One rainy afternoon in September 2009 found me driving to Galaxy Apartments in Bandra, Mumbai, to have lunch with Salman Khan. His film Wanted, which rewrote his destiny in Bollywood, was slated for release. I was to interview him about it.
Sitting by my side with her fists tightly clenched, tongue-tied and nervous, was a lovely teenage collegian. She was arguably Salman's biggest fan. She was also heartbroken and teary. Her boyfriend of many years, the first love of her young life, had just been cruelly snatched away in a horrific road accident. And she was questioning the point of living without him in soul-stirring prose on Facebook. I knew her vaguely. She was the student deputed to welcome me when I gave a guest lecture at her college. And she had become my friend on Facebook. Look at how life plans its surprises and challenges for us. The morning I was to meet Salman, I read her post on Facebook. The only man she loved besides her boyfriend was Salman Khan—even though he was old enough to be her father. I figured something was wrong. I called the college principal and got the sad story. I also got the girl's number. She listened in disbelief when I told her I was interviewing Salman and was offering to take her along. What time, she asked in a hushed voice. I said, 1.30 pm. She arrived at my office in pouring rain at 8.30am. I was meeting Salman for the first time myself. And until then, I had only heard bad things about him. So I called and warned his PR person about the guest I was bringing, and why.
His face softened, his voice became gentler, and ever so tenderly he put his arm around her and said, "Sweetheart, you lost someone close to you... what happened?"
When we entered his house, the girl was trembling. There was Salman, larger than life, and just as loud. He was watching TV and cursing, a drink in his hand, a cigarette in his mouth. The news was on. The story was about a Mumbai celebrity who had burned her young maid for some petty fault. Salman was appalled by her vindictiveness. He switched off the TV, flung the remote on a sofa, and glared at us. Ignoring the girl, he checked me out first. There was never any love lost between the media and him. And he wasn't about to sit down to an interview until he was convinced I hadn't come there to pick a bone. I engaged him in conversation about fitness, a subject he and I are passionate about. He relaxed visibly. Fifteen minutes later, the ice was broken. Suddenly he switched off and turned to the girl. I saw another change coming about him then. His face softened, his voice became gentler, and ever so tenderly he put his arm around her and said, "Sweetheart, you lost someone close to you... what happened?" Hesitatingly, in between sobs, she told him. Salman heard her in silence. Then he spoke. About life and death. And how grieving was an acceptance of destiny—not the dead boy's destiny—he was already into a better life, but the girl's destiny. He talked about the death of his two babies—the dogs he lost to illness just a week ago, and how he was struggling to come to terms with his own loss and life after them. His words were comforting, his voice was soothing, I could scarcely believe this was the Bad Boy of Bollywood I was seeing and hearing.
Sensitive to her awkwardness, he asked her with that heartbreaking smile he reserves for his heroines on the screen, "Will you take a picture with me, please?"
Slowly the girl calmed down. He showed her his paintings. He led her to the dining table where lunch had been laid out. She wasn't hungry. Or wasn't able to eat. He insisted on serving her himself. Then he took us out into his garden. Showed us his garage studio where he did his painting. Little by little, Salman got the girl to realise that she had been put on earth for a purpose. And that purpose didn't come to an end with the death of her loved one. I knew better than to interrupt. My interview could be done at another date. (And Salman kept that date; strictly against his principles he came to my office the day before Wanted released and got it done.) By the time we were ready to leave, the girl was a different person from the one who had accompanied me to Galaxy Apartments. Then Salman went the extra mile. Sensitive to her awkwardness, he asked her with that heartbreaking smile he reserves for his heroines on the screen, "Will you take a picture with me, please?"
What I had experienced was out of no script of Bollywood. It was one man's sincere willingness to do something kind for somebody who God himself had let down. I got calls from the girl's college, from her family, from her married sister in London, all thanking me for the remarkable change in her life. I said, thank Salman Khan. He had done the miracle. September went by, then October. In November 2009, her friends visited me. The girl's birthday had come. She was missing her boyfriend. It was her first birthday without him. And she was in depression. They had an odd request. It seemed that every year on her birthday, it was the girl's practice to cut her cake at Salman's gate and have a small party there with her friends. I was amazed. But fans, I know, do crazier things than this. "This year she is in no mood to celebrate," they said, "can you ask your friend Salman to wish her, please?" I hadn't heard of anything like this. But I made the call to "my friend Salman". He was shooting in Indore. He listened to me quietly and then asked, "When is the day?" I told him. "Ask her to be at the gate at 7.30 and to cut her cake," he instructed.
"Sweetheart," he said in the silence, his voice like melting butter on hot toast, "won't you invite me for your party?" She almost dropped the cake.
And so for the second time in two months I was outside Galaxy Apartments, this time singing "Happy Birthday" lustily with a gang of college students for the downcast girl. I had texted Salman to inform him of this unusual festivity at his gate. Suddenly, he slipped out of a side entrance and joined us on the road. The girl hadn't seen him through her tears. The traffic stopped, the singing stopped, her friends stared in amazement. They were looking at Salman Khan after all. "Sweetheart," he said in the silence, his voice like melting butter on hot toast, "won't you invite me for your party?" She almost dropped the cake. And then, magnanimously he invited them all into his house. He had organised a cake. There were snacks and drinks. He took pictures with everyone. Signed autographs. And finally he presented the girl with one of his Being Human watches as a birthday gift. As an editor, I've done some heartwarming stories. But what happened that night was the mother of them all.
It's Salman Khan's birthday today, his 51st. I wish Allah answers all his prayers before he asks. Because Salman Khan's prayers, I know, are seldom for himself...
Salman and I have been friends ever since. He is a wonderfully strange man. He lets nothing affect the friendship he builds around people he takes close to his heart. I'm not his fan, but I see his films because I genuinely enjoy them. And I like him because Bad Boy of Bollywood though he might have been, he's shown me that "Being Human" is simply being there for somebody when they need something that nobody is willing to take the time or make the effort to give. He's done this for more people than it's possible to count. I'm not the only one. It's the same Salman Khan's birthday today, his 51st. I wish Allah keeps him safe, healthy and truly happy. And that Allah also answers all his prayers before he asks. Because Salman Khan's prayers, I know, are seldom for himself...