Salman Khan is not an actor. Salman Khan is a star. Salman Khan is a commodity. Salman Khan is being human.
My nephew is a young man of few words. But he likes lifting weights. He is serious about his protein shakes. And every now and then, he has been known to go to the theatre to watch a Salman Khan film.
“What’s his best film that you’ve seen?” I asked him. He rolled his eyes and then said “None”.
I changed my tack. “OK, what’s his worst film then?”
“Aren’t they all?” he said before returning to his phone.
Yet he still goes.
And that, bhai, in essence is the problem with Google search results spitting up Salman Khan as the “worst Bollywood actor”. Salman Khan has anyway slowly but surely shed all pretence of being an actor. He’s a man who long ago lost the shirt off his back and became a star. He’s a franchise. He’s a commodity. He’s being human.
I think it says more about us though that we are in a tizzy about this. There are almost scholarly media articles explaining how keywords and meta tags work in Google and trying to quickly debunk a conspiracy theory before Twitter-riots break out. A Google spokesperson told Network 18 that “Google search results are determined by algorithms and there’s no individual or group deciding what results to show for each query”. No really, despite what some politicians claim it’s not Narad muni who is lurking behind the Google search box and manipulating the levers. By the way, SalmanKhanatics can relax as The Indian Express noted Googling “Real King of Bollywood” also results in Salman.
What’s even funnier are newspaper articles comparing Google anointing Salman Khan as Bollywood’s worst actor with Google mistakenly showing Narendra Modi’s picture when searching for India’s first prime minister. The two are not exactly comparable. One result rewrites history. The other merely states an opinion that is apparently shared by many on the internet. One might upset us. The other should unnerve us. Or perhaps Google, which knows all, is aware that one day we will be headed into a world where India will realise it really woke up at the stroke of the midnight hour in May 2014 and everything ‘Before Modi’ was just a bad nightmare.
The real reason for much ado about Salman Khan is that for all this time we thought politicians were God, cricketers were God and Bollywood superstars were God. This was our holy trinity. We garlanded them. We polished their shoes. We mobbed them. We wrote them love letters. When they went to jail we wept for them, not for whosoever they might have been convicted of killing or defrauding. When they were released we trampled over each other to get a glimpse and cried out for their attention. We even killed ourselves for them. We were, in short, blindly faithful to them.
But now it turns out there is a newer God in town – Google. Once there were many search engines – Yahoo, Altavista, Ask Jeeves, Hotbot, Lycos, Infoseek, Excite and Netscape. But Google conquered them all, and we have slowly become used to being in a monotheistic search world.
Today Google’s word is the commandment, its search result is the law. We have accepted it in blind faith as truth. Now with a jolt, we realise this new God is more powerful than all our old ones. It can change the face of India’s first prime minister. It can take one of our most successful superstars and call him the worst. Can GoogleGod be wrong? Is GoogleGod not infallible? Is it not why we worship that search engine because we believe it will never lead us astray.
In this age of fake news, anything is possible. We know and have been schooled according to our political preferences to distrust anything that comes from a television channel we do not like. But we have also been taught that in Google we can trust. It even corrects our spelling mistakes and says “Showing results for” something it thinks we were searching for. Now the core of that belief system has been shaken. As Salman himself had said, mar jayenge lekin jhooth nahi bolenge. That could have been the motto for Google as well.
One small sliver of consolation here is that according to the Pew Research Center, only 25 per cent Indians reported using the internet in 2017 unlike 96 per cent in South Korea. Smartphone ownership went up from 12 per cent in 2013 to 22 per cent in 2017 but that still means a whopping 78 per cent do not have one. Salman Khan is safe outside the digital bubble. Despite much ado on Twitter, most of the country has neither Googled nor tweeted. They still faithfully watch his Eid release and enjoy it without worrying about his Google results. While reviewers panned Race 3 and reserved their sharpest zingers for Salman, it easily cruised past the Rs 100-crore mark in its first weekend just like Sultan, Tiger Zinda Hai and Bajrangi Bhaijaan.
Those who do not understand what that means are just being a ‘Tubelight’. Salman Khan can only be Salman Khan. He is beyond Best Actor and Worst Actor. Remember a driver suddenly appeared years after the accident to take the blame for it. And a celebrity singer tweeted that “Roads are meant for cars and dogs, not for people sleeping on them… @BeingSalmanKhan is not at fault at all”. That is proof of everything that’s right with Salman Khan and wrong with our country.
And it’s wrong to dismiss his acting as well. He has performed spectacularly in recent years in courtrooms and around blackbucks and pavement-dwellers. Those have been stellar performances and it’s very tacky of Google not to have taken note. Remember, how he told a television channel about finding a scared deer in the bush and feeding it a biscuit. How much he conveyed without uttering a single word when he appeared on the balcony of his house after he got bail and just waved to the frenzied crowds, telling them to go home and get some rest, all done in mime. How touching it was when he cried in court that I forget whether that was for the blackbuck or the pavement-dweller. Either way, Salman Khan deserves his acting laurels. Just some of those performances have not been eligible for Filmfare awards.
No Google search will capture that. It’s just that for a brief moment the Gods of Bollywood and the God of Google have collided and digital India has had an epiphany it’s finding tough to digest. As we ‘Race 3’ to the bottom, we realize that now thappad se darr nahin lagta sahab, search se lagta hai.