Bollywood superstar Salman Khan's case shows power of celebrity in India

Salman Khan, one of India's top-grossing actors, freed on bail as he appeals homicide conviction

Here in the country with the world's most prolific movie industry, Salman Khan stood apart: an action hero whose earnings of $40 million last year put him atop Forbes India's list of the nation's richest celebrities.

On Friday, it cost him less than $500 to walk away from jail after being found guilty of running over and killing a homeless man.

Salman Khan, one of the top-grossing Indian film actors of his generation, went free on bail after being convicted two days earlier in the 2002 death.

The bail amount, a year's salary for many Indians, represented about six minutes of work for Khan, 49, who has appealed his conviction and five-year-prison sentence. The Times of India newspaper dubbed it “Salman Khan's biggest Friday release.”

Under the terms set by the court, he will be allowed to continue making movies — he's currently shooting or connected to film projects worth $31 million — and will be able to travel abroad with the court's permission.

The case has underscored the power of money and celebrity here. Although India has been catapulted into the ranks of the world's most important nations with a booming economy and massive population, it remains a place where the rich and famous are seen to get a better deal than the masses.

Although Khan's homicide case dragged on for more than a decade, it took only two days for the appellate court to grant his bail application.

By contrast, the Times of India found that two-thirds of the 381,000 prisoners in Indian jails are awaiting trials and have not been convicted. Many are poor and cannot afford to post bail, the newspaper said.

Hollywood can be ruthless to stars who fall from grace, such as Mel Gibson and O.J. Simpson. Much of India, on the other hand, has rallied around Khan.

After his conviction Wednesday, a parade of fellow stars — their hair perfect, their eyes concealed by expensive sunglasses — visited him at his luxury apartment in Mumbai, India's film capital, formerly known as Bombay.

“I don't think there is a human being with a bigger heart than Salman, who does a lot for society,” fellow actor Ranbir Kapoor said Friday at a film release.

Yet the loudest reactions to Khan's conviction and subsequent bail were not from India's 1%. Most of his legion of fans are the poor and working class, who adore him for his muscular, heroic roles in a string of successful action films in recent years.

While his bail argument was being heard Friday, crowds gathered outside the Bombay High Court to express support for the actor. One obsessed fan reportedly ingested poison outside the court building but survived. In a letter obtained by Indian media, the fan, a man in his 30s, refers to Khan as “god.”

Khan greeted fans outside his apartment Friday, wearing a tight-fitting shirt and silver bracelet, clasping his hands in a show of appreciation. Later, he tweeted, “All those who prayed for and supported me thank

The son of an actor and screenwriter, Khan began his career as a romantic lead but morphed into an action star. A perennial bachelor, he has had a string of hits as he pushes 50.

He has proved particularly popular among Indian Muslims, who account for roughly 13% of the population. In recent years, his big releases have come around the annual Eid holiday, with Muslim families flocking to the cinemas like Americans do on Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Khan was convicted of culpable homicide, a lesser charge than murder, in a 2002 hit-and-run case in which his Toyota Land Cruiser ran over five homeless people sleeping on the pavement in Mumbai's upmarket Bandra suburb. One person was killed and the others were injured.

His lawyers proffered a range of defenses, suggesting that his driver was behind the wheel and that the vehicle's tire blew out. They also pointed to the charitable work Khan does with his Being Human foundation, whose T-shirts he frequently sports in public.

A lower court judge dismissed the lawyers' arguments, telling Khan on Wednesday that “you were driving the car; you were under the influence of alcohol.”

The star broke into tears as the sentence was read. Within minutes, his high-priced lawyers had filed an appeal and a bail application, arguing that he was not a flight risk.

Far from it, in fact. In the hours after his conviction was announced, shares of movie companies fell substantially on the Indian stock market. Being granted bail allows Khan to continue his film work in the gigantic industry known as Bollywood.

His next release, “Bajrangi Bhaijaan,” meaning “elder brother,” is due July 17.

There have been few more important stars in Bollywood in recent years. The Indian film industry, besides being a national obsession, sells 2.6 billion tickets a year, nearly twice as many as Hollywood, and retains large followings across diaspora populations in Asia, Africa and North America.

Khan received less than the maximum 10-year sentence despite the lower court judge's finding that he had been drunk behind the wheel of the SUV at the time of the 2002 crash. However, the appellate judge indicated that more credence should be given to the testimony of Khan's driver that he and not the actor was behind the wheel.

Justice A.M. Thipsay of the Bombay High Court said that though “there is sufficient evidence to indicate that the applicant was driving the vehicle, certainly a number of arguable points have been raised, which need consideration.”

The next hearing in the case is scheduled for June 15.

Actress Alia Bhatt summed up the feelings of many in Bollywood when she tweeted after the Wednesday verdict: “It hurts when your own are punished, even if they are in the wrong. We love you and are standing by you.”

For more news from India, follow @SBengali on Twitter

Special correspondent Parth M.N. contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times


7:33 p.m.: This story has been updated throughout.

This story was originally published at 6:53 a.m.