After a 20-year trial, Sanjay Dutt is behind bars for the procurement of arms in the 1993 serial blasts case in Mumbai. His friend and co-star, Salman, who refers to Sanjay as his elder brother, has just about managed to evade jail yet again after having been convicted after a 13-year trial. The two were last seen on screen together when co-hosting reality show Bigg Boss.
Both their cases have been debated by the media, film industry and by law experts with the same zeal. Both stars have been described as brash kids with hearts of gold who have leapt at the chance to help the poor and destitute.
Film director Anees Bazmee who has worked with Salman Khan in various films revealed to us on a news debate last night that Salman even dined with chhote log (the poor). Another friend, singer Abhijeet, has professed that these chhote log live on the streets like dogs - if one gets run over, he rationales, is it Salman's fault?
It is therefore hardly surprising that much of the coverage of Salman this week has include a focus on the choice of words used by bhai's friends to defend a man they seem to position as a messiah for the down-trodden who would never do any wrong.
No wonder the messaihs used the same chhote log as scapegoats to bail themselves out when in trouble. Remember Salman's driver who revealed to the court after thirteen years that it was not the drunk film star but him at the wheel of the SUV that ran into a group of men sleeping on the pavement, killing one and injuring four. Another chhota aadmi, Ravindra Patil, died begging on the streets of Mumbai - he was a part of Salman's security posse and testified that the actor was driving that night. He died in 2007. His family alleges he was relegated to a social outcast.
A former top cop in an off-the-record conversation with this journalist once said that he never saw in the two stars any sign of good, rich guys who accidentally fell on the wrong side of the law. "Both have always nurtured and displayed the desire to be the bad boys, both appeared to fetishise the underworld and the bhais or dons that rule, and both did not mind being seen in the company of underworld players.
Basically, there is a pathological problem there," concluded the cop who has been at the helm of affairs in Mumbai crime policing.
Whether Salman Khan and Sanjay Dutt are pathological criminals or not is for nobody but a court to decide, but the common defence adopted by the two bolsters the belief that Bollywood's macho men lack the spine to take the rap for their misdoings in real life, and are happy to escape the chance to set an example to the millions of adoring fans who look to them for cues.
The list is long - Aditya Pancholi, Puru Rajkumar, Fardeen Khan (all involved in criminal cases) and their friends from the fraternity have never tried to stick their neck out to suggest us that behind their PR campaigns and crafted personas are real people who can use their voice to make a difference.
Barring a few exceptions, very few, the industry cuts a sorry figure on this front.
It is a matter of public knowledge that Sanjay Dutt's father, Sunil Dutt, who belonged to the Congress and was respected for his principles, had to visit Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray to get the actor released from jail in 1993. The first person Dutt met right after he left his cell was Bal Thackeray. Soon after, it was suggested that leaders in the Congress chipped in by pulling favours to ensure Dutt got various breaks in his trial. The law caught up with Sanju baba only 20 years later when he was sent to jail by the Supreme Court in 2013.
As I watched the proceedings of the court where Salman Khan was granted bail, his family friend and well-wisher, Zafar Sareshwala, stated that Salman was implicated in the case by the earlier UPA government to play the Hindu card - that is, to show it would take action against a Muslim icon who had broken the law. For matters of technicality, one must embarrassingly explain that neither the accused nor the victims in the case were Hindus. One must also remember it was Sareshwala who was instrumental in getting Salman to be seen with Narendra Modi at the Uttarayan festival in Gujarat last year.
And Modi is not the only politician Salman has displayed his largesse towards in the last few years. He has also performed at the Yadav family-organised Saifai Festival in Uttar Pradesh, and the man who accompanies him at all times, Baba Siddiqui, is a Congress leader.
The brutally shameless manner in which both Sanjay and Salman have used the religion card and convenient political connections to bail themselves out needs to be remembered and retold. Especially when we are constantly reminded to judge the two actors only by the merits of the case and not by their celebrity status.
And the buck should not stop at the two; a part of the blame should also be taken by us, the media, who have somewhere in the process been a part of the myth-making process. Remember those front page stories of Salman stopping at some traffic signal to help the needy, or Dutt bailing out those in need?
When Sanjay Dutt and Salman Khan were released on bail in the past, empathetic news anchors seemed to be in awe as the stars described eating dal-chawal for lunch, or standing in queues while in jail.
Perhaps, like their fans, too many of us have accepted that with larger-than-life onscreen personas come very real character flaws that can be glossed over because after all, these are heroes who may do bad, but will lend a helping hand with cameras all around.
Except they don't. Most fool us.
(Rana Ayyub is an award-winning investigative journalist and political writer. She is working on a book on Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which will be published later this year.)
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