Salim saab -- Mr Salim Khan -- has known me since my days as a reporter. So, when he invited me for a chat, I went over. The venue for The Slow Interview was Galaxy apartment -- that famous building in Bandra, Mumbai, where fans often gather to get a glimpse of their "bhai", Salman Khan. Salim saab is the most genuine person I have come across. He is 83, but he is full of energy and optimism. His sense is humour is still on-point. He talked about his childhood, his mother who passed away when he was 9, his close-knit family and Salman Khan. But what made this interview special was that he took us down the memory lane and talked about his first break, his first film, his first house, the first screenplay and his first lean phase. He also talked about his split with Javed Akhtar and said the only regret he has is that 'Brand Salim-Javed' took a hit, which was a big loss for the industry.
Me: Whenever I meet you Salim saab, I feel so good because you are a very genuine person. You are a grandfather, a colleague, a friend … everyone would love to have you around. How do you feel at 83?
Salim: I feel that I am one of those happy people who achieved lot more than I expected. Let me give you an example. While I was struggling, I used to change many houses. I stayed in a guest house for three years. I stayed in many small houses and even transformed a garage into a cottage. When I moved into this house after Zanjeer released, I was broke. But I loved this house. There was no scope of a building coming up in the front (as it's sea-facing), there is a garden at the back. So, I decided it was going to be the last flat I would be investing in. I have been living here since 1973. Many times, Salman has asked me to move into a penthouse or a bungalow, but I keep telling him that I am happy here. Salman lives here because of me. Though it's difficult for him. His gym occupies a large chunk of his space and he keeps his belongings in the rest. It's surprising to see a star living in such a small house. The total area he gets to occupy is 1,000 sq feet where he has to keep his shoes and clothes. This prompts me to invest in a bigger space, so that he would be able to live comfortably. But I will feel out of place there. I will feel unhappy. I don't feel like leaving this house. I go for walks. I mean I am talking about attitude towards life.
Me: Salman is someone who could easily buy a big house or live a luxurious life. But he stayed back because he wants to live with his father, his family. Family values matter to him, which is rare coming from someone from this generation. Then there these gossips about him, which you read. Well, that's the nature of film journalism, they have to carry juicy items. Do you get affected by what you read?
Salim: It was difficult when he was imprisoned for 18 days. Unfortunately, in law there is no provision which empathises with feelings of a mother whose son is in the jail. What is her fault? What has she done? There is no such provision that you could acquit an offender if his mother is in pain. Salman described his time in jail. He would tell us that there was one tiny room, they would roll a mattress, put a bucket, give some water and that's it. There were no fans. We would feel terrible. We would feel guilty while drinking water or using the AC. More than guilt, it was the pain.
Me: You had one mentioned in one of your columns, 'kaidi number 343'. What was the context?
Salim: I went to meet him when he was in Jodhpur jail. They addressed him as prisoner number 343. When he came out, he had a long beard, his hair was unkept. It was then that I realised that he was reduced to a number. I requested his mother not to break down, but she could not hold her tears back. He feels that he has hurt his parents and it troubles him a lot.
Me: I want to take you back to Indore.
Salim: Not permanently, right!
Me: No. No. How could I? And, you don't want to leave this place! Back in Indore, you lived in a spacious house which had 12 rooms. How was that experience?
Salim: Life was good then, but it was tragic at the same time. I was the youngest in my family. My mother died when I was nine. I was not allowed to meet her for the last four years of her life as she had TB. There was no cure for the disease then and it was contagious. Even doctors would take necessary precautions. A separate cottage was built for her in the compound, where she lived. Her food was given to her there. Her utensils were kept separate. Every year, for four months she stayed at Bhowali in Nainital, and would stay in Indore during winter and rainy season.
Back then, a TB patient couldn't evade death. It was a certainty, it was like living with a time bomb. Usually patients died in the fourth stage. When there was no cure for it, the bacteria were called consumes because the disease consumed you to your death. Even Mohammad Ali Jinnah had TB. There is an interesting story that Mountbatten wanted to know how advanced Jinnah's TB was so that the partition could be pushed back. But the doctors said it was against their ethics.
My mother was bed-ridden for four years. There is this incidence I want to talk about. One day she was sitting in the garden. I was playing close by. She asked the household help who I was. When she was informed I was her youngest son, she called for me. I wanted to go close to her, but she stopped me. Tears rolled down her cheeks. She had no expression, her face was pretty much straight, but she was weeping.
Me: You could never bond with her?
Salim: Not really, but she was my mother. I spent first five years of my life with her. It was only in the last four years of her life that I could not meet her. I bonded with my father after my mother died. He would provide me with everything. I was fond of cricket. Whenever I asked for a new ball or bat, he would take me to a store. He, however, died a year after my mother's death.
While my mother was alive, I was not close to my father. I was scared of him. But after she passed away, he softened. It was then that I decided that I will be friends with my children. I made sure that they are not scared of me. They share their issues with me, they connect with me emotionally. I give them advices. The good thing is that they realise an experienced person is one step ahead of them. They may be more knowledgeable than me, they may be more intelligent than me, they could be more educated than me, which they are not, but they know that I am an experienced person and that there is no substitute for that.
Me: You are a close-knit family. How difficult is it to sustain these relationships especially when you live in a metropolitan city like Mumbai and that too when all of you have achieved so much in life?
Salim: I have to tell you a short story. Three years back, my son Arbaaz went to get a tattoo made. He called me from there and said: "I have come here to get a tattoo carved on my shoulder. What should I tell them to write?". I was quite surprised that he went to the shop without doing any homework. I told him ask them to write 'love each other, or perish'. He flaunts that tattoo now. We fight, we disagree, we complain, but in the ends love wins. It dominates hatred. A combination of goodness and intelligence is rare. Most intelligent people are crooks. A stupid person isn't. Likewise, a combination of talent and discipline is rare. The attitude of a talented person is bit relaxed and casual. He will always be over confident. When Islam originated many new concepts like namaaz, roza, ramzaan, Huj and Zakaat came into being. Someone asked Prophet Mohammad, which one of these is the most important. He replied: love". Someone asked him: "What is charity?" He replied: "Forgiveness".
What is jihaad? Whom are we fighting? Jihaad is within us. If a drug addict is trying to get rid of his habit, that is jihaad. Same goes with alcoholics or chain smokers. If there is some weakness in you or a flaw in your character, you should first accept it and try to get it out of your system. Acceptance is the first step towards improvement. If you accept the flaw that is within you, and you don't try to defend it or overlook it, there is still a possibility that you will change.
I have a very close friend. His son was a drug addict. One night he came to me at 11: 30 as he wanted to borrow Rs 200 from me. I told him: "I know why do you need this money. If your father comes to know he would feel I encouraged you. He would feel terrible." He replied: "I understand, uncle," and left. Next morning, I called his mother and assured her that her son would come out of it. I narrated her what had happened the previous night and told her that he could have lied to get money from me, but he didn't. I told her at least he accepts that there is a problem. Now that guy is completely clean.
Me: When successful people, especially those living in cities like Mumbai, have to deal with the lows of life, how do they cope with it?
Salim: A person's true character comes to the fore only when he accepts his failure. Like someone has rightfully said "success has destroyed more people than failures." We know so many people who couldn't deal with success and took refuge in drugs or alcohol and some even committed suicide. But if you consider failures to be a part of your life, only then would you be able to handle your success as well as your failures.
I am a great believer in destiny, one has to accept it. Let me give you an example. There was a time when I didn't get work for four years. A star called me to his place. He said, "I will do something for you. You come in the morning, let's have breakfast together." Next day, my driver didn't arrive on time, so I took Sohail's chopper (customised cycle) and went to his place. He asked me not to worry to which I told him that I was a great believer in destiny and that I would get what I am destined to and what's not meant for me will never come to me. He escorted me to the main get and asked me where my car was parked. I pointed at my chopper. That was a first for him. He saw my bicycle and went inside. I am sure I didn't threaten or intimidate him in anyway. He must have thought this person has come on a bicycle, he has nothing to lose, why should I feel insecure?
Me: Your father a policeman? Tell me about him?
Salim: Yes, he was DIG and served for 32 years. He was called diler-jung.
Me: Did you get to witness any action? It was an era of goons and dacoits.
Salim: There was not much violence then. People were scared of police, now they are not. There were smugglers in coastal areas. There were no restrictions though. We could meet bandits as long as we didn't take any weapons along. I met one bandit during the making of Sholay. I have used his character traits in that film.
Me: You were offered a job to work in films while you went to attend a wedding. Is that true?
Salim: Yes, that happened in Indore. It was Tarachand Barjatiya's son's wedding, which happened at Lantern Hotel, the only renowned hotel back then. All the renowned producers were there at the wedding, including K Amarnath saab who made Laila Majnu and Bada Bhai with Ajit saab.
Somebody called for me and asked me if I wanted to work in films. I told him, I never have. He said jokingly, even DIlip saab didn't before he made his debut! He wanted me to go to Mumbai and gave me money. I went. He offered me a job and promised me to pay Rs 500. It was a big amount in 1959. He was working on Kal hamara hai, which bombed at the box office. After this debacle, he was not in a position to hire a new comer, so he offered me a side role. I did some roles, but one day I decided to quit acting. After seeing myself on the big screen I realized that I had knowledge and understanding of cinema, but I didn't have the persona of an actor to pull it off. We deal in images, not in people. My onscreen image never conveyed that I could be an actor.
Let me give you an example. Amitabh Bachchan is not a very strong man, also, he keeps falling sick, but when he picks up a gun while filming, it looks so convincing. It looks as if he means business. That comes across. When some other actor does that, we feel as if he may accidently pull the trigger! So, screen projection is very important when it comes to films. Amitabh Bachchan has a strong screen presence, Rekha has, Helen has, but I lacked that so quit acting.
Self-assessment is very important. That's something you told me when we meet last time and I always quote you and tell people to do that. You should always ask yourself: "Will I be good at this?" And you are the best person to answer that with utmost honesty. You should always do something you excel at. Isn't it?
I used to play cricket, I was ambitious. I was a batsman. One day I saw Salim Durani play. He used to practice in Indore and play from Rajasthan. He was a friend of mine. Even now we are friends. When I saw him play, I thought I would never be able to play as well as he does. So, I quit playing.
Then I took up flying. I flew for over 100 hours and even had to force-land once. But flying comes with lot of responsibility. You are directly responsible for the safety of 200-300 odd passengers. You can't afford to break rules. I realised flying was not about gliding over your girlfriend's house or doing heroic things and shooting guns or dropping bombs. It isn't always romantic. So, I stopped flying. So, basically, I quit playing cricket, stopped acting and then flying. But when I started writing, I felt strangely comfortable and confident. I took it up very seriously and was very sincere and honest. These days writers lock themselves in a hotel room finish their scripts in 8 days. In our time, we would take 6-7 months to finish a script. We kept on revising and improvising till it met our standards.
Me: You used to write your scripts or type them?
Salim: No, no we used to write down. But since my handwriting was so bad, I could never read my scripts the next day. So, I always made sure that someone typed it the next day. There is an interesting story. When Javed saab and I parted ways, many people would ask me: "So, who used to write scripts? Even his writing was pretty bad, so none of us used to write, we used to get our scripts typed. Anyway, not a single person asked me: "Who used to think?" Writing is thinking. Those days, writers' fight was more about status than money. When Javed and I were working, it wasn't a very healthy scene for writers. Producers would decide our remuneration. We had to ask for money under some pretext like paying school fees or buying train pass. Only a few writers were doing well, but most were treated badly. We were not even allowed to travel with producers in their cars. They always insisted that we took cabs or trains. I could not accept all this. I always believed that scripts were the most important part of films.
I remember I assisted Abrar Alvi for around two years. While having a conversation, I told him that a day will come when a writer will get to demand as much as stars do. He said: "Miyan, Dilip Kumar gets Rs 12 lakh for a film, will writers get such a big amount?" I replied: "Why not?' Not just writers, even music directors will charge a bomb if they deliver good music and if film is a hit. I told him music composers like Shanker Jai Kishan, OP Nayyer, SD Burman used to earn as much as stars did." He rubbished my theory.
When Dostana was in the making, Yash Johar and I finalised the star cast and he fixed their remuneration. He then told me how much Amitabh Bachchan was charging. I asked him to pay me Rs 50,000 more than him. He wasn't aghast. He shook my hand and left. I immediately called Abrar saab and told him I managed to get more than Amitabh Bachchan. He was gracious enough to congratulate me!
Me: Does it hurt? The separation? Does it still rankle or are you way beyond that?
Salim: No. Not at all. It did bother me for some days after Javed saab told me he wanted to part ways. It was painful to divide the status of partnership we had. Our names appeared as a team on banners and hoardings. Team Saleem-Javed was a status symbol and we got paid accordingly. I had a key role to play in that. That ended instantly. That died that very moment. The trigger to that separation was not a film flopping or monetary issues. Those could have been resolved. Our last two films – Mr India and Shakti – were hits. I thought it was unnecessary. A winning team suffered because of that.
Me: Was it a loss for Indian Cinema?
Salim: Yes. Because those films are watched even now. People learn from them. There was no culture of screenplay writing then. If you read the script of Deewar in a story format it sounds very simplistic -- two brothers, one is a cop, other criminal, the cop ends up killing his criminal brother and then there is a mother involved – most probably you will get kicked out of a producer's office! People still refer to screenplays we wrote.
There is an interesting story. Goddess Laxmi went to Almighty to seek his blessings. He said, "You can give anything to anyone, but I will have the rights to take it away.". Then goddess Saraswati went to Almighty and sought blessings. He said: "You can give anything to anyone and I will not have the right to take it back." It's was this very reason that songs by Rafi saab, Mukesh saab, Sehgal saab, Kishore Kumar and many others are still very popular. Nobody can take the talent away from them. There is no end to learning. It's an ongoing process. Wealth is an endowment of Goddess Laxmi whereas Knowledge is an endowment of Goddess Saraswati. So, whatever little knowledge I have, nobody can take it away from me. It will keep on increasing.
Text: Swati Subhedar