At 51 he has been putting more efforts than ever before. Presenting Salman Khan as speaks about his latest film ‘Sultan’, his journey in Bollywood and the controversies that he has been mired in.
What was your opinion on wrestlers before taking up this film?
I had heard about the great Gama Pehlwan from my dad. I also knew about Dara Singh and Randhawa. We have heard so many stories of Gama from my Dad that it helped me with the role in the film. He had written a script on Gama but never made a film on him. There was no footage of him ever but it was based on what he had read and heard about him. I studied the script carefully.
Have you ever watched wrestling matches before?
I used to go to the stadium in Haji Ali and watch wrestling matches. Wrestling as a sport is very popular in many parts of India like Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Indore and Haryana. My family in Indore and my uncles were into wrestling.
Did you and your brothers ever wrestle as kids?
We had normal fights as children but we never did wrestling.
What is the most important aspect of being a wrestler?
I know that for a wrestler, it’s important to have a lot of power in the legs. Rigorous training was necessary otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to fight (on screen). Both me and Aamir are now so well trained that we are better fighters than most wrestlers now (that’s classic Salman sense of humour).
How many hours did you train?
It was a long training period. Two and half hours a day first on the mud and then on the mat and then we took MMA training where I had to learn punching and kicking and mixed martial arts. I had to learn all these three types of wrestling otherwise I would have looked like a fraud on screen. I could not cheat in this role, so we put in that many hours as any wrestler. While shooting we spent six hours just getting the act right. The shooting took much more time as there were too many retakes. I remember there was this scene where I would repeatedly pick up the opponent and throw him down, he would do the same to me. We had to do it for ten times more to get the act right. In a real bout of wrestling they just do it once or twice. But since we were capturing it on camera, we had to get the act right. We are not used to this kind of rigorous work out regularly. It was really tough on me.
We heard that Ali Abbas Zafar made your life hell?
At the end of the day, my body hurt so much that I couldn’t take a few steps properly. Director Ali Abbas Zafar has taken a toll on me. I don’t think he has ever gone to the gym in his entire life but he wanted a different body type every 30 days. He made a set where I am playing a young man and then after 30 days I was playing the older me. There was this unfit phase and the fit phase so I went through a lot of changes every few days. Aamir was lucky as he shot for the portion where he put on weight first and then he lost all that. I had to eat to put on and was put on diet immediately after. I had told director Ali that there was no need to drastically change the physicality so much as technology has improved so much. But nobody listened to me.
Who were your coaches for the wrestling part?
Jagdishj Kaliram trained me and Anushka. His father was also a wrestler. Palwinder Singh Cheema was also one of the trainers. I put pictures of them on my Twitter account. They both have fought 26 matches between them. Besdies them, I have met Sushil Kumar once.
What is Sultan all about?
It’s a story of underdog. The story of a man, his downfall and his rise. How he loses all the relationships in life and how he rises back again when there is nobody in his life. There’s no villain in the film. The story is told from my perspective. We have used all real fighters and stuntmen in the film as it had to look authentic. These wrestlers are trained from a very young age in the ring.
You are working very hard at this age?
It’s important to work hard at this age. All the seniors are working hard at this stage. This is the time to sustain. I saw an earlier film of mine recently and I didn’t like what I saw. I was wondering how did everyone like me in this film. I was young and I could pull it off. But if I put in efforts in my role now people are bound to notice it. They will definitely say "at 50 look at him! The more he’s older the more he’s working hard". Until I learnt the (wrestling) moves, it would not have looked good on screen. It was a tad difficult as their technique and form is different. It’s all about your style and approach towards your role that counts and it’s your personality that goes into it. I would ask everyone whether it looked good or not while filming the scenes for the world championship and Olympics. It had to look good. I remember when I was training for MMA a lot of Georgian fighters had come and they were all huge and hefty. They stood watching me from a distance and they never knew that I was not a wrestler. They said that were impressed by my moves. I realised that I have won half the battle there.
Do you fear losing stardom?
I think every actor fears losing stardom. I would be lying if I say no. It’s not just about stardom. Its love and respect which you don’t want to lose. You need to be man enough to speak it out. Yes I have gone through phases of lows and highs and so has my father. I have lost stardom many times. But life is more than being a hero or a star.
Do other people’s opinion bother you?
No it doesn’t. It’s their opinion and they have to bother about it.
Did you have to learn Haryanvi for the movie? Aamir takes pains to learn the language for his films?
I didn’t have to learn Haryanvi per se, I only had to learn the dialogues well. I am not very good in languages, my mother is a Maharashtrian and I still can’t speak good Marathi. I can’t speak good Hindi or English too. Aamir Khan has all the time in the world to do that (that’s humour again).
But then is there anything you want to learn now?
I want to learn to sing, but in my case it always happens the other way round. I wanted to learn acting but I did a film before I could join an institution. I want to learn singing but I have already sung two songs in films. Then I came to a point where I felt ‘why take the trouble now?’ I learnt swimming in Indore in a well when I was nine years old. My cousins tied a rope around my waist and threw me into the well and said now move your arms and legs and you will learn swimming automatically. They were giving me instruction from top they told me to move my arms and legs. There was a turtle in the well. Then I saw some small fish, a huge fish. Then a water snake swum past me and I got so scared that I swam to save my life. I learnt swimming eventually.
Regional movies are doing well now, do you feel that they will be a threat to Bollywood someday?
Of course they are a threat to Hindi cinema. Look at the revenues they are churning. If we don’t control the ticket prices from Rs.450 to Rs.350 we are going to drop down drastically. Our numbers are increasing but the footfalls are increasing too. Marathi films are doing well at 100 crores these days and if we are not making that kind of money, it’s shameful. We are making cool films but the revenues are not cool anymore. Whereas regional cinema like Malayalm, Telugu, Bhojpuri, Marathi they have their own heroes now and they have great scripts. Our films have huge budgets but some of them are barely doing more than 50 crores.
Do you think releasing two blockbusters on a single day will affect the revenues?
Undeniably, if Shah Rukh Khan’s Raees and my film Sultan were to release on the same day it would have affected the box office. Sensibly one of us would have to move out. They have not completed the shooting so they could change the date. But that’s what happened when Bajirao Mastani and Dilwale released together last year. As it is we are short of 2000 theatres. Because of the ego clashes of the producers, we would not have to suffer losses. The is not the time for a few blockbusters, everybody should earn decent money. It’s time that we have good scripts. If writing improves I am certain that every film will garner 100 crores in India.
What do you have to say about Wrestling as a sport and two films are being made now, Sultan and Dangal?
I hope both do well. I have tremendous amount of respect for the sport and hope that they will win a lot of respect after these films. I hope their prize money increases. Most of the wrestlers cannot afford the sport as their diet is very expensive. They lead such difficult life during their old age as it takes a lot of toll on their body . Vindoo Dara Singh’s son once told me how his father finds it difficult to walk down the steps.
How was it working with Anushka Sharma?
Anushka is a lovely girl. I got to know her towards the end of the schedule. My father loved her and she is the one who makes and breaks my career in the film.
Fame is fickle it is said how do you look at it?
Fame is indeed fickle. Today I may be on the top but tomorrow I may not be. As I said I have seen the highs and lows and I am careful about the kind of films I do. I don’t take up a film without a narration. If I don’t like it, I will say no immediately. No amount of convincing will work after that. I refuse to do films offered by friends and my own brothers too if the script is not up to the mark. We are working on Dabangg 3 now. I told them that if the script is not good I will not do it.
Do you feel that Bollywood cinema has alienated itself from its roots?
I dont know why we get alienated from our roots but that’s what works. There is a phase when we have alrternate cinema, every few years there’s action, romance, loser story, rom com and social drama and it works for three to four years. Hum Aap Ke Hain Kaun was a hit till Hum, Kuch Kuch Hota Hain, Hum Saath Saath Hain arrived.
What do you have to say about the flak you received for being made the Goodwill ambassador to Olympics?
I was the face and the Goodwill brand ambassador. What people didn’t realise was that I was not a brand ambassador for sports. They wanted to cash on my name so that they could make profits for the sports organisation. We need nutrition, coaching and equipment and training and our sportsman do not get enough of it. Only shooting champions are doing well because they come from well to do families. But even they are not garnering much attention, finally they take up jobs in the armed forces, I believe that every child who plays any kind of sport is a sportsman. In fact every citizen who reads about sports, is keen on sports is a sportsman. I have won many swimming championships and have tons of certificates. I got to know that I was qualified for state shooting championship recently. Gagan Narang met me on a flight and he had seen me in a shooting championships at Chetana College (in Mumbai). I didn’t have any gear and I went in jeans and a T Shirt. They had a target of 60 shots in one hour 20 minutes and I walked out in 50 minutes after completing all my shots. I went home from there. He (Gagan) said I was qualified and I didn’t know about it. I had a very complicated life then, I should have waited for the results.