Room 52 at the Sessions court, in Mumbai, is so packed, it seems there’s going to be no place for the accused. There are at least 70 people in a space meant for 30 — family members and well-wishers, lawyers and journalists. If a riot were to break out, Salman Khan wouldn’t be the reason, for once – it would be the lack of ventilation . When Salman’s sister, Alvira Khan Agnihotri, tries to thread her way in, a lawyer, whose only business in the room is gawking, actually yells at her, “You’re disturbing everybody.” Outside the room, the commotion has reached Virar-fast standards, including the language — “Why are you pushing me? Be within your limits.”
In this brawl, Salman is led inside by a human chain of cops. He looks surprisingly well-preserved for a 49-year-old. Smooth skin, a decent head of hair and a Hulk Hogan moustache. Of his male entourage, the only one who didn’t get the white-shirt memo is Sohail Khan, who is in a stiflingly full-sleeved, grey T-shirt. Arbaaz Khan, former MLA Baba Siddiqui and brother-in-law Atul Agnihotri are all in prim whites. That soon becomes a terrible idea — their shirts become transparent with sweat, and I can clearly see Arbaaz’s tattoo on his right arm (‘Love each other or perish’) and Siddiqui’s right nipple.
In 2002, Salman Khan had left a nightclub in Juhu after clearing a bill for chicken, cocktails and Bacardi rum. Tests taken later showed a blood alcohol content of 62 mg; the permissible limit is 30 mg. On his way home, he ran over five people, killing one, while they were sleeping on a pavement outside American Express Bakery, literally two minutes away from his house in Galaxy Apartments, in the Mumbai suburb of Bandra. In the intervening 12 years, Salman has become a mythical superstar. In the courtroom, a lawyer has brought his daughter just so she can catch a glimpse of him. Almost 100 cops are trying to maintain order in the building.
Since this is a Sessions court, there are no mikes, and the judge, DW Deshpande, is, unfortunately a soft-spoken man. Those of us crammed in the back can barely make out what he’s saying. The lawyers’ closing speeches and the judge’s announcements are passed on from the first row to the last. Salman is a patient and intent listener throughout. He’s aware that anything he says will become instant headlines. The defence attorney, Shrikant Shivade, takes up an hour, invoking several Supreme Court judgements, Sanjeev Nanda and Alistair Pereira’s cases, the good work being done by the Being Human foundation, Salman’s ‘poor health’ and so on. He says the punishment should be “appropriate and proportionate”. On the other hand, the public prosecutor, in his allotted 15 minutes, calls for “exemplary and deterrent punishment”.
At 12.30 pm, the judge takes a break, while the rest of us boil in the sauna. The electricity dies at 1 pm, and, I swear, it feels like all of us are going through our worst hour. A journalist behind me cribs, “Bekaar hai yeh court joh Indians ne banaya hai. High Court dekho, uska size dekho, windows dekho.” To those who have to cover this beat regularly, the case finally moving to the air-conditioned High Court is a blessing. Most of the journalists use the break to fill in their editors. One of them yells, “Who is the DD [Doordarshan] reporter?” When someone raises their hand, he asks, “Why are you reporting the wrong things? That he’s been taken into custody?” Another journalist says, “Someone’s even reporting that Salman broke down. I didn’t see that.”
An obvious difference emerges between print and television journalists. All the television journalists are hungering for Salman to bawl, and all the print journalists are scrounging to get their spellings and quotes right. At 1.20 pm, the judge comes back and as soon as he says five years, a chorus of “Oh shit” breaks out through the room. Ten minutes later, when the electricity comes back, a chorus of “Thank god” goes up. Salman’s expression doesn’t change. As everyone starts to get their notes in order, a journalist declares, “Even one tear is considered crying,” though no one actually sees even that. Later in the afternoon, as I’m drinking a chilled beer at Cafe Mondegar, I see the same journalist on NDTV. A panel below him reads, “Salman breaks down in court.”