It seemed uncanny that on the same day that the Cannes Film Festival announced in Paris that it would open with Iranian auteur Asghar Farhadi's Spanish work, Everybody Knows, Indian actor Salman Khan in far away Jodhpur was walking – with an unmistakable swagger – into the sessions court to hear the verdict of a 20-year-old case against him and others. In 1998, he allegedly shot two blackbucks in Rajasthan's Bishnoi territory, a species of deer protected by India's Wildlife Act and revered by the community as sacred.
Even as he was strolling into the court premises sporting dark glasses, everybody knew – much like the title of Farhadi's movie -- that the Bollywood actor was guilty of killing a harmless deer to quench his thirst for a blood sport.
Mercifully, the judge in question sent Khan to jail, five-years rigorous imprisonment, but just fined him a paltry, paltry sum of Rs 10,000. Much like the case of Tamil actor Jai, whose second drunk driving incident some months ago led to, much against police displeasure, a small fine and a mere six-month suspension of driving licence.
Although in Jai's case nobody died because of his drinking, in Khan's 2002 hit-and-run incident, everybody knew that he was guilty of running his SUV over sleeping homeless people, killing one of them and wounding others. But the case dragged on for over a decade – a period in which key witnesses vanished or died. Eventually, the High Court acquitted Khan, who was also reportedly inebriated when he was driving on that ill-fated day.
A Hindi film, Jolly LLB, pulled all stops to make fun of our justice system, lambast lawyers who accepted huge sums of money to protect the guilty and, in short, to mock our courts. But then there was one sessions judge, although known to be corrupt, who listened to his conscience and sent the rich man's son, who was guilty of running over pavement dwellers and killing or maiming them, to jail.
The Jodhpur judge must have been under tremendous pressure to free Khan, but I think he stood up to save the day for the Indian judiciary.
The pressure continued even after the verdict was pronounced. Bollywood actors and speakers on the 9 pm NDTV news channel said the most bizarre things. Twenty years have gone by, and Salman has become a good guy. He has done a lot of charity work. So, why punish him now? One speaker appeared to use the religion card, another the celebrity angle to aver that Khan had been punished very harshly because of his status!
What nobody dared to voice – and I am sure everybody knew – was the fact that Khan has been cleverly building up a goody, goody image of himself through his movies. While Bajrangi Bhaijaan spoke about his devotion to Hanuman and his yeoman effort to reunite a mute little girl with her parents living across the border in Pakistan, Tubelight was all about his attempts to build a bridge between India and China. He has furthered this image in films like Sultan and Dabangg – in, what I feel, a desperate bid to tell the world what a noble guy he is.
But is he? Kaveree Bamzai had something bang on to say in her Daily O article: “If there is anything that Salman Khan's life shows us, it is this: there are limits to redemption. Cleared of killing a homeless man in a hit-and-run accident in 2002 in Mumbai (a decision now being challenged in the Supreme Court) he was finally convicted for killing blackbucks in 1998, and given five years imprisonment.
“Much has happened in the intervening years. Salman went from being bright young hope of Hindi movies to indifferent star to abusive boyfriend to working class hero, emulating the man who has always been his beacon for his obsession with gaadis and girls, Sanjay Dutt.
“Much like Sanjay Dutt, the son of two supremely famous parents, he (Salman) is seen as the poor little boy who never grew up. So, he is to be forgiven for everything, whether it is assaulting his girlfriend or talking to the underworld. The bhai, after all, is a baby”.
But of course everybody knows this. Yet, they want to look the other way, except when he is on the big screen helping warring countries patch up or taking a little girl home or bashing up baddies.
It is time that celebrity crime is firmly dealt with in India. When an actor drinks and drives or when a star beats up an elderly man and his son in a restaurant because they objected to his loud banter or when one goes butchering blackbucks supremely sure that he is above the law of the land or when one assaults a woman, he must be brought to the book. No mercy here, please. No excuses either citing the crores of rupees riding on Khan. Big bucks and charity cannot be reasons for pardon, especially when it comes to crimes like drunk driving and poaching.
(Author, commentator and movie critic Gautaman Bhaskaran may be emailed at email@example.com)