Celebrated scriptwriter Salim Khan discusses his father's faith in astrology, the futility of dogmatism, and the manifestation of a swayambhu Ganesh on a rock near his farmhouse that is offered regular worship
Salim Khan, the much-awarded screenwriter, is one half of the celebrated Salim-Javed duo who authored the 'angry young man' archetype identified with Amitabh Bachchan, and gave movie buffs some of the most commercially successful Hindi films of all times including Sholay (1975), Seeta Aur Geeta (1972), Zanjeer (1973), Deewaar (1975), Kranti (1981), and Don (1978). Salim Khan went on to win six Filmfare Awards and was also awarded the Padma Shri in 2014. Life Positive met Salim Khan at his Bandra residence, which offers a grand view of the scenic Bandstand promenade, which wraps itself sinuously around the black rocks that ring this kilometre-long stretch of the Arabian Sea. The house was crowded with family and friends who were watching a song from Ek Thaa Tiger, which was scheduled for release in four days. Salman, the star of the movie, appeared preoccupied with the scheduled release. Khan Sr. feigned surprise when I responded to his concern about what I would have for a drink with ‘A glass of water’.
“What? No whiskey? Who let you in?” he laughed.
Do you consider yourself a spiritual man, Mr. Khan?
Yes, very much. I am of the opinion that there is light in every religion, and one can live a moral life by that light. Whether it is Christianity, Islam, or Hinduism, no religion teaches hatred, murder, cheating, and lying. All religions urge us to be compassionate, kind, and helpful to our fellow beings. Unfortunately, unenlightened people will always look for reasons to divide, hate, and fight. I have been at the receiving end of fatwas for speaking my mind. It is the Quran which says that killing a man is like killing all humanity. Christianity asks us to love our neighbour. He who seeks the positive, finds good in every person and every religion. A companion of Muhammed, the prophet of Islam, once asked him what the highest form of worship was. Now, one would expect the prophet to say namaz, fasting, charity, or hajj, but the prophet said “love” When asked about the highest form of charity, he said it was forgiveness. Every religion teaches the same thing. The details differ, but there is no difference in the essence. My son Arbaz called me once from a tattoo parlour for my advice on what his tattoo should say. I said it should say, ‘Love each other or perish.’ That, to me, is my religion.
Are you an observant Muslim? Not everyone would agree with what you say, in my opinion. I have read some scholars of Islam and what they say about Islam is way different from what you are saying.
I think I am a Muslim because I believe in keeping humanity above everything else. To me, there is no difference between respecting all of humanity and Islam as outlined in the Quran. Well, there are scores of people who would say I am not a Muslim, and I have no issues with that. When I was a child, we were taught that chameleons are the enemies of Islam because a chameleon nodded its head to indicate where the prophet was hiding from his captors. I joined my other friends in killing chameleons. Now I feel foolish and regret this senseless killing from the bottom of my heart. Today whenever I notice a chameleon, I seek its forgiveness for the deaths I caused to its kith and kin. I feel shame for what I did in the state of ignorance. People notice that I have changed and throw it at me as if I have committed a great sin. All people on the path of self-improvement change. How can there be growth without change? If I realise the foolishness of acting in a certain way, why should I not change? I have put my beliefs to the fire of experience, and some of these beliefs have not stood scrutiny. I discarded them. Your beliefs make you who you are. To change yourself, you have to change your beliefs.
Your family has Hindu, Muslim, and Christian members. You even celebrate Ganapati.
I had been courting my wife, who hails from a Maharashtrian Hindu family, for five years before I decided to get married. She was certain it would not work. Hindu-Muslim marriages were even rarer back then. However, my mind was made up that I wanted to marry this girl I had been meeting at Churchgate, Bandra, and Mahim Beach day after day for half a decade now. Her father was a dentist. He appreciated the fact that I had come with a proposal instead of doing something rash. He said that I appeared to be a decent enough fellow, but the Hindu-Muslim bit would come in the way sooner or later. I promised him that we would fight over every other thing, but religion would never come between us and we just celebrated our 53rd anniversary. Being a Maharashtrian, she hosts Ganapati for a day-and-a-half at our house, and all of us join in the celebrations. Like all couples, we have a million differences, but religion is not one of them.
So, your wife got you connected to Ganesh?
In part. My horoscope also says that I am a Brahmin by inclination. My broad-mindedness was predicted in my natal chart. My father had great faith in astrology. I believe it is a definitive science that has very few competent practitioners. He had my natal chart drawn by a Brahmin at my birth and kept updating it year after year. He was a policeman in British India and rose to the highest position permissible for a native officer. He was told at my birth that I had tremendous scope for learning, growing, and evolving. The reason is that both Surya and Guru are in the same house in my natal chart, which indicates a predisposition for continuous learning. I noticed the clear form of Ganesh on a big rock outcrop at our family farmhouse. I asked the staff if they knew about it. They answered in the negative, so I led them to the spot. They asked me if they could offer worship to the form, and I had no problems with it. There are times when I join them at the aarti, wear the tilak, and partake in the prasad. I often find my Muslim friends leaving the scene in a hurry lest they be offered prasad. It is a strange Muslim who speaks proudly of the firmness of his faith and feels uncomfortable if he is offered sweets or asked to wear a mark on his forehead. It is a weak faith that gets threatened so easily. I believe in God and my God is not a vengeful God. I also believe that we have the power to change.
How does one change?
I changed when I realised that I swear too much, I drink too much, and I have a short temper. My admission of my shortcomings to myself was the beginning of transformation. A sick person has to admit to himself that he is sick, and his admission takes him to the next step—he looks for a doctor who can cure him. Once I realised that I am provoked easily, I made it a point to not react immediately and would request the person to discuss the matter the next day, by which time I would have structured my response in a manner that was not abrasive or aggressive. This process calls for brutal honesty with one’s self.
How has being brutally honest helped you in your own life?
I was a pretty good batsman back in college and I dreamed of playing for India. I played for my college too. However, it took me just one day to realise that it was not for me. At a test match, I watched Salim Durani casually flick the ball to the boundary in Indore. I was shocked by his skills and I knew that no matter how hard I tried, I would never ever reach that level. I also became a licensed pilot but gave that up too after several hours of flying that included emergency landings with a Tiger Moth, because the entire affair was so system-driven that I had no scope to express myself creatively in any way. It was not for me. After that, it was acting. I tried my shot at it because my friends back in Indore said I was good-looking. I had come to Mumbai with a conviction that I was going to push Dilip Kumar out of business. However, once I saw myself on screen, I knew that I did not have the screen charisma or presence to make it big as an actor. It was only when I began writing screenplays that I found my groove. For the first time, I felt that if I gave myself a score of two, the others were hardly at one. This process of trying, thinking, discarding, and moving ahead is necessary in life. Often, youngsters come to me for career advice. I ask them how many years they are willing to wait before they make it in Bollywood. It is important to know when to quit. I advised my son Arbaaz to give up acting. He had already crossed the age of 40, and it was not working. The world is a place of opportunities. He tried producing films and achieved great success there.
Do spiritual values have a place in a field as competitive as filmmaking?
Indeed. Positivity matters. You do need talent. Without talent, ambition will not take you far, and talent is not enough if you do not have a professional attitude. I will not take names, but if you look around you will find that if you are ungrateful, rude, and sly, people will avoid you over a period of time and it is only a matter of time before the Goddess of Fortune deserts you. Talent and goodness of character translate into success. Unpleasant people end up with nothing to do. It is easy to lose your head and develop an ego, which comes in the way of learning new things. Lord Vishnu has granted the boon to Lakshmi to shower abundance on anyone she wishes. Saraswati has the same boon, with the difference that no one, including Lord Vishnu himself, can take back abundance that Saraswati grants her devotees. The difference is that Saraswati’s devotees are always in the learning mode, which is only possible for those who are open to learning.
How does a spiritual outlook help in the writing process?
Empathy and compassion are necessary if you aim to be an effective writer. You have to be able to put yourself in the shoes of others. I remember, as a seven-year-old, coming to consciousness (after an accident) at my father’s police station in a place called Devas in Ratlam, which is in Madhya Pradesh. It involved a terrified milkman in custody of the policemen. I knew it was my fault that I had dashed into him on the road. I was too young to explain what had happened, but I knew that it was not the milkman’s fault. I bawled my heart out and asked for the milkman to be released. It was only after I had had my way that I calmed down. I think that event was telling; it shaped me as a person and as a writer. There is such a thing as karma, and one does reap its fruits. In fact, what is called writing is actually more of thinking than writing. If the physical act of writing was all there was to it, the typists outside the courts would have become great writers. When I partnered Javed Sahab (Javed Akhtar), neither of us could write. He has an unsteady hand that trembles and makes it difficult to hold a pen, and my handwriting is so atrocious that I cannot make head or tail of what I write, a few hours after I have written it. We always had a writing assistant who helped us with the problem. So, it is thinking that is the real job. If you can empathise, tell a good story, and think an idea through, you should be able to write well. If there is any one thing that I would add to this, it is a passion for reading. The problem with many writers is that they have not read enough. It is important to read if you wish to be a writer.
You mentioned that it is all written in the natal chart, but you also believe in karma.
I do believe it is all written, but we have the will to do good. Salman is sponsoring this young girl from the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa region who has been shot in the face by her husband. He has been sponsoring her medical bills and is also taking her out shopping in a couple of days. I am happy that he is doing his bit and we should all do whatever we can. Let what has to come to pass, come in its sweet time.
Author Satish Purohit is an author-coach whose professional background spans the fields of publishing, editing, writing, and bookselling
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