Mumbai – A judge will rule Wednesday whether Bollywood superstar Salman Khan was guilty of killing a homeless man in a 2002 hit-and-run crash after a night out drinking, before trying to get his driver to take the blame.
Khan, star of blockbusters such as “Dabangg” (Fearless), is accused of driving his SUV into a group of homeless people sleeping near a Mumbai bakery after spending the evening in an upmarket bar, killing one of them.
If convicted of culpable homicide, the 49-year-old faces a lengthy spell behind bars, a verdict that would bring the career of one of the Indian movie industry’s biggest box-office draws to a shuddering halt.
A string of prosecution witnesses, including survivors of the crash, have testified that Khan was at the wheel when his vehicle crashed at speed into a group of half a dozen men sleeping on the street in September 2002.
The trial began in earnest last year after a series of court hearings and legal hold-ups.
When Khan finally took the stand, he pleaded not guilty and told the court that his driver was responsible for mounting the pavement in the upmarket suburb of Bandra West.
A constable attached to Khan’s security detail said in his statement to police that the drunk actor lost control of the car while driving at about 90 kilometres (55 miles) an hour.
“The people were sleeping on the footpath. Salman and (his cousin) Kamaal ran away from the spot,” the constable, who died in 2007 of tuberculosis, said.
One of the sleeping labourers injured in the accident said in his statement that “Salman was so drunk he fell. He stood but he fell again and then he… ran away.”
– ‘Only drinking water’ –
But Khan’s lawyers said the action and romantic comedy star had in fact been drinking water all evening and had climbed out of the driver’s seat after the accident because the passenger side door had been damaged.
They also said that the victim, Nurulah Mahbob Sharif, was killed during an operation to move the car, rather than the crash itself, when the bumper fell off and landed on him.
Finally, last month, his driver took the stand and said he crashed after the front left tyre burst, making steering and braking difficult.
Khan, the son of a respected film writer, has starred in more than 100 films and television shows since his first hit “Maine Pyar Kiya” (I Fell in Love) in the 1980s.
But the body-building actor is no stranger to controversy off screen and in 1998 he spent more than a week in prison for killing endangered Indian gazelles.
Khan, who has never married, has also been in the news over the years, including for allegedly assaulting former Miss World and Bollywood actress Aishwarya Rai with whom he had a long relationship.
The verdict is being awaited with baited breath both by his fans and Bollywood studios who stand to lose millions of dollars if they have to cancel filming for movies he has been signed up to.
One report by the Press of Trust of India said more than $31 million was riding on the verdict.
If he were to be jailed, Khan would become the second big-name Bollywood actor to be imprisoned in the last two years. Sanjay Dutt, the star of a series of gangster movies, is currently behind bars over possession of weapons linked to several bombings in Mumbai in 1993.