The accused is famous…
Like billions out there, I am a devout Salman Khan fan. My first Bollywood memory is of Andaaz Apna Apna.
As a toddler, I took it upon myself to nickname Salman Khan, my first crush, ‘Samsung’. Then, there was the time in elementary school, when we road tripped from Vancouver to San Francisco with just one cassette in our car – the soundtrack of Hum Apke Hain Kaun. Everyone was cool with having it on repeat for two whole days.
In all honesty, I don’t want Salman Khan to languish in jail for five years.
But, if there is anything I have learned after years of studying law, it is severing personal emotion and recognising (and hoping) that through the justice system, saner heads will prevail.
The very first line of the recently released decision of Judge Shri Deshpande begins with the most important fact of this hit-and-run case: the accused is famous.
With all due respect, I find this introduction to legal judgment absurd.
Above all else, Khan is a citizen of India. This makes him very much subject to the Indian law – which carries a maximum 10-year penalty for the crime he has been given only five years for.
I would argue that Khan has been shown leniency by the courts; and this leniency should come to no one’s surprise. It’s almost a de facto, unspoken right afforded to the wealthy, prestigious, elite, and powerful.
In an era of celebrity worship, leniency is the time-honoured tradition chosen by judges who find themselves confronted with the revolting duty of deciding the fates of reckless, irresponsible celebrities, while bracing for the inevitable public backlash.
Nowhere is this trend more rampant than in Hollywood.
In 1986, Mark Wahlberg was charged with attempted murder and assault following an attack that left a man permanently blind in one eye. Originally sentenced to two years, Wahlberg went home after serving a mere 45 days behind bars.
In 1997, Christian Slater was charged with violently assaulting his girlfriend while drunk. He was sentenced to three months in jail – of which he served only 59 days.
In 2012, Amanda Bynes was arrested for drunk driving. Although she was stopped before she could harm herself or others, her punishment was a casual one-night excursion in jail.
The notorious rapper Snoop Dogg was tried for the murder of a member of a rival gang. But with legendary lawyer Johnny Cochran spearheading his defence, the rapper walked away free of all charges and on towards a lucrative career.
A quick survey of my Twitter feed and global media outlets since the release of the verdict against Khan is indicative of one thing: fame breeds familiarity. And with this familiarity comes an inevitable body of fierce loyalists.
Simply put, when someone in a spotlight so large as Khan is implicated of questionable or criminal conduct, the public’s moral compass goes awry.
When Khan, adored by millions, came under attack, the lives, livelihoods and limbs lost in the carnage he caused mattered little – as if the death of the sleeping, impoverished innocents in the way of Khan’s SUV were the real problem.
But even though the public’s opinion is severely divided, and diehard supporters are having over-the-top reactions, the law must do all it can to remain a source of sanity by being what it is expected to be – impartial.
Without spilling more wasted ink on the overly dissected merits of the case, the unvarnished truth is that Khan was horribly negligent every step of the way on and after that fateful 2002 evening.
Getting behind the wheel drunk was only the first of his many mistakes.
Fleeing the scene of the crime, not reporting himself to the police, never visiting the victims or arranging for compensation and lying in contempt of the court consistently throughout the past decade are just some of the many things that make it incumbent for decision makers like Judge Shri Deshpande to neutrally set right the many wrongs committed by Khan.
The greatest irony to stem from this case, is the interview given by one of the victims who lost a leg when he was trampled under Khan’s car that night 13 years ago. When asked if he still watched Salman Khan films, he appeared stupefied as if that was the most ridiculous question. Yes, in fact, I do – was the reply.
Such is the power of superstardom. The law can only try to feebly wield its sword before the frenzied throngs guarding the temple of celebrity worship.