In a Delhi cinema, Salman Khan’s fans cheer him on – despite hit-and-run conviction

The audience’s roar was so overwhelming that it drowned out the deafening soundtrack of Bajrangi Bhaijaan.

Die-hard fans of Salman Khan at Batra Cinema in South Delhi when the movie was released on Friday. Amrit Dhillon for The National
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The audience's roar was so overwhelming that it drowned out the deafening soundtrack of Bajrangi Bhaijaan.

It heralded the moment cinematic hero Salman Khan appeared, dancing with abandon as a follower of the Hindu monkey god Hanuman during a wild, boisterous procession.

Although this happened during the opening day screening on Friday at the Batra Cinema in New Friends Colony in South Delhi, the scene is one that was likely echoed in a similar fashion in cinemas across India.

The second roar came when a livid Khan rescues little Munni, a six-year-old Pakistani girl separated from her parents and lost in India, from a brothel in Old Delhi just as a trafficker is on the verge of selling her to his madam.

The Eid release of Bajrangi Bhaijaan – about a simple man on a mission to re-unite Munni who is mute, with her parents – is proving to be a blockbuster with many cinemas in the Indian capital reporting a full-house.

Batra was brimming with fans who knew that they were in for a classic Khan combination of action, drama, dance, romance and emotion. And the superstar did not let them down.

Khan fans have always been blindly loyal – sticking with him through thick and thin. They care not that he cannot act. They care not if there is no plot or if the dialogue is poor. And, as this is his first film since their idol was sentenced to five years for culpable homicide in connection to the 2002 hit-and-run death of a homeless man and injury of four others, they seem to care not that he is facing jail time (Khan has appealed against the verdict).

Instead, it’s his sheer screen presence that thrills them. “When he’s on the screen, you don’t even notice anyone else,” said 25-year-old software engineer Neeraj Gupta. “That’s what I come for, to feel his presence.”

A die-hard fan Mohit Verma, 23, attended the screening hoping Khan won’t go to jail.

“It’s not over yet,” he said. “We have to wait till the appeal has been heard.”

Neelam Mathur, 20, who has only seen some of Khan's films, took in Bajrangi Bhaijaan because the trailer seemed promising. "I don't think celebrities should get away with crimes," he said. "I know what he did and it is serious. But this movie seemed like fun and I wanted to relax, so I'm here."

It helps that Bajrangi Bhaijaan is the best Khan movie in years. It has a plot of sorts, the heart-warming presence of little Harshaali Malhotra as Munni, and lots of laughs, particularly the moments when the burly Khan has to don a burqa to escape the Pakistani police.

Khan’s character – a small town simpleton who is determined to reunite Munni with her parents – is endearing and appealing. Having taken Munni under his wing, Khan speculates that she must be a high-caste Hindu. He is stunned to discover she is a Muslim. The realisation comes when Munni slinks away from Khan’s vegetarian household to tuck into some delicious chicken at a Muslim neighbour’s house.

The chicken incident is the moment for Khan and Kareena Kapoor to launch into Chicken Kuk Doo-Koo, a song entirely devoted to celebrating chicken. The youths in the front seats at Batra went crazy whistling and cheering, having already listened to the previously released soundtrack.

In the interval, they went down near the screen and started performing Khan’s rooster movements, arms flapping sideways and heads darting back and forth. And some middle-aged women supported them by clapping along.

As with all his movies, this one too attracted a cross-spectrum of Indians in terms of age and social status. Professionals and businessmen mingled with drivers and cooks.

“I always see Salman’s films on the first day,” said Milan Rana, 19, who works as a household help for a wealthy family. “I’d heard that he wanted this one to be his biggest box office ever and I didn’t want to disappoint him.”

The film seems to be getting a phenomenal response at the box-office, with the opening day and weekend tickets selling out in many cinemas.

“I think Salman bhai might get his wish that this film should exceed all his previous ones,” said Ajay Dutt, the manager of Regal cinema. “I have never seen advance booking like this before. It’s going to be huge, a super-hit.”