MUMBAI — Jahangir Sayyed stuck two fingers in his mouth and let out a shrill whistle. “Chaliye!” (“Let’s go, please!”) he shouted in Hindi to the dozens of mostly male fans scattered outside Bollywood superstar Salman Khan’s house. “Clear the fields!” he bellowed in English, while moving people away from the media vans gathered outside the house.
It was May 8, two days after the actor had been convicted of culpable homicide — a judgment similar to manslaughter in the United States — and sentenced to five years in prison for a 2002 hit-and-run accident. The 32-year-old Sayyed had appointed himself both chief organizer and chief fan that morning, maintaining order over the reporters and onlookers awaiting the verdict of an appeal filed by Khan’s lawyers against his sentencing. A cook in a small hotel who also strings for a Hindi weekly to boost his income, Sayyed makes around $450 a month, about average for India’s working class. To get to Khan’s house, Sayyed had traveled two hours from his home on Mumbai’s outskirts.
“It’s so we not disturb my Sallu Bhai,” Sayyed explained in Hinglish of his efforts, using a pet name for the actor. He wore a black bandana around his head and sported a white T-shirt emblazoned with a photo from when he met Khan in 2010. The red-and-white plaid button-up he wore over his T-shirt, despite the day’s oppressive heat, completed his “bad boy” ensemble modeled after the then-49-year-old Khan.
Indeed, Khan’s reputation as one of Bollywood’s leading bad boys, both on screen and off, precedes him. He has recently faced trial for allegedly poaching gazelle and antelope species native to India, and his former girlfriend, Bollywood star Aishwarya Rai, has publicly accused him of abuse. But the most notorious example of his bad behavior was the 2002 incident, during which Khan ran over five people sleeping on the street outside a bakery with his Toyota Land Cruiser, killing one of them, a man named Nurullah Mahboob Sharif.
On May 6, a lower court in Mumbai sentenced Khan to prison. But due to a procedural technicality, he was granted a two-day interim bail while his lawyers — among India’s most exclusive, expensive, and high-powered — filed an appeal. The appeal was granted on May 8, and Khan walked away after paying a cash bail bond of about $450. Throughout 2015, he continued to seal movie deals, attend awards bashes abroad, and make and promote his films, including a pair of blockbusters. Finally, on Dec. 10, the Bombay High Court overturned the May verdict, claiming the prosecution had failed to establish its case on all charges. “I accept the decision of the judiciary with humility,” Khan tweeted on Dec. 10. “I thank my family, friends & fans for their support & prayers.” (Khan couldn’t be reached for comment.)
The case polarized India. Those opposed to Khan’s acquittal decried what they saw as an example of impunity for India’s most powerful and wealthy, underscoring an underlying issue in India: the affordability of and access to justice. “If you’re a Salman Khan, you can afford the top-bracket advocates and a team of lawyers who can ensure that your case gets managed strategically,” Kian Ganz, the founder and editor of the legal news site LegallyIndia.com, told me. This is not exceptional to India, he added, noting that the 1995 criminal trial of former football star O.J. Simpson in the United States ended in an acquittal. The difference, he said, “is that in India, 99 percent of people can’t afford to get any justice.”
In May 2015, the Times of India reported that only about a third of India’s 381,000 prisoners are incarcerated because they have been convicted of a crime. The others “are made to languish behind bars for their failure to procure bail,” the report stated. Echoing this sentiment, media and marketing expert Sandip Ghose argued that Khan’s acquittal demonstrates how India’s legal system accommodates the “well-heeled.” For others, justice is often derailed. “Many are not able to move an appeal to a higher court and some can’t get basic legal help to defend them even at the first stage,” Ghose wrote on the website ABP Live following Khan’s acquittal.
Amba Salelkar, a lawyer and activist who worked in Mumbai’s criminal justice system for several years, agrees that Khan’s wealth has helped him avoid prison. “In theory, there has been no violation of any law or procedure if you look at what happened,” she told me. “The issue is that getting the [legal process] to move that fast is expensive,” she said, referring to May’s appeal. The Indian NGO Daksh, which focuses on creating transparency and accountability in governance, found that Khan’s appeal process occurred 11 times faster than the average case at the Bombay High Court.
This combination of money and power, coupled with India’s notoriously backlogged legal system, has enabled Khan’s fellow elite to evade justice. Actor Sanjay Dutt, for example, was arrested in 1993 for illegal possession of arms in a case related to a series of bomb blasts in Mumbai. But he was out on bail for years until 2013, when India’s Supreme Court sentenced him to five years in prison. Many speculate that he has received special treatment, as Dutt reportedly spent many days during his first year in prison out on parole.
This benevolence also extends to India’s political class. In Lucknow, the capital of the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, the chief suspect in a decade-old gang-rape case is Gaurav Shukla, the nephew of a leader in the Samajwadi Party, which governs Uttar Pradesh. Shukla has contested his age at the time of the crime by presenting forged school documents so that he can be tried as a minor, according to Jalaj Gupta, the lawyer for the rape survivor. His family also reportedly threatened the survivor’s family and attempted to bribe the family into withdrawing the case. (The trial is ongoing, and Shukla couldn’t be reached for comment.)
While all these cases have sparked outrage among Indian liberals, Khan’s situation falls into a category of its own. That’s because some of the people one might expect to be most outraged by his good fortune — India’s poor and working classes — are the very people cheering him on.
Khan’s legions of fans hail from across India, mostly from small towns and the underbellies of big cities. The sympathy and support he receives from them is tied to the persona he embodies in his various roles. Journalist and writer Snigdha Poonam, who is working on a book about small-town life in India, said that Khan’s films appeal most directly to the “culturally stubborn, non-English-speaking men” of these areas. Khan typically plays muscular, tough, confident, patriotic, religious, and chivalrous men. One of his most famous portrayals, for instance, is of the corrupt but lovable Indian police officer fighting for justice in the 2010 blockbuster Dabangg (Fearless). By specializing in characters that “glorify old-fashioned machismo,” Poonam told me, Khan is the only Bollywood star who reaches out to men “who feel left behind in what they see as Indian society’s aspirational race to imitate the West.”
Julien Cayla, an ethnographer who has written about Indian masculinity, adds that few role models for Indians exist outside the cosmopolitan, business-savvy Indian male personified by Shah Rukh Khan, another major Bollywood star. Salman Khan fills this gap. “He seems to incarnate a more assertive, ‘outside the system’ type of masculinity, which I think resonates with many Indians, who in a sense are outside the English-speaking system,” Cayla said.
Michiel Baas, a research fellow with the Asia Research Institute of the National University of Singapore, has also studied masculinity and class in India. He said this persona, both on screen and off, enables most Indian men to identify with Khan. “Lower-class men’s distrust of India’s judiciary system is exactly what strengthens their faith in and support of a Bollywood hero like Salman Khan,” he said. “Most of them won’t consider him elite, but a working-class hero instead.”
That seemed to be the feeling among the 150-odd fans gathered outside Khan’s home that day in May. Long-legged Iftekhar Ali, 20, who moved to Mumbai in April from the northern state of Bihar in search of work, now holds a job as a night-shift crane operator. I asked why he likes Khan so much. He shrugged his shoulders and smiled toward the photographers and videographers cradling their cameras over the apartment complex’s fence. “He helps so many poor people,” he said, mentioning the Being Human foundation, a charity Khan founded in 2007.
Many of Khan’s fans, in fact, cite his reputation as a man of the people as reason enough to welcome his acquittal. Nikhil Chowdhary, a 32-year-old Khan fan from Delhi, acknowledged that Khan built up this reputation over time. “I feel that only after this hit-and-run case Salman has started scaling up his charity work,” he said. He also added that it is not the actor’s fault if so many other people in India cannot afford bail.
Still, Khan has maintained his authenticity throughout the years, according to Shabani Hassanwalia, who co-directed the 2014 documentary Being Bhaijann, which examines Khan’s effect on young Indian men. “Salman Khan has never pretended to be anything that he is not,” she said. “There has never been a fake note with his entire engagement with the public.”
His supporters know this as well. When I asked Sayyed, the fan who had been organizing the crowds that morning, whether he thought Salman Khan had committed the crime, he laughed.
“He did it,” Sayyed said. “But he shouldn’t go to jail.”
This piece was originally published on January 14, 2016, on Foreign Policy.