In 2015, the lawyer of an Indian man who was accused of stalking two women in Tasmania told the court that they shouldn’t find his client guilty as his behaviour was inspired by movies in his country, that is, Bollywood.
He successfully argued that the man didn’t know he was doing something wrong, as these films contributed to the accused’s belief that if you persist long enough, a woman would eventually fall in love with you. The court let that man go with only a restraint order protecting the two women.
However, many women in India weren’t this fortunate to be protected by a restraining order. In 2021 as many as 9,285 stalking cases were reported, averaging nearly one case every hour, showing as much as a 97 percent increase from 4,699 in 2014. And we should bear in mind that only a fraction of cases of stalking are actually reported to the police.
Like the Indian accused in the Australian court, many of these stalkers also believed stalking was a form of wooing. Bollywood convinced them that the woman will eventually be impressed by their relentless pursuit – a theory popularised by their favourite on-screen heroes.
If she didn’t budge, the stalker felt free to attack her physically. It isn’t uncommon to hear shocking stories of stalkers raping their victims, burning them alive, throwing acid on their faces, and hurting them physically because “tum meri nahi ho sakti toh kisi ki nahi ho sakti” – another disturbingly misogynistic theory popularised by Bollywood.
We can’t think of any A-lister who hasn’t glorified stalking on-screen under the pretext of romance. Be it Aamir Khan in Deewana Mujhsa Nahin, Salman Khan in Tere Naam, Dhanush in Raanjhana, or even Akshay Kumar in Toilet: Ek Prem Katha (in which there is a song on stalking).
But if we were to start listing actors, who built a career by repeatedly glamourising the creepy stalker as the protagonist, Shah Rukh Khan would appear at the top of that list. He also took the stalker character to newer heights, where he harmed himself, attacked the woman, even murdered her and her family, and still emerged as equal to the hero.
Especially in the 90s, he did films that spread the message that love sometimes turns good-hearted guys (with a tough childhood, perhaps) into violent, murderous stalkers. These films kept pushing the disturbing line of thought that if a man attacks a woman or her chosen partner, he may be seen with kinder eyes because he is, after all, doing it all for love.
A filmography steeped in stalking
Khan began his career in Mumbai with Deewana (1992), in which he played Raja Sahai, a spoilt brat who lectures his wealthy father on communist ideals when not stalking a young widow Kajal (Divya Bharti). He lands at her house uninvited on Holi and forcibly throws colours on her. Later, he convinces her mother-in-law to let him marry her. The older woman emotionally blackmails Kajal and forces her to marry the stalker.
In the following year, Khan acted in at least three films that glorified the stalker as a hero. These films were Maya Memsaab, Baazigar and Darr.
Maya Memsaab was based on Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Even though it was a commercial failure, many remember it for a controversial sex scene between Shah Rukh Khan and Deepa Sahi in which the two bared their chest and posterior. Khan played a love-lorn young man following a much older woman wherever she went.
In Baazigar, he played Ajay, who plans a love affair with two sisters to seek revenge from their father for his past crimes. He kills one of the girls a few minutes before their court wedding from the top of a building and coolly walks off to have an affair with the next one. He goes on to kill the girls’ friend and father before being fatally wounded.
As he is lying on the ground in pain, the other girl, played by Kajol, is shown weeping for him. Yes, you read it right – the woman sits and sobs at the death of a man who killed her sister, father and friend. As she sobs and thinks of romantic moments with Khan’s character, a soulful ‘Baazigar O Baazigar’ in slow tempo plays in the background.
This film was an adaption of Ira Levin’s novel A Kiss Before Dying and a huge box office hit. Khan also won the Filmfare Best Actor award for this role.
Darr, promoted as an oxymoronic “romantic psychological thriller” genre, was about a college student obsessed with his classmate, so much so that he follows her to her honeymoon and tries to kill her husband. The story offers a weak justification for why the student turned out to be a violent maniac and nudges the audience to feel sorry for him.
The film was a hit and went on to win many awards.
The year 1994 continued to be an excellent year to normalise the stalker behaviour in Bollywood. Shah Rukh Khan starred in films such as Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa and Anjaam.
In Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa, the sweet-yet-creepy Sunil knows that the girl has no interest in him, but he insists on following her all around Goa, even to the point of breaking her date with her boyfriend. Thankfully, no murders happened in this almost-love story.
But Anjaam took the obsessive lover genre to the next level. It is a nearly three-hour-long nightmare faced by a woman who faces the brunt of her obsessive lover to the extent of watching him kill her entire family and send her to prison on false charges. The movie was a commercial success.
One has to question when the Bollywood brigade decided to call Khan the ‘King of Romance’ even though his filmography is rich with stalker films. It can be said without a doubt then that Bollywood’s idea of romance is disturbing and excessively toxic.
It isn’t as if Khan stopped playing troubling roles after finding success with Anjaam, Darr etc. In 1995, he starred in Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, which is spoken of as the most romantic film of all time. But if you look closely, it is the story of an irresponsible college dropout who stalks and harasses a young woman who likes minding her business.
From stealing her bra to tricking her into thinking she slept with him to tearing her blouse and eating it, his behaviour is utterly worthy of getting arrested. The movie promoted the toxic idea that harassing a woman is okay if you marry her when the movie ends.
And we don’t think it was romantic of him to have flown from London to Punjab to be with Simran since he had no clue whether she even loved him back. They had never discussed their mutual feelings or the possibility of sharing a future.
There was always some kind of stalking or problematic behaviour in his romantic roles afterwards. He stalks a woman across vegetable markets so that she agrees to dance with his group in Dil Toh Pagal Hai (1997). He stalks a doctor in Chaahat (1996), plays a womanising criminal conning identity in Duplicate (1998), and trespasses into his classmate’s bedroom late in the evening in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998).
In Dil Se (1998), he stalks a terrorist all across Leh-Ladakh. In Josh (2000), he is a hooligan who stalks his neighbour but has a problem when his sister expresses interest in another man. Anyone who has seen these movies would agree that Khan’s characters had troublesome attitudes towards women.
And just when we thought the genre was left in the 90s, Khan came up with newer ways to stalk a girl in the 2000s. With Chalte Chalte (2003), he led his audience to believe that stalking a girl across Greece made the act look romantic instead of creepy.
In Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003), he stalks and manipulates a woman into falling in love with a guy he chose for her. But all is forgiven since the character suffers from a mysterious heart ailment (and dies).
And who can forget his role in Main Hoon Na (2004), in which he stalks his newly-appointed teacher all across the campus, making her uncomfortable and feel embarrassed amid her colleagues?
Even when he played a ghost in Paheli (2005), he not only stalked another man’s wife as a ghost but also lived with her pretending to be her husband. In Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna (2006), he stalks a woman married to another man, while being critical of his own wife.
One can’t miss adding to the list his character in Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi (2008). We assume that any court will immediately grant a divorce to a woman if she proves that her husband stalked her, posing as another man, just a few days after their wedding.
The icing on the cake was Fan (2016), in which stalked himself by playing both an obsessed fan and a successful actor.
And it isn’t as if Khan’s “romantic” films are stalking-free even now. When he played Bauaa Singh in Zero (2018), he stalked and convinced a brilliant scientist to have an affair with him. He runs away from their wedding, only to return months later and continue stalking her even though she is engaged to an emotionally well-adjusted fellow scientist.
To be fair, Khan isn’t Bollywood’s first or last actor in Bollywood to normalise stalking. Bollywood has been promoting problematic attitudes towards women and romance for decades. It has popularized dialogues like “Hasi toh Phasee” (if she smiles at you, it means she likes you) or “Uski Naa mein bhi uski Haan Hai” (You have her consent even if she says no).
In Tezaab, Anil Kapoor threatens his girlfriend Madhuri Dixit with murder and mutilation of her body if she left her. Instead of running to the police, Madhuri smiles wide at the suggestion, saying she was testing him by suggesting break-up and he successfully passed the test.
It is an industry that celebrates the rape culture. You can read more about Bollywood’s rape celebration in this Gems of Bollywood article here.
It has been well-established in several research and study reports that the masses are influenced by the behaviour of their favourite actors onscreen. Films can manipulate the audience’s mind and prompt them to make decisions based on what they see in movies.
The glorified stalker awed the audience and inspired other young actors to sign up for such roles to boost their careers in Bollywood. Be it Aftab Shivdasani (Kasoor), Saif Ali Khan (Ek Haseena Thi), Shahid Kapoor (Fida), Salman Khan (Wanted, Sultan) or Aamir Khan (Andaz Apna Apna, Fanaa).
In 2016, a 24-year-old employee of Snapdeal was stalked by a man in Delhi and later kidnapped. The man, whose intention was to ‘marry’ her, later confessed when interrogated by the police that Khan’s character inspired him in Darr.
The following year, police arrested a man for allegedly trying to kill the husband of a woman he used to stalk. He too told the police that Khan’s character from Darr had inspired him. These are just a few of many incidents where the culprit confessed to being inspired by a Shah Rukh Khan film to commit a crime.
Of course, such confessions aren’t stated or made public in most cases. For instance, the Shahrukh who poured kerosene over a sleeping Ankita and set her on fire last year in Jharkhand, may have been inspired by his namesake but there is no way to know.
What is especially disturbing in these films is that they show that the leading lady could go on about her life and have normal relationships with another man as if stalking were just a minor inconvenience. The reality is that many end up like Nikita Sharma, a 24-year-old air hostess who was murdered by a man named Ashwini Kashyap, who stalked her and was obsessed with her. Nikita was betrothed to someone else.
Kashyap told the police he was a fan of Kabir Singh (2019), in which Shahid Kapoor plays an aggressive character who even asks a woman to leave her husband to start a relationship with him.
In a video in one of his social media accounts, Kashyap mouthed a dialogue from the film – “Jo mera nahi ho sakta, usse kisi aur ke hone ka mauka nahi doonga.” It means whoever is not mine, won’t get a chance to be someone else’s either.”
While Gems of Bollywood continues to call out every such scene in new releases, the title of ‘King of romance’ bestowed on Khan (or perhaps he bought the title through massive PR) gives a signal to all men ands particularly his fans that stalking, threatening, self-harm, attacking and harassing are all part of romance.
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