Today, Friday 8th May, Khan found out that his sentence was suspended following appeal, after he was sentenced to five years in prison on Wednesday but granted 48 hours bail.

India holds its breath

For multiple reasons, this story, which is set to continue for many more months, as it has been on-and-off for years, is big news.

Firstly, Khan is a Bollywood superstar, whose fans have been rallying to support him on social media. Secondly, opinion across the country has been fiercely divided, with a percentage praising the judge’s sentence while others have called for leniency. Finally, the fact that this incident happened nearly 13 years ago and justice has yet to be served.

From a Westerner and a film fan’s point of view, it’s been difficult to ignore this story.

As you may have already read, Farah Khan Ali, a jewellery designer who has more than 650,000 Twitter followers, commented: “No one should be sleeping on the road or footpath. It is dangerous to do that just like it is dangerous to cross tracks.”

Unsurprisingly, this outrageous, in my opinion, comment was quickly defended, with Ali posting: “I never said that Salman was faultless. I said five years is very harsh punishment… Salman is genuinely a very good human being and he made a mistake.”

Khan hasn’t always been seen as ‘a very good human being’, though. The phrase ‘Bollywood’s bad boy’ has often been used to describe him, particularly with reference to his romantic life. It refers to a criminal past too, as he had an earlier brush with the law due to the illegal hunting of a deer in 1998. He spent less than a week in prison when he was convicted in 2007.

I asked my driver today what he thought of Khan. He firstly said that he believed Khan was driving and that he was drunk. He then followed it up by saying that Khan does a lot of charity work.

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Big wheels keep on turning

Bollywood is arguably India’s most famous export.

Data compiled by Statista and shared by Forbes in 2014 revealed the following:

  • 1,602: films produced in India in 2012. The USA did 476
  • 2.7 billion: the number of cinema admissions in India in 2013
  • $600m: Bollywood’s Shah Rukh Kahn’s estimated wealth in 2014, the 2nd wealthiest actor in the world behind Americans Jerry Seinfeld ($820m) and Tom Cruise ($480m)

Whether today’s ruling from the Bombay High Court will have an impact on Khan’s career and on the sales of his two forthcoming films is unknown, but my gut feeling is that no, it won’t.

Rightly or wrongly, Khan has a dedicated following, with a multitude of Bollywood stars and other celebrities being spotted visiting his home in Mumbai’s Galaxy Apartments. They’re showing solidarity with him, and I don’t think that this will change anytime soon.

The wheels of Bollywood will keep turning, and its films will feature old favourites plus the next generation. Tickets will continue be sold and Khan’s upcoming films may even sell better than expected due to their star’s recent publicity.

Bollywood, like Hollywood, is a powerful and economic juggernaut, and Khan’s latest news story is just a minor blip on the landscape.

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