Being Bhaijaan: taking love for Salman Khan to the next level

Bajrangi Bhaijaan releases this weekend in over 5,000 screens across 50 countries. It's Salman Khan's signature Eid release. This means that you can expect the box office numbers to be record-breaking. And critical acclaim irrelevant.

But this isn't a story about the movie (we've already got that covered).

This is a story about three men in sleepy Nagpur, who have relentlessly and painstakingly cultivated their lives in order to be more like Salman Khan.

Shan, 32, is a bodybuilder. He knows how much water to drink in order to maintain six-pack abs. He knows what jeans and earrings to wear, that he must shave his chest and how many (or how few) hours it takes to acquire Salman's droopy-eyed look.

Bhaskar, 19, looks nothing like Salman. But he greets friends with a sprightly "Jai Salman" whenever his Salman Khan ringtone buzzes.

And Balram, 25, has chosen the path of sexual abstinence ever since he heard Salman proclaim on Koffee with Karan that he was a virgin.

Filmmakers Shabani Hassanwalia and Samreen Farooqui set out to document the lives of these three men. The result: the startling documentary Being Bhaijaan.

Hassanwalia and Farroqui spoke to Sneha Vakharia about the 2014 film, and how their understanding of our superstar Salman Khan has evolved since.

SV: How did you find these three Salman fans? What made them such compelling subjects?
SH & SF: We talked to several Salman fans in towns and cities - boys and men, girls and women. On a Facebook group for Salman fans, we saw Shan. We called him up. He invited us for his brother's wedding in Chhindwara. At the wedding we met Shan/Junior Salman's fans Balram and Bhaskar.

We knew this was the universe whose story we wanted to tell. We wanted to see the world the way the three boys saw it.

SV: Why is Salman thought to be the epitome of masculinity?

SH & SF: For us the inception of Being Bhaijaan was a story a friend told us, about a friend of his who went and watched Wanted in a cinema hall in Meerut.

Groups of men crowded the theatre, and at a crucial moment in the film, just as Bhai seemed to have been beaten by the villain, they took off their shirts en masse and roared "Bhaijaaaan, Bhaijaan, Bhaijaan". Their voices echoed and shirts were flung at the screen.

On cue, Salman Khan tore his own shirt off. While the scene in front of him was all ripping muscles and dripping blood, the friend, who kept his shirt on, said he could taste the adrenaline in his mouth.

Hearing this, we knew we wanted to try and understand, and even participate in this particular masculine dialogue that Salman Khan has with his male fans.

SV: Why do these three men emulate Salman?

SH & SF: Salman speaks to men like no other star and for the three [men in the movie] he is, well, a mentor. Their value systems, courage, meaning in life comes from him. It's Salman that has given them a moral code to live by.

And this is not only about external appearance or aspirations but a deep internalized sense of identity.

Their value systems, courage, meaning in life comes from him. Salman has given them a moral code to live by

SV: The film doesn't address their thoughts on the Salman hit-and-run case. How come?

SH & SF: Our film is not about Salman Khan, the man; it's about Salman Khan, the idea.

At a level, this story is of fandom, and all fandom only allows you to see what you are willing to.

Think of Michael Jackson's fans, or Woody Allen's. Much like them, the protagonists of Being Bhaijaan and their friends said [of the hit-and-run case], "galtiyan sabse hoti hain", or "media trial hai, aapko kaise pata unhone kiya hai?" [Everyone makes mistakes; It's a media trial, how do you know what he did and didn't do?]

We took the call to not include the responses in the film, because we didn't feel they contributed to our larger enquiry, and what we were trying to discover about what it's like to be growing up as men in India.

But we also feel that it is this imperfect, flawed persona of Salman that attracts his fans. Makes him more human, more accessible. He has made mistakes, has risen from failure and conquered success. In India, we have always worshipped and forgiven our gods and leaders; Salman is yet another example.

SV: How did your understanding of Salman Khan evolve over the course of this movie?

SH & SF: We have been working on masculinity and Salman Khan for some time now. and it would be difficult to fully answer this question.

But Salman doesn't just promise strength. It isn't only about the body, as common perception goes. For us, Salman and his bodybuilding culture was just a starting point to try and understand what young men around us are feeling, or are made to feel.

He is actually quite an unconventional guy if you look at it. We think Salman also promises choice - a freedom - to be who you want to be.

SV: Do you find devoted Salman fans across different socio-economic backgrounds? Or is this restricted to the second-tier-cities and middle-class men?

SH & SF: We did find fans across different socio-economic backgrounds in urban and semi-urban setups.

Someone once said to us people in the metro think of him and his movies as kitsch. They enjoy his unabashed honesty, his lack of (apparent) public finesse. He makes city folk feel liberated because he is never scared of being who he wants to be. But they'll never be him.

In the smaller towns - we felt the connection is much more visceral, as if he's a blood relative. There is no irony to Salman in his fan base.

SV: Is this kind of fandom an allegory on religion? If so, what insight does it provide?

SH & SF: Yes, it is in a way. Just the way we look at god to give us strength, find meaning in an arbitrary world. Salman gives their world structure.

A friend, in his review of our documenatary, called it 'the naked shirtless religion'.

Sneha Vakharia

Sneha Vakharia @sneha_vakharia