#14 Salman Yusuff Khan - I Am Special

Salman Yusuff Khan is the winner of the dance reality show Dance India Dance who starred in movies like ABCD and Street Dancer 3. He talks to us about his journey from Saudi Arabia, how he pursued dancing and how he was never going to audition for Dance India Dance, a show that turned him into a superstar overnight.



Your turning point in life? What is that one moment that changed, at least the way you looked at how the industry worked or how you looked at yourself in the industry?


So this was the promotion of ABCD the Movie. The entire industry is there. And ours was supposed to be the opening act. And they would start from me standing at 30ft high on a roster, opening the act, coming down in the rehearsal. What happened is, when I climbed up 30ft, I stepped foot on the plank of wood. I knew something was wrong, so I kicked it hard. It broke into pieces. 


Aamer: That was Salman Yusuff Khan, and we know the majority of you all would have seen him either in Dance India Dance, movies like Anybody Can Dance, Street Dancer Three, and we’re basically copying stuff out of Wikipedia at the moment. 


But here's some stuff you probably had no idea about. He is an engineer. His childhood was spent in Saudi Arabia. He was never going to audition for Dance India Dance and he came to know the reality of the industry he was in when he was hospitalized for something which could have been a near-death experience. This is his story.


Hello, I'm Aamer Khan and this is the Zed Medium Podcast, a podcast that talks to people and about them too. We take out the most significant experiences of an individual and package them in the form of a story, sharing those with you. We narrate people's journeys in the simplest way we can. 


There's a new person every episode, so do check out the previous ones. I'm sure you're going to find someone to relate to. Let's start with this one, shall we? 


Salman comes from a family of creative individuals. His dad is a painter, his elder brother loved photography. His sister is an interior designer and his mum is an artist as well. But these were their hobbies, not their full-time jobs. As luck, hard work or even the right opportunity would have it, he was able to pursue it and make a career out of it. From a very young age, though, he had this feeling that he was slightly different from the rest, not only in his family, but whoever he interacted with. 


Salman: Yeah, because I think growing up, my family used to think that I live in this bubble, that anything is a possible dream. I had these philosophies because I read so many quotes and I knew something inside that I am special. And like we all are special. 


Come on. I completely believe in the fact that we all are special. 


Aamer: That belief in yourself creates an aura of confidence. Once you've said it to yourself that you are special, you're going to do something that's different, it really creates the right opportunities for you to go after. It's not only luck, to be honest, it's something way more practical than just relying on luck to make you what you are. 


Because I remember the first claim to fame was dance India dance at the time. But before that also, dance India dance when the media started to get to know you. But before that also, there must have been a journey that led you to that. How do you get into such an industry? 


Salman: Okay, so a lot of people think I got lucky. I'll tell you how I define luck. I define luck as hard work meeting opportunity. I feel everybody, all of us have those opportunities that God throws towards us. Whether we are ready for it or not is our fault or if it's our advantage, right? 


It's like training to shoot an arrow bull's eye every single day. You don't know for what. Just because you love it, you've been training, training, training. And one final day a championship comes and then it makes you a star overnight. And then people say, oh, he got lucky. No, they don't see the amount of work you put into it. Just like that. 


My story begins where I was born in a very humble, conservative Muslim family. And I didn't in Saudi Arabia. So there's no scope of dancing ever. Because Saudi Arabia back then 2000 is really conservative. 


Aamer: Yes, we will give a bit of context. Salman was born in Bangalore, but his dad's work is what made the entire family shift to Saudi Arabia when he was very young. And as we all know, dancing is not something that happens that frequently in countries like Saudi Arabia. 


So it was never that. Salman knew he wanted to do this from the very start of his life. But if something is meant to be, it happens one way or the other. And the way he got introduced to dancing was actually through a family ritual called movie night in Saudi Arabia. 


Salman: Dancing was never a part of my lifestyle or life or anything. But we've had the movie night culture in Saudi Arabia because when you're away from your country, you become more patriotic and you'd have like a nice Bollywood movie or a Hollywood movie. And jobhi dance I used to see. And I used to like, I should just get up and start dancing. 


And it used to be those VCRs and cassettes, right? Used to keep rewinding it and keep looking at the step, keep learning it. And then every party, every function, there's one guy who's dancing it out. I have had this, I would say a boon or a blessing that anything that I observe, I can learn. 


Like taught me. I want to drive. I just kept looking at my dad drive one fine. Dad just took the key and started driving. And I'm like, okay, I know how to drive now. So that's been an advantage. 


Aamer: He had the power of observation and he put that to good use. A lot of us have that but we rarely see how we can implement it for our benefit. His dancing journey did begin with movie nights and family functions but soon grew to be much more than that. He was starting to incorporate dance into his lifestyle and was never for the purpose of dancing alone. 


And we'll explain that in a bit. His family had moved back to Bangalore around the time Salman was in the first year of college. 11th to be specific. His dad remained in Saudi Arabia because of his work. We all know India as a country is big on dancing. We even have subjects to teach dance. Salman joined an all boys school and the only agenda boys at an all boy school have are girls colleges. 


When I came to India for my higher education, for my 11th and 12th and then I joined the college dance group. It was a complete boys college in Bangalore. And being in a boys college, only boys college, the only motto and attention is girls colleges. How do you get an entry to a girl's college? The easiest way to do that is to get into the dance group and your attendance will be taken care of and then you can just have a free pass into all these fests and colleges. That's how it started. 


But those two years we were the undisputed champions in the dance competitions. Everywhere boys and boys would go, you would get the first place and then that's the first time I ever signed an autograph. Common used to finish, used to see these girls throwing into paths in the area. It used to be that and then I've had a bunch of girls come up to me and take an autograph from me and at that point I thought I was standing right behind and I was shuffling places. How did they observe me? 


If they observed me out of a bunch of 13 people and I've come up to me and taken an autograph, there must be something special. 


Aamer: An autograph at that age gave him the first glimpse of what a minor amount of fame could look like. But he was not going to get swayed away by it. He was a realist still is. His primary focus was to complete any sort of degree he could and he opted for mechanical engineering which turned out to be the toughest phase of his life. 


He was clearly not designed to be an engineer but he wanted the backing of a good education before he could do anything else. While he was doing his engineering though, the dance part of his life continued and even grew to such a level that his grades started dropping. 


Salman: When I came to my engineering I joined a professional dance company and I started doing corporate shows and I started making money. So pocket money. I started taking out of this I stopped taking money from home. 


When the first time you make money, right, it's like that. You feel that sense of freedom, empowerment, that you can make money in this world. And then what happened is the show started becoming aggressively more, and I started studying less. 


Eventually going on to losing a year in engineering. I got a backlog, a call from that, and mom told him that I have not been serious with my studies, and I've been doing some dance shows and stuff that called up. He was really upset and he said, do one thing. Don't study. Do whatever you're doing. Go ahead and do that. I'm not going to pay your policies anymore. I heard that and I was like, what the hell? Back then, 75-80,000 was the annual fees, rs80,000 annual fee and Rs80,000 per year to earn as a student was a big amount. 


Like, how do you do that? So then dad was very adamant about it. He stopped paying college. I started doing more shows. I joined two companies. I started doing shows. I literally get up at 4:30, finish my prayers, go for rehearsals, finish yourself, go to my college, take shower, get ready in the hostel, sleep through college, get up, go out, do shows, come back home.


 Me and dad had drifted apart. We never used to have a clear conversation because dad thought that mom spoiled us. We've lost it. We've lost our way. It was a very, very tough phase for me, I'm telling you. The most difficult phase of my life was my engineering. 


Because that made me feel like a failure. Because the harder I tried studying, the lecturers would demean me. They would say, you can never do anything out of your life. It was time to buck up. 


Aamer: Obviously, teachers can rarely predict the outcome of a child. And in this case, they couldn't have been more wrong. The education system is flawed, but that's a separate discussion. Salman decided it was time to buck up. He was doing it for himself, for his parents, and for his future. And he worked hard to just get through the four years of engineering. 


He was very close to completing it, and nothing was in his way to distract him from getting to his goal. He had decided to focus on it completely and gave it all of his attention. But life does have its ways of testing you. And here was Salman's test 


Salman: When I've decided this and I've quit dancing, it's been three months. I'm starting really hard. I get a call from my ex company owner. There's a show called dancing dance coming to India. It's on the lines of so you think you can dance. I think you should really do it. I just heard that. And so you think you can dance. It's been one of my favorite shows. 


And with a heavy heart, I said, Arthi, I'm sorry, I don't think I can do it. Like. No, don't say that. You're different. You're amazing. You do something, you make something out of it. Like, sorry, I really need to finish my exams. And I don't think I can do it. Something inside me kept telling me. Salman. Salman. Salman. And I said, what do I do? 


So then the first thing I did is I called my wife, my girlfriend back then. She's the only one. My first and last girlfriend. So I called her up and I'm like, listen, so things come up as, do I do it? She's like, Are you mad? Just get that degree then do whatever you want to do. Get that degree. You're so close to it. Just get that degree. Then I kept the call. Then I called my five friends individually. I'm not sure I do. Everybody said, no, get that degree. Do whatever the hell you want to do. Just get that degree. 


I said, okay, then. I have my one cousin, this guy. He's a year older to me. I went to him and I told him, Listen dude, he's always in his leather jacket. He likes his cigarettes. I'm talking about an audition. He's telling me I'll win this show. What an ass. What an idiot. Like, why did I even come to you? He's like, you're not like any one of us. 


You're different. You're born to be different. Whatever you choose to do, you will win it. This show, anything else in life if this show mark my vote, you'll win it. And listen, thank you so much. My fault. I came to you. Bye. 


Aamer: And the push is all you need. 100 people telling you not to do something. But all it takes is for that one person who says, you know what, do it. Because that's what your heart wants. All along that night, Salman couldn't sleep. These were his exact thoughts. Do I want to grow old and tell my grandchildren about an opportunity that had come his way? 


And he decided not to take it? No, that's not what he wanted. If there was a chance in front of him, he had to take it. And so he went for the auditions in Bangalore. The first one was in each particular state. And if you get selected, you get called to Mumbai for the final audition. 


These were lacs of people from all over India. People from Delhi, Punjab, Chennai all had come to audition in Bangalore. And Salman got through the audition with flying colors. Next step, mumbai. Now all this is done. I've forgotten. I'm constantly doing all my studies. 


One week, ten days prior to my exam I get a call from DTV. Dancing. Dancing. You've been selected for Mumbai auditions. And you have to come for auditions on the 24 May. 23 May is my final exam in Bangalore. 24th audition in Bombay and 25th and exam again in Bangalore. And by now I've run out of all my money and even if I ask my friend, they'll never give it to me because they don't want me to do this. 


So I don't know what to do. Then the last resort, the only thing that came to my mind was the word mom. Anytime. Anytime. 


Aamer: Any child, especially a boy, he's in need of something. The first word is always that mom. And so he went up to her and blurted everything out. Any guesses on the reaction? So by now dad had retired. Dad had come back. He's in the hall like I told you, we never used to have a conversation. So I go into the kitchen, mom's making dinner. I remember 21st, 21st. 


I go I stand in the kitchen right behind mom. And I'm thinking, how do I put it? What do I say? And she's cooking. I said, mom. She's like, yeah. She didn't turn, she was cooking. I just posted up saying mom, she stopped cooking. Literal translation to that is dad's going to peel your skin off? 


Aamer: But moms are moms. She was never going to let his dad know about it. She gave him the flight tickets, some money for food and accommodation and wished him all the best for his journey. Moms at their very finest. This is the story after that.


Salman: 23rd, I wrote my exam, went to Arthi's house with my partner Thanvi, dance partner Thanvi. We could have grabbed a piece. 10:30 flight to Bombay, landed at twelve. Her family came, picked her up, took her home. Me and another friend of mine is standing at the Western Express Highway wondering whether to go right or left. 


Then they have a hotel there called the Galaxy Hotel. They said Rs4500. I have 1500. I'm like, how's that possible? Then thwy said a hotel room. Literally, I think 100 and 5200 square feet. It had a bed, just single bed. So my friend slept on the bed because he paid more. I slept on the floor because I paid less. 


Audition through the day. Got through the audition only. I got through the audition. My other two friends got the 1030 flight, landed back in Bangalore twelve, studied the entire night. I cleared both my exams and the audition. 


Aamer: That is some dedication and obviously the rest is known. He won the first season of Dance and Their Dance and became popular overnight. Everyone knew him by name. All the big personalities of the industry. The common man, everyone. 


The 50 lac prize he received, he used that to buy a decent car and took up a house on rent. But the reality is very different from what it looks like. All the other contestants didn't win, but they were known. They were seen on TV. The true reality of the industry is somewhat very difficult when you think about it from the perspective of the show makers and the other contestants. 


Salman: Once the show became outrageously big, none of us knew that it would become so big, or even the show makers now they started concentrating on the season two. They bounded me to a contract of two years, or whatever money I make, regardless of they get me outside, 50% is what they're going to make out of it. And they did not help me anywhere. CTV did not give me any shows. It wasn't only me, but all the other four or five finalists were equally famous with that show. 


I thankfully got money so I could buy a car, I could rent a house out in Bombay, settle my life in Bombay. To start my journey, they had to go back to the railway station. They had to go back to their buses. They had to order the sharks. They used to get mobbed saying, oh, you're such a big star. You're such a big dance in your dancer. 


What are you doing in a local train? What are you doing in the local bus? They went depressed. They went into depression. They locked themselves up for six to eight months after the show. One more thing. Just because people know you, doesn't mean you'll easily get work in the film industry. It is one thing that the audience has a soft spot for you, but getting by in the film world, it's tough, it needs resilience, and it needs you to be able to pull back from the fame, isolate yourself and concentrate on the next step.


 So what I did is I put myself back to zero. I went and I said, what do I do now? I'm not a star, I'm not an actor. I'm not getting movies or serials or television anything. I'm not a choreographer, so I can't choreograph movies or anything. 


So I went to my mentor back then and I told him, Sir, I want to learn. He said, what? I want to learn filmmaking. I want to learn behind the camera. I want to learn lenses. I want to learn short taking. I want to learn how do you handle a team, how do you handle as a director? What do you do? And that's how I became an assistant director for his first movie. 


And I learned all the technicalities, which gave me eventually a way to choreograph for reality shows, movies, and then eventually act. That's what gave me the confidence and knowledge. 


Aamer: From then onwards, salman starred in movies like ABCD and Street Dancer Three. After that, he's worked hard and has let his work speak for him in the past years. The only thing he mentions that is so difficult about displaying your talent is that you have to prove your worth again and again. 


You have to be there and perform at a higher level than you were previously at. To reach somewhere in this world. While you're doing so, you can't let go of the human aspect of things. The industry is famous for its parties. It's jazz. Everyone wants to play host. That is just not for the sake of it. There's a reason behind it. And the reason is as more people get to know you, the more likely they're going to want to work with you. 


And so one of the things he realized very late is one thing that I did not do until recently. 


Salman: The past two or three years. Imagine it's taken me a decade to learn this. Meeting people, spending, investing time in people. Because I always thought my work will speak for me. So I always should just work, come back home to my family. I never did any parties, I never went out to any parties, I never met people. 


But I realized that to win a war, you need an army, you can't do it alone. 


Aamer: And you need to meet people, invest time in people so that they understand you as a person. His work, his social life, his ability to keep up with the reality of things have all played a big role in where he has reached. 


But there's one thing he looks back at now and realizes as he's moved ahead in his journey, something that he wished was different. But it cannot be. 


Salman: The last time I ever danced to Express was before 2009. After 2009, I've only danced to impress. 


Aamer: That's what fame does. It makes you rely on what people want to see, whether you can live up to their expectations or not. People are pleased when you're at the peak of your success, but when you're not, there's a different kind of enjoyment. 


People take in that as well. Making a lot of friends and knowing who's going to be there when things go wrong are two separate things. 


And if Salman had a turning point in life, this one fits perfectly to describe the environment that makes up the film industry. Just to note, this is not us bashing up and criticizing a certain industry. All of these stories are true stories. 


Some fields of work are more difficult to sustain in than others. This is but an example of what it is like and why only a few succeed and even fewer make it to the end. Your turning point in life, what is that one moment that changed at least the way you looked at how the industry worked or how you looked at yourself in the industry. 


Salman: So this was the promotion of ABCD the Movie. The entire industry is there. And ours was supposed to be the opening act. And they would start from me standing at a 30 ft height on a roster, opening the act, coming down in the rehearsal. What happened is when I climbed up 30ft, I stepped foot on that plank of wood. I knew something's wrong, so I kicked it hard. It broke into pieces and I got down and I started screaming at the production saying if I die will be responsible I burst it out. 


Then to my agitation, calm me down. Relax, we'll change it. Don't worry. So it got changed. I never got a chance to rehearse again. Now it was directly take. So in the take, I went, I climbed up. I stood there. I just did one step. It broke and I felt 30ft down onto the cement flow. And I was out. I was out cold. So the only thing I remember is I opened my eyes, I see Salman Khan and I am out. 


This happened at 09:00 p.m.. I woke up in the hospital with my manager and my brother. Only two people by my side. At 01:30 am. I got him. I'm like my performance is like, shut up, lie back. The show is over. It's been so many hours. I tell my older brother I saw Salman Khan in my dream. He wasn't in your dream, idiot. He was the one who carried you, took you to the ambulance and sent you to the hospital. And Javed Jaffrey Sir and Salman Khan were the two people who came in to run first and assist me and carried me to the ambulance. 


And that day, I think Prabhudeva had come to the hospital. And I think Ramu sir had come to the hospital just to see me. And they didn't wait. Obviously, it was too long before I would wake up. So nobody stayed back. They just came. 


They asked and they went back. Nobody else from the entire team of actors, none of them came. When you work as a team, then it becomes family, right? And then it becomes like and I just sat down and thought to myself, all these guys, everybody who says your family nobody came to the hospital to see me. There was only my brother. And my manager was standing till the end, till I woke up. 


Aamer: You’re one to yourself here. And the ultimate focus you need to have is on you. 


But again, there's a display of what others are doing through the media. This is one of the few industries where you get to know each and every step of your competition. And although this is not a direct competition to Salman, he takes inspiration from others and works harder to keep himself at a level that people are used to seeing him at. But you look at someone else's career and you tell them they didn't relax. Why should I?


Salman: I do that. Especially when it comes to my workout and diet. I'll tell you why. Every time I end up cheating a meal or I end up not working out, I always compare myself to somebody like Dwayne Johnson who is a multi billionaire, runs so many different companies, is busy shooting every single day. It takes out time to work out. To try and be self motivated all the time is not possible. There are days where you feel really low and you don't feel like doing things. 


And you just feel like, where am I heading? The only thing that will help you at that time is just do it. Consistency. Just do it. Don't think too much. You don't feel like in the gym today, it's okay, go there, but do it. Just go. That's how he's lived his life, by doing the work and leaving the rest on the Almighty. 


Aamer: He's had a good career so far, but he's always on the move, asking himself, what's next? What's the next thing I should do? The key is being open to change, being accepting of it and constantly doing something that keeps you on your toes. So this question suited him perfectly. And we believe this would be a great way to end the episode after having done so much. You've been a dancer, you've been a film director, you've been so many other things. What is next for you in this journey of yours? 


Salman: Like I said, I'm still exploring. I want to get into filmmaking. I want to get into what do you call business. I want to do fit in business. When I say business, I want to produce films. I want to put the fims. I want to be a filmmaker, as a director, as a producer, as an actor. Other than the industry aside, I'm an entrepreneur myself. So I look forward to making investments in potential businesses and growing that side of under the engineer mara nahi. I keep exploring different avenues. 


Aamer: Right. So have you identified the right businesses for you to invest in? 


Salman: Oh, no. I have something on my mind which actually I have two things on my mind right now that I'm exploring and I'm developing, in fact. And this development should be done in the next four to five months where I can go on floor and thinking ten years down the linen seems to be a very potential business for me. Let's see how that goes. 


Aamer: Hey, if you like that episode, share it with others. You never know how you sharing it could impact someone in the most difficult of times. And you never know, you might just share something life changing for someone else. And yes, follow us for the latest updates on LinkedIn and Instagram. Z Medium. That's Z-E-D-M-E-D-I-U-M. We're here to stay. We promise. 


And we're bringing a whole lot more for you. Next up, we have Hemali Shah. She talks us through her first income at the age of twelve. How she started giving henna classes at 17, got married at 20, and established a name for herself in India as a leading beautician before it all came crumbling down. Let's have a snippet from that conversation. 


In ten standard? No, in seven standard. I started earning, but at that time they've got some colored stone and I could put it in a garland. And one garland, if you put, you get 75. So at twelve years of age exactly. I remembered. I got Rs12 in my hand so in ten standard when everybody is talking about movies actors I had my first order of henna so in between practical exam I gave my first order and in 11th grade I started my mehendi classes and the best part is my father didn't know about it why? Because he believed very strongly that girl child should not earn I am there whatever you need I'm capable to fulfill your need 


Find out more about her in the next one stay tuned and goodbye for now.