Bollywood Actor's Arrest a Test of Indian Justice

Salman Khan, the romantic lead in dozens of Hindi language movies, has been sentenced to five years in jail for poaching a rare buck. It's a hot-button issue in India, where rich and powerful lawbreakers are often accorded leniency. Madeleine Brand talks with Richard Reeves, reporting from the Indian capital of New Delhi on the case.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Alex Chadwick.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand.

One of India's most famous Bollywood stars is sitting in prison today. He was convicted of poaching a rare buck in a desert wildlife preserve, and here's the shocker. Salman Khan was sentenced to five years.

NPR's Philip Reeves has been following the case. I spoke with him earlier.

BRAND: Philip, first of all, tell us who Salman Khan is.

PHILIP REEVES reporting:

He is an absolutely hugely popular actor in the world of Hindi movies. And that's not only in India, but throughout South Asia and among the Indian Diaspora in Europe and the United States. He is an action hero. He sort of fuses the macho muscle man image with that of a romantic leading man.

BRAND: So, the equivalent would be, let's say, Russell Crowe.

REEVES: Yes, possibly. Although, at the moment, I'm not sure whether Russell Crowe would appreciate the comparison because of the trouble that Salman Khan has landed himself in, in recent years.

BRAND: Right. And so, let's talk about that trouble. He is still in a Jodhpur jail, and he was convicted of shooting a buck.

REEVES: Yes, that's right. Not just a buck. A very rare protected species called chinkara, an Indian gazelle. He ended up in court and received a very stiff sentence in the eyes of some, what's described as five years rigorous imprisonment.

BRAND: Is that five years hard labor?

REEVES: I'm not sure exactly how they define rigorous imprisonment, although a clue to this exists in some of the Indian newspapers today, which have been eagerly chronicling stories of his plight in jail, where he's said to be sleeping on the floor, being bitten by mosquitoes, having to eat unleavened bread, and only has one fan to beat back the savage desert heat in his cell. This is seen in India as a terrible fate for a man who's normally accustomed to wearing Versace and Armani. A man, who according to the website maintained by his devotees, "collects herbal soaps."

BRAND: SO, well, five years, I think to most, would seem pretty shocking for killing an animal. Five years.

REEVES: Yes. It comes in the context of the urgent need felt by India to protect their endangered wildlife, but also a feeling in the country that the rich and powerful have established a reputation for being let off or treated very leniently by the judicial system. And this case is seen by some analysts as part of the debate that surrounds that issue.

BRAND: Well, meanwhile, what some or most would think is a more serious accusation, he's accused of actually killing a man in a traffic accident.

REEVES: Well, yes. This happened in 2002, where he is accused of, whilst being drunk behind the wheel of his car, crashing into a shop. And in the process, mowing down somebody who was sleeping on the sidewalk. Now, he denies that he was behind the wheel. But he has been in trouble in other respects. But even so, he remains extremely popular in this country.

BRAND: And he is appealing his conviction on shooting the buck, right, and so he'll be out of jail shortly.

REEVES: Well, he might be. We don't know yet. A judge is expected to rule on that tomorrow. If he allows the appeal and agrees to bail Salman Khan, he will indeed be out again after having spent three, by all reports, horrible days inside the Jodhpur central prison.

BRAND: Without herbal soap.

REEVES: Without his herbal soap or his pink shirts.

BRAND: NPR's Philip Reeves in New Delhi, India. Thank you.

REEVES: You're welcome.

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