1999 gave Bollywood one of its biggest hits with Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s epic romance Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam. While Ajay Devgan walked away with the girl in the movie, it was the offscreen relationship between the film’s other two leads, Salman Khan and Aishwarya Rai, that was the real talk of the town. Born on the movie sets, the relationship was tempestuous from the start, with Aishwarya remarking, “We’re always sparring on the sets. If he gives me attitude, I give him loads of attitude in return.”
Still, the relationship continued for two years, and during that time the tabloids filled their pages with reports of dramatic fights between the couple, as well as whispers of domestic violence. Salman had been involved in a much-publicized physical altercation with his former girlfriend, Pakistani actress Somy Ali, so when Aishwarya showed up at an awards ceremony with a black eye, the press speculated that their supposedly frequent fights had turned physical.
At first, Aishwarya denied this, telling Filmfare, “For some reason, everyone refuses to believe I fell down the stairs and bruised my face. First the media calls me….a woman of substance. Then how can the same media make me out to be such a doormat?” This clarification did little to quiet the rumors, and in 2000, Aishwarya’s neighbors reported that a drunk Salman had beat on her door aggressively for several hours one night, demanding to be let inside. At this, Aishwarya claimed that she had “dozed off” and hadn’t heard Salman’s banging, while Salman’s father, renowned Indian scriptwriter Salim Khan, said that Salman had been acting out of concern for Aishwarya, who hadn’t been answering her phone. Salim also reacted to the elder Rais’ open disapproval of their daughter’s boyfriend: “I don’t blame Aishwarya’s parents for not accepting Salman. Their attitude is 110% justified. If you constantly heard bad things about a certain brand of toothpaste, would you buy it?” He went on to accuse them of being too conservative and not allowing their daughter to conduct her own affairs.
In 2002, the Rais filed a complaint with the Mumbai police, claiming that an intoxicated Salman had broken windowpanes and furniture in their home and made threats against their family. They stated that they “should not be held responsible for any untoward incident involving the actor.” That same year, Salman reportedly pushed Aishwarya to the ground on the set of her film Kuch Na Kaho, causing spectators and the film’s leading man, Abhishek Bachchan, to intervene. Salman was said to have backed into Aishwarya’s car before speeding off. A similar altercation took place on the set of the film Chalte Chalte, during which Salman damaged the set and forced Aishwarya to leave with him, resulting in leading man and producer Shahrukh Khan ousting her from the film. These stories were supported by reports of Salman’s possessiveness over the actress, who supposedly had to leave her house secretly for several public events lest Salman see her going and try to stop her.
After years of denials, Aishwarya finally issued a statement in September 2002, saying:
“Salman and I broke up last March, but he isn’t able to come to terms with it. After we broke up, he would call me and talk rubbish. He also suspected me of having affairs with my co-stars. I was linked up with everyone, from Abhishek Bachchan to Shahrukh Khan. There were times when Salman got physical with me, luckily without leaving any marks. And I would go to work as if nothing had happened.”
In 2003, after an on-set injury landed her in the hospital, Aishwarya issued another statement in response to rumors that she and Salman were going to be cast together once again, saying, “For the sake of my well-being, my sanity, my dignity and the dignity and self-respect of my family…I will not work with Mr. Salman Khan.”
She went on to say:
“I stood by him enduring alcoholism, misbehavior in worse phases and in turn, I was at the receiving end of his abuse (verbal, physical, emotional), infidelity and indignity. That is why like any other self-respecting woman and God is witness, I said enough and ended it almost two years ago.”
Salman Khan chose not to react to this statement, while his father said that Salman might have done a “few things in an emotionally charged state of mind,” because “when two people are in love, it is not always possible to act rationally.”
In 2006, Aishwarya again alluded to the rumors of abuse. After starring in the film Provoked, which tells the real-life story of an Indian housewife living in Britain who kills her abusive husband, Aishwarya answered in the affirmative when the press at Cannes asked her if she had ever experienced abuse herself.
For his part, Salman denied the rumors in a 2009 interview, saying, “Obviously in a fight, I am going to be angry. I am going to go for whack and I want to give it my best shot. I don’t think that she would have survived it. So no, it’s not true and I don’t know for what reason that was said, but let it go.”