INTERVIEW

Salim Khan on the ‘poverty of talent’ in Bollywood, ‘Tubelight’ and the death of the reading habit

‘We don’t have writers of any calibre and that is because people have forgotten how to read.’

Veteran scriptwriter Salim Khan has a reputation for not mincing his words. His legendary partnership with Javed Akhtar produced some of Hindi cinema’s best-known movies in the 1970s and the ’80s. Khan now often graces the headlines whenever his son Salman Khan has a new movie out. The most recent one, Tubelight, severely underperformed at the box office, promoting a debate on whether the era of the all-encompassing and reliable Bollywood star is on the wane. The fault lies not with the stars but with the quality of scripts, Salim Khan told Scroll.in.

What really went wrong with ‘Tubelight’ and why did you find it necessary to compensate your distributors for their losses?
Tubelight was a good film, which would have done well if any other actor had starred in it, but to have an action hero like Salman getting constantly beaten up and crying all the time just didn’t work with the audience. Someone like Raj Kapoor could do any role, the common man, the lover, the comedian, but Salman doesn’t have that sort of an image. The audience kept expecting him to fight back and when he did retaliate a bit towards the end, the entire audience cheered for him, but it never went beyond a couple of blows. Also missing was a love story and in fact the little you see was added later, there wasn’t any initially.

The reason for compensating the distributors was that the price it had been sold at was in expectation of it making Rs 250-300 crore at the box office like most Salman films, which it didn’t. If Tubelight had been sold reasonably, it would have been a hit.

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Radio, Tubelight (2017).

You just referred to Salman Khan’s image and therefore its limitations. Is this good for an actor?
All over the world, leading men of stature have had images. Actors like John Wayne and Clint Eastwood have done the same roles all their life. Raj Kapoor was always a simpleton. If Tarzan wore clothes or James Bond didn’t romance women, they would not be who they are.

As for Salman, it’s not as if he is a character actor so he can fit into any role. He is a star, so he has to live with his image.

Is the audience getting fed up of stars? Recently they have rejected the films of Salman Khan, Shah Rukh Khan and Ranbir Kapoor.
The reason for this is very simply that we have been making bad films. And the cause is that we just don’t have writers of any calibre and that is because people have forgotten how to read.

In my time everyone read books, recommended them to one another. We visited bookshops, read bestsellers as well as books related to the craft. Most people don’t even read the newspapers they subscribe to. Often when I am passing Salman’s door [Salman lives on the ground floor and his family occupies the first] I knock on the door and ask his staff to take in the papers.

I had recently written a 10-page tribute to Raj Kapoor, which I was very happy with. But most of the people I gave it to didn’t read it even though it was just 10 pages. So I made an audio version of it and now everyone who listens to it is full of praise for it.

And yet Akshay Kumar has managed to successfully update his image.
I have to say for Akshay Kumar that the way he has improved as an actor is something that no one else has been able to. The journey that he has covered is almost impossible to imagine. Today he is an actor who can tackle every kind of subject. Other actors like Ajay Devgn, Aamir Khan and Salman have also improved over the course of their careers, but none like Akshay.

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Trishul (1978).

Would your angry young man Vijay be relevant today? And who among today’s actors could play him?
He will always be relevant because he fights for justice. There will always be the fight between good and evil so he will always have a relevant story. As for actors, there is so much of poverty of talent in the industry today, it is impossible to name any one.

What do you mean when you say poverty?
Let’s talk about today’s filmmakers. What is their inspiration? Invariably it is Mother India, Ganga Jumna, Pyaasa, Salim Javed films, Bimal Roy and BR Chopra films. But they don’t make films of that standard. Their excuse is that they don’t want to make those types of films. But the fact is that they can’t make those films. They have made this out to be a virtue.

Then there is the fact that they want to make offbeat films but want big actors in it because those are the actors with the draw and the audience and the ones who will get them money. Earlier, the filmmakers who made these films would take good actors and make a small film with a limited budget, which reached its intended audience. But if you take a Shah Rukh or a Ranbir you have to make a film to suit their image, which their storyline doesn’t, and so the film does badly.

Let me give you an analogy. Why was Gautam Buddha such a renowned fakir? Because he left a kingdom with its riches and luxuries to become one. How can he be compared with the 200 of them who sit outside the Mahim dargah? They are beggars not fakirs.

So don’t say you don’t want to make Sholay. First make it and then move away from it. There is nothing wrong in having ambition. But having ambition without talent or capability is a recipe for disaster.

What does the industry need to do to come out of its slump?
Very simple: we need to make good films. What filmmakers seem to have forgotten is the importance of the screenplay. They focus on the story. Very frankly, if we had narrated the story of Deewaar to anyone, we would have been thrown out of the office. What made it exceptional was the screenplay.

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Deewar (1975).

You have said that if a director’s worth emerges after his third film. Why is that?
Because everyone has experiences in life for material for three films. It is after that that his creativity can be recognised.

Most directors today don’t show anyone their films before release. Isn’t feedback important?
Yes, it’s very important. Do you know that when Manoj Kumar was making Kranti, the print would be kept in the lab and anyone could watch it and give their feedback to him? It was the same with Raj Kapoor too. After all you’re making a film for public exhibition.

Today’s makers often say they make films because they want to say something, not for the returns. My question is, say something to whom? You already know it, so presumably you want to tell the audience. Then shouldn’t the house be full? And if the house is full, the film will make money. So how can you separate the two?

What do you think of today’s songs?
We used to write situations for songs, but today’s songs are more like item numbers to which the actor can perform at shows. Having said that, we have some very good lyric writers today like Irshad Kamal, Amitabh Bhattacharya, Prasoon Joshi and many more.

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Don (1978).

I’ve often wondered how the ‘Mere Paas Maa Hai’ line from ‘Deewar’ originated.
It was just a line like so many. Any good conversationalist with a hold over the language can be a dialogue writer.

Dialogue writing in the industry originated because most films were written by Bengalis or South Indians who needed someone conversant in the language to write the dialogue. Otherwise, the writer is supposed to do everything – story, screenplay and dialogue. When Time magazine would review Hollywood films the only two names it would mention would be the director’s and the screenplay writer’s.

How did you and Javed Akhtar write so many successful films?
We worked with passion. We were sometimes paid more than the lead actor, which was an added responsibility on our shoulders, and we had to be equal to it.

You asked me about the Mere paas maa hai dialogue. You only see the final one. Do you know, we tore up almost 50 versions before we arrived at it. During our 15 years together, we have only written 18 films because we gave our all to those films.

Who among the two of you was the more creative one?
We were a team and we bounced ideas off each other. And though we as a team were popular, in fact most production houses like BR Films or Sippy films had their inhouse teams. So team writing worked well.

But the strange thing is so many people, even film literate people, would ask us who was the writer between you too. If just writing makes you a writer than even the guy who sits outside the post office and writes letters would be a writer. No one ever asked us, who was the thinker?

Diptakirti Chaudhuri’s book ‘Written by Salim Javed’ was released recently. What is your reaction to it?
The author did not reach out to me and I don’t know if he met Javed for it but I’ve heard it is an interesting and authentic book though I haven’t read it yet.

Which of your films would you like your grandchildren to see?
I have written a lot of films good, bad and ugly and many have been super successful, but real creative satisfaction has come with Deewar, Zanjeer, Sholay, Shakti and Don.

Any unfulfilled wishes?
Yes, I want to open a restaurant, which would have books related to screenplay writing and other aspects of filmmaking, where patrons could come have coffee or tea and sandwiches and read and study those books. Bu it has to be a ground-floor place with a good ambience and I haven’t found such a place yet.

Javed Akhtar (left) and Salim Khan. Image credit: Shyam Aurangabadkar.
Javed Akhtar (left) and Salim Khan. Image credit: Shyam Aurangabadkar.
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