Dressed in his trademark tight T-shirt and a pair of faded blue jeans, it was clear that Bollywood superstar Salman Khan was enjoying the show. Away from the harsh arc lights and reflectors, clapper boards and directors with megaphones, Salman, his eyes twinkling, was doing what he liked best - putting a smile on the faces of special needs children and little ones who were suffering from life-threatening illnesses.
Seated in the arts room of the Rashid Paediatric Therapy Centre (RPTC) in Dubai, he was clapping and cheering the students who were performing a song and dance performance for his benefit.
"You all are amazing,'' he shouted. "And the best.'' The children grinned. A few girls giggled, excited to have Salman in their audience.
Fifteen-year-old Soha Amyn Aziz, squealed with happiness as Salman beckoned her to him after she sang one of his popular songs - Tere Mastmast Donain from blockbuster Dabangg - on the stage. Even as he extended his hand to shake hers, Soha lunged forward, wrapped her hands around his neck and hugged him. "You were so good on the stage,'' he told her and her grin widened, all the while cuddling him, reluctant to let him go. Salman cradled Soha, who is tiny for her age, until she was ready to pull away first. It was obvious he was in no hurry to leave, and that he had plenty of time for the children.
One of the biggest hearts in Bollywood
In the three days that one of the biggest Khans of Bollywood spent in the UAE promoting the launch of T-shirts bearing the label of his charity - Being Human - at Landmark's Splash and Iconic stores, he could have just posed for the usual publicity pictures, partied and shopped - the typical itinerary of many superstars in Dubai.
But Salman proved his heart is truly bigger than his biceps as he spent more than four hours meeting the children at the centre.
He also made the dreams of one little boy - ten-year-old Mohammad Rehan Rahman - come true following a request from the Make-A-Wish Foundation to meet the thalassaemia major survivor. An inherited form of anaemia, it is characterised by red blood cell production abnormalities. It can lead to severe lethargy, paleness and delays in growth and development. Severe anaemia taxes other organs in the body - such as the heart, spleen, and liver - which must work harder than usual. This can lead to heart failure, as well as enlargement and other problems of the liver and spleen, among other conditions. If left untreated, sufferers can die within a few years.
Time to spare for every youngster
While Salman spent the first day in Dubai shooting for Splash and meeting the press, the next day he spent the entire afternoon with 150 special needs children at RPTC.
He visited all the classes, spending time talking to children, playing football and cricket with them, singing and dancing even reenacting a few popular dance steps from Dabangg.
"I visited this school six years ago and I realised that it has everything a special needs child would need,'' says Salman, 46, whose most recent films Wanted, Dabangg, Bodyguard and Ready have all been smash hits.
"Usually children try to find excuses not to come to school, but I'm sure every special needs child must be looking forward to come here."
Stopping by every classroom, Salman crouched down to talk to toddlers, hugged kids who were waiting to meet him, and made it a point to speak to and hold almost every child at the centre.
He paused outside the arts class, and asked two children to show him their paintings posted on the notice board. "OK, now I'll do something for you,'' says the star after admiring their work, and he sketched a figure on the board. This time it was the turn of the children to clap and cheer the Khan of Bollywood.
Salman, accompanied by Mariam Othman, director of RPTC, and other volunteers, then dropped into the activity room where he invited some of the special needs children to a few bouts of arm wrestling. The boys could not have asked for more. Rolling up their sleeves, they flexed their biceps and hooted when the movie muscle boy of Bollywood lost to them gamely. "I beat Salman in arm wrestling,'' one of them was heard bragging to his friends later.
Speaking exclusively to Friday, Salman says, "The children here are so happy and cared for. I wish I could take the blueprint of this school and someday open a similar school for special needs children in Mumbai."
There was just time for a dance with the students before he had to leave to visit Mohammad. Salman was so busy hugging the children goodbye and throwing kisses he had to be reminded by the organisers several times that he was running late for his meeting at The Address Downtown Hotel.
Even though he'd spent over four hours at the centre, hadn't thought about grabbing a bite to eat, Salman rushed straight to the hotel to meet Mohammad.
A Pakistani expatriate, Mohammad was diagnosed with thalassaemia major when he was born. He required regular monthly blood transfusions until he was four, when tests revealed that his older sister Sanaa's bone marrow was a perfect match. He then underwent a bone marrow transplant at the Army Hospital in Rawalpindi, Pakistan.
"It usually takes six years before a patient who has undergone a bone marrow transplant can be tested and declared to be free of thalassaemia," his father Latifur says.
"Mohammad, who at the moment does not require medication and blood transfusions, is in his sixth year on the way to be free of his affliction.''
While he was recuperating, Mohammad's family got in touch with the Make-A-Wish Foundation after they learnt that their little boy's only wish was to meet the Bollywood star. The foundation, a charity that works towards fulfilling the wishes of children suffering from life-threatening diseases, contacted Salman who promptly agreed to realise the little boy's dearest wish.
The magical moment a wish came true
Seeing Salman up close, Mohammad's eyes grew large as saucers. It took the boy a while for it to sink in that he was with his hero.
"This is a moment I will treasure all my life,'' says the grade 5 student of Central School, Sharjah. Grinning widely, he couldn't stop looking at the star. Apart from receiving a bear hug - and loads of gifts - from his favourite Bollywood star, he was thrilled to spend time talking to his hero.
"I have always adored Salman. I especially loved his roles in Dabangg and Bodyguard and I love the way he dances and acts but he is so much more impressive in person,'' Mohammad smiles.
The boy had prepared a long list of questions to ask Salman. "But the moment I met him, I forgot them all. However, I'm so proud I got this,'' he says, clutching a notepad close to his chest. In it was a set of autographs from the popular Hindi actor and a polaroid picture of him with the star.
"Salman told me, ‘If your friends don't believe that you met me, show them these autographs and the photograph.' I requested Salman to give me three autographs - one for myself, for my brother and one for my sister. But he gave me 12!'' boasts the little boy.
"Salman asked me so many questions about my school and gave me loads of gifts,'' adds Mohammad. "He also asked about my sister Sanaa who had donated her bone marrow for me and has given me some presents to give her.'' His big sister was busy at school, and couldn't take time off to see the star.
Salman's promise to children
Making a positive difference in the lives of needy and sick children is not new for Salman. Always ready to lend a helping hand to people, in 2007 he set up the charity Being Human, which is dedicated to education and healthcare for the underprivileged.
Salman was in town to create awareness of his charity Being Human and to address two issues - education and healthcare for children.
What sets this charity apart from several others is that the entire profits from the sale of Being Human T-shirts go towards tackling the issues.
"Every rupee earned from the sale of Being Human T-shirts and merchandise across the world will go towards the cause of children. This is my promise," Salman says.
The charity's name is apt as being human and extending a helping hand is something Salman is known for in the film industry. On various occasions he has reached out to help patients with Aids and cancer, and even film folk who have fallen on hard times.
"I don't do charity for the usual reasons many people do so. They believe by giving away, they can actually double their luck. I don't subscribe to that. I believe in giving away money I don't need rather than stashing it away. I think it is better to give it to someone who needs it than keep it away as a saving.
"I do charity for selfish reasons. I have a loving family and my only hope is that tomorrow if they need some help, someone would reach out to them,'' he says. "Charity should come effortlessly to all. If I don't think of others who need help, why would anyone else? I might have registered this charity in 2007 but this was something very close to the heart of my parents Salim and Salma who have always had large hearts and have been ever willing to help.
"I just formalised what they did... I only lent my name to something they always did."
Ever-willing to reach out a helping hand
Salman is known to be the man with a heart of gold in Bollywood. Stories about his generosity abound in and around Mumbai, where he lives. One of the most in-demand stars, he is said to command millions of rupees for a movie, a large portion of which he channels towards various charity initiatives.
On several occasions he has gone out of his way to help the cause of children, many times spontaneously. He became the first person to donate his bone marrow to the Marrow Donor Registry of India (MDRI) in 2010 after he came to know about a little girl called Pooja who was suffering from thalassaemia and was awaiting a bone marrow transplant.
The MDRI matches the recipient's marrow with those awaiting marrow for transplant, thus saving lives. Salman also associated his foundation ‘Being Human' with MDRI.
He is known to step out of his home regularly during winter nights to distribute blankets to destitutes sleeping on the pavements of Mumbai.
But he is reluctant to talk about his charity ventures and avoids attracting any kind of publicity towards them. "There really isn't much to talk about,'' he says, almost dismissively.
However, there's a story of how one morning as he was getting ready to bicycle down the streets of Bandra, near his home, he saw two children eyeing his bike.
He asked them if they wanted one, and to their surprise, Salman arranged to have two brand new bicycles delivered to the kids that same afternoon.
In 2010, on the sets of Veer at the Mehboob Studio, an old woman who arrived in a wheelchair insisted on meeting the star. Salman spent almost an hour with her, humoured her through his shots and in the end gave her Rs1 lakh (Dh6,560) after he learnt that she was in dire straits.
During yet another shoot for the same film in the village of Wai, in Maharashtra, he donated 100 bicycles to poor children of a local school after he learnt that they were finding it difficult to commute from their homes.
During a film shoot in Rajasthan in 2010, he spotted scores of people grappling with the security personnel around the sets.
After enquiring with the local people, he found that they were unemployed and starving. Salman immediately contacted the film's producer and made arrangements to hire them as ‘extras' for the shoot.
Each of them was paid Rs1,000 (Dh65) a huge sum in the village, for a day's work. So overwhelmed were they by his generosity that they broke down and sobbed at the end of the day.
‘Being Human is part of his life'
Raza Beig, CEO of Splash and Iconic, endorses Salman's generosity. Elaborating on how the Khan magic really works, he says, "Salman is loved equally for his movies and philanthropy. Being Human is an integral part of Salman's life as he is personally involved in building the brand and extending it to a collection that is hip, cool and funky - and one where the message stands out loud and clear.''
Even as the muscle man of Bollywood continues to set the box office tills ringing with a stream of hit films it is reaching out to people and making a difference in their lives that really gives him peace.
Refusing to accept any accolades for this he says unassumingly, "I love to bring a smile to people's faces. I just think I need to do my bit to make a difference to someone. I don't do miracles, those I leave to the Almighty."
Look good while doing good
The Being Human Foundation is a unique model where the entire profits from the sale of the T-shirts and the fashion accessories go towards supporting the twin causes of education and healthcare for the needy.
In 2009, many of Salman's pals in Bollywood joined hands with him to support his cause and walked the ramp to raise funds for the charity in Mumbai. Since then Salman, who loves to paint, started a Being Human Art Foundation where he auctioned some of his paintings to raise funds for charity.
He also set up a film production company, which produced a children's film Chillar Party that won rave reviews. The entire profits from the film go to his charity to help children.
Salman has also expanded the Being Human fashion line to include merchandise such as watches and accessories. In Dubai he is concentrating on just the T-shirt range produced by his friend Manish Mandhana, the co-director of Mandhana Exports that manufactures T-shirts for the Being Human Foundation.
"I decided to launch Being Human in the UAE with Splash because I love Dubai and know people will support a cause like this," says Salman. "I first introduced the brand in Italy, Belgium, Spain and Germany last year because I wanted to test how people who didn't know me would respond to it.
"The response I received was tremendous. I felt people were buying the T-shirts because the designs were good and they were of a superior quality.
I also found that they felt strongly about helping the charity. My next stop was the UAE. Being human is something which comes naturally to anyone and everyone. In this case you get to look good as you do good."