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Two trucks of gym equipment preceded Salman Khan’s arrival at the Baradari Palace Hotel in Patiala earlier this year. The actor was shooting Bodyguard, which clocked Bollywood’s fastest Rs 100 crore ever, making Rs 110 crore in the domestic box office in the first week. For 15 days, Khan battled excruciating pain from a nerve disorder known as trigeminal neuralgia to work out five hours a day, between 7 and 9 in the morning, and 8 and 11 at night after pack-up, for the mandatory shirtless scene in the climax. He would do 2,000 abdominal crunches every day, walk to the fort where the action was set, and run for 5-6 km in between the shoot. Biceps with a diameter of 17-and-a-half inches, a 30-inch waist and a 42-inch chest aren’t easy to maintain but Khan knows the audience wants to see the shirt coming off. And what they want, they will get.

An action-oriented script, pumped up with powerful emblematic lines (“main maarta kam hoon aur ghaseetta zyada hoon”), easy-to-replicate dance steps, and undiluted heroism, Khan’s formula is currently No. 1 at the box office. In September 2010, Dabangg made Rs 143 crore at the domestic box office and in June 2011, Ready made Rs 103 crore. Khan’s film has become the biggest Indian film to open in the UK-193,000 pounds (Rs 1.4 crore)-a territory that normally responds well only to romantic dramas. In the US, it has made $1.4 million (Rs 6.4 crore) in the first six days.

Khan, recuperating in New Jersey, USA, after a complicated surgery, has already got permission from doctors to start working out for his next film, Ek Tha Tiger, an international espionage drama for which Yash Raj Films is paying him a fee of Rs 32 crore. He plays a raw agent to Katrina Kaif’s ISI operative. Both are working undercover and expectedly fall in love, and retire to live happily ever after in an unnamed destination, but not before saving India and Pakistan from the brink of war.

The shoot will take the two former off-screen lovers to Dublin, Istanbul and Cuba. It’s a change of scene for Khan, but he’s made sure it has the key ingredients that have worked for him this past year: action, comedy, romance and at least “five kick-ass songs”. Many of these are his own contributions, says long-time friend, 73-year-old film distributor J.P. Chowksey, whom Khan calls “uncler”.

He writes many of his own trademark lines, such as the one from Dabangg (Hum tumme itne chhed karenge ke confuse ho jaoge ke saans kahan se le aur paade kahan se). He often composes his own music, such as Teri Meri in Bodyguard which Chowksey says he heard Khan humming to composer Himesh Reshammiya. And yes, the ad libbed jokes, many of them outrageously silly but unfortunately contagious. A sample: “To kya bum ko rum bolun? Drum bolun? Chewing gum bolun…?”

It’s this common touch that works for Khan, which allowed him to connect with everyone from a eunuch to an autorickshaw driver in Sony’s Dus ka Dum, and which he has retained despite 23 long years of being a star. At any given time, there will be a gaggle of at least 50 people standing outside his home in Galaxy Apartments, in Bandra, Mumbai, waiting for help. Papers are sent in to his one-bedroom ground floor apartment, money or assurances are sent out. Khan insists on wearing simple clothes in his films, usually vests, shirts that are easy to clone, blue jeans or as in most of Ready, bermudas. “I make sure I wear one pair of shoes throughout a movie,” he says, “otherwise children start harassing their parents to get them more.” His hero mould was set by Sooraj Barjatya in his first blockbuster in 1989, Maine Pyaar Kiya, Prem, the good son, and he sees no reason to break that. “Parents have to want you as their son, youngsters have to think they can be like you, children have to idolise you,” he says.

And everyone has to want a bhaijaan like him, who will help them when they’re in trouble. When he’s not done that in the recent past, as in the talented drug-addicted singer of Vipul Shah’s London Dreams, 2009, or the somewhat vengeful brother of Subhash Ghai’s Yuvraaj, 2008, the movie has been a resounding clanger. Even after tasting success with Wanted he didn’t arrive at the winning formula right away. Between Wanted in 2009 and Dabangg in 2010 were three bloopers-Main Aur Mrs Khanna, London Dreams and the colossal flop, Veer.

There’s a more studied analysis of his appeal. Khan represents a certain kind of virile masculinity that no longer exists in Indian males but is something they aspire to achieve. He is single, with a string of beautiful girlfriends. He combines rural mobility with urban ideas, something that Govinda or Mithun Chakraborty were never able to do. The dichotomy comes from his small town roots (he was born in Indore and spent every summer there until he was old enough for regular school) and his status as the son of one of Bollywood’s most successful screenwriters, Salim Khan. Since more people are migrating to cities from villages, they idealise it, says sociologist Sanjay Srivastava. Even his wealth is subdued, out of the public gaze. His farmhouse in Panvel is set in a 150-acre plot, with a swimming pool, three bungalows, and a state-of-the-art gym.

Khan cashes in on this outsider-makes-it-big image by building his characters along the same aspirations, with names such as Radhey, Chulbul Pandey and Lovely Singh. He’s both ordinary and special; Indian and not NRI; loyal to family, friends and servants, and emphatically Indian in style, dressing in neo-urban flash, with earrings and bracelet, says film scholar Rachel Dwyer.

In an industry where his contemporaries want to be presented as youngsters, he doesn’t pretend. His hair is courtesy a weave from a doctor in Dubai whose number he shares freely, his body is the result of constant hard work, and the eyes are often accompanied by bags. Then there is the visceral action. The sequences in Wanted, Dabangg and Bodyguard have been directed by the Tamil veteran of 480 films, fight master Vijayan. The 54-year-old says Khan’s USP is that he implicitly trusts the director and him. “He won’t ask a single question, though people around him might be concerned. He’ll arrive on the set and coolly walk up an 80 foot high ledge and execute a jump.” He doesn’t complain even when a scene goes into the 12th and 13th take, performing the last take with as much energy as the first.

He’s the 70s-80s working class hero with a new noughties irreverence. Hence the break into comedy often in the middle of an intense action scene-the shovel being used to attack an opponent is used as a back scratcher in Bodyguard and the rival goon allowed to take a call from his mother before being thrashed in Dabangg. He observes people around him and remembers the simple things: he picked up the Bodyguard walk from the way people strut after they’ve just joined the gym and the bicep dance from one of the cameramen on the Patiala shoot. “Most things I do are improvised from what I see in real life,” he says. “There’s nothing original.”

As fellow actor Imran Khan says: “He has always stayed Salman Khan.” His biggest formula is himself-a wayward child who has grown up to be a kind-hearted do-gooder, says Amit Khanna, chairman of Reliance Entertainment which produced Bodyguard and released it across an unprecedented 2,800 screens. Even his biggest critic Salim Khan believes he has come of age. “He was always talented. What he lacked was discipline. That’s what distinguished Sachin Tendulkar from Vinod Kambli. Salman has now come to a point where people want to write stories for him,” he says.

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He’s developed a shrewd business sense too, making up to Rs 10 crore an endorsement-he endorses seven brands, including History Channel which wants him to present history “hatke” His Being Human T-shirts are the most pirated across India. Mandhana Textiles is investing Rs 100 crore in developing a branded clothing line for him while the foundation’s Facebook page has a following of over half a million. There’s Bigg Boss for another season on Colors, co-hosted with friend Sanjay Dutt. Plus the movie business can only grow. India is an underscreened market, with just 12 screens per million, compared to 77 screens per million in France and 117 screens per million in the US. According to a study by the United Nations, a country with India’s population should have at least 100,000 screens compared to 10,000 currently.

The fans adore him. It could be Baharul Islam, 25, a management consultant from Mumbai, who grew up with his posters from Maine Pyaar Kiya and Baaghi on the wall. “I love him for his ability to bounce back and because I see myself in him.” Or it could be Delhi autorickshaw driver Ram Kumar Tiwari, 32, who watches Khan’s movies because they have a little bit of everything in them. In a marketed fragmented by the rise of regional cinemas and divided by rising ticket prices, he is a powerful unifier. He’s the Khan who can do no wrong.

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