"Salman Khan bahut achha aadmi hai," Ayub, our driver, began in his Kashmiri-spiked Hindi, "Yahan aake sabse mila, bachchon ke saath khela, akele jaake baazar ghoom aaya (He came here and met everyone, played with the kids, went to the market on his own)."
On the way to Sonmarg, just a few months after Salman Khan's visit to the Valley, every person we encountered seemed to have been Salman-ified. The working class in Kashmir swears by their new Bollywood god. From Srinagar to Pahalgam, via Anantnag or Bijbehara, there's only one Bollywood star who people here sing paeans to: Salman Khan. He's obviously not the first Bollywood actor to have shot extensively in Kashmir, but he's the one whose visit has had a kind of impact quite unseen in recent times. For tales of Bajrangi Bhaijaan's kindness ended up touching even a hardcore non-star-struck person's psyche: such is the power of Salman Khan.
"Salman came here to shoot. In between takes one day, an old woman came and pleaded with people on the sets to let her meet Salman. When Khan got to know, he came out to meet her. She wept and narrated her sorrows to him. Uska mard mar gaya tha, teen bachche the, aur kuch karne ko hai nahi (Her man had passed away, they had three children, and nothing to survive by)," Ayub tells us, as the pretty semi-urban houses of Srinagar melt into the Nallah Sindh.
@BeingSalmanKhan pic.twitter.com/j1xII5b0tN— Arpita Khan Sharma (@khanarpita) April 26, 2015
"Salman kaafi emotional banda hai. Usse us aurat ka dard dekha nahi gaya. Usi waqt Salman ne apne logon se bolke usko ek lakh rupaye de diya (Salman is quite an emotional person. He couldn't see the woman's sorrow. That very moment Salman spoke to his people and gave one lakh rupees to her)," recounts Ayub. He was among the people who had experienced Bhai's acts of kindness from a stone's throw, and lost no second in telling us why he felt Salman was undoubtedly the best among all Bollywood stars. And that's a sentiment echoed all across the Valley.
The woman Salman helped didn't let his aid go in vain, reminisces our driver. When Salman had to leave the shoot of Bajrangi Bhaijaan in between and rush off to Mumbai for the verdict of his 2002 hit-and-run case, the lady walked to a Dargah in Pahalgam to pray for Khan. "Dargah ke paas ek gufa hai. Woh wahan jaake baithi rahi chaar din tak; Salman ko bail milne ke baad woh wahan se baahar aayi (There's a cave near the dargah. She went inside and prayed for four days straight, till Salman was granted a bail)," he says.
Shah Rukh Khan, on the other hand, isn't quite as popular with the Pahalgam folk as Salman is. This Khan had shot his Jab Tak Hai Jaan in the Aru Valley in Pahalgam back in 2012. Another driver in the town says, "Shah Rukh ko darr bahut lagta hai. Kisiko milne nahi dia, hamesha security saath mein rakhta tha (Shah Rukh is easily scared. He didn't let anyone meet him, always had security with him)." And inevitably, the comparison with Salman creeps in here, "Salman aisa nahi hai (Salman is not like this)."
From the shores of the Jhelum in Srinagar to that of the Nallah Sindh in Sonmarg, from the stony banks of the Lidder in Pahalgam to that of the Doodhganga in Yousmarg, Salman's is one name every Kashmiri identifies with, for some reason. Bajrangi Bhaijaan has done to that part of the state what no one else has been able to yet.
Back when he was promoting his Bajrangi Bhaijaan, Salman had said, "If I can shoot in Kashmir, anyone can." That he would do this to Kashmir is probably something that Salman himself might not have been able to anticipate. Several new places have been added to the local horsemen's places-to-see list in several areas of Kashmir, thanks to Bajrangi Bhaijaan. Of course, they still do mention the other films shot in the place. But speaking of no other film gives these locals as much a rush as Kabir Khan's one does. Their "Baajrangi Baaijaan" (spoken in that inimitable Kashmiri accent) is someone the locals in places in Kashmir want to see returning to the state. No other star, after all, has gone and touched these nobodies' lives the way Salman has. No other star has been able to elicit such a spark in the eyes of these men as Salman has.
On the set of BB ! @amarbutala @justbeinggarima @ThakkarHiral @BeingSalmanKhan @aaysharma pic.twitter.com/NwaujJw7Xz— Arpita Khan Sharma (@khanarpita) April 29, 2015
On the day Ayub dropped us to the airport, he had only one request, "Aap toh films ke line mein hi hain... Agar kabhi Salman se milna hota hai, toh kahiyega Kashmir waapas aaye jitni jaldi ho sake (You're in this line... If you happen to meet Salman, please ask him to return to Kashmir as soon as possible)."