In the 90s, before his career turned, Shah Rukh Khan earned his spurs playing violent anti-heroes. Two of these films are classics —Darr and Baazigar, both released in 1993 — though a third film, Anjaam (1994), was even more unremittingly evil. These films grew their own cults over time. Khan, of course, became everyone’s favourite superstar and lover, and his image shifted considerably. Today, his older films exist as much as pop-cultural milestones as problematic essays in jilted masculinity. When Khan refurbished “K-K-K…Kiran” in Pathaan, everyone laughed, children as well as adults, not recognising the scary import of the original line.
Nikhil Mahajan’s new film, I Love You, streaming for free on JioCinema, plays like an ode to Khan’s toxic back catalog. Updated to a modern context, full of mobile screens and spy cameras, it wants to be Darr as reimagined by Michael Haneke (In truth, it’s more like Funny Games as downgraded by a ‘90s Bollywood superfan). Satya (Rakul Preet Singh), a corporate worker, and her fiancé, Vishal (Akshay Oberoi), have a flight to catch on Diwali’s Eve. They work in the same office, as does Satya’s secret admirer, Rakesh (Pavail Gulati). Rakesh has a pet goldfish named ‘Anjali’ and a coffee mug that says ‘Single Forever’. He passes around a candy called ‘Love Bites’. If that’s not indication enough of his creepiness, we also see him spying on the couple on his multiple monitors. All this can only mean one thing; Satya is missing her flight tonight.
I Love You (Hindi)
Director: Nikhil Mahajan
Cast: Rakul Preet Singh, Pavail Gulati, Akshay Oberoi
Run-time: 93 minutes
Storyline: A corporate employee is trapped in an empty building by her obsessive, Hindi cinema-fixated admirer
Set over a day and largely confined to one location, I Love You is not as twisty as it lets on. Mahajan tries to hide his constraints — narrative as well as budgetary — under a low-rent, high-tech aesthetic. We first meet Satya holding her breath in a pool; she floats up and checks her smart watch. Why is the film’s heroine practising underwater endurance if not for a later escape? In flashbacks, we see Rakesh stalking her on social media. He bugs her home with a live-feed (an update on Shah Rukh Khan projecting Juhi Chawla’s images on his bedroom wall in Darr).
Also Read | In ‘Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh,’ using Shah Rukh Khan’s films and the reforms of 1991 as starting points, Shrayana Bhattacharya makes women talk about their lives, from compromises to outright rebellion
Rakesh, clearly, is a new-age creep nurtured and unleashed by old Bollywood. “In the 90s, love was always one-sided,” he says, playing songs from Duplicate and 1942: A Love Story. Though SRK or his films aren’t named, his influence is everywhere. Characters text each other ‘Palat’. Gulati attempts Khan’s nervous stutter (not very good). Kiran Kumar, who was the police inspector in Anjaam, drops in for a cameo. These references are fun but also facile. I Love You adds little to our understanding of stalker culture, or how Hindi films shape and sustain obsessive fandoms. Furthermore, Khan has already addressed some of these themes in his own movies, benignly in Om Shanti Om (2007) but then more directly in Fan (2016).
The second half is all chases and games, as Satya attempts to flee from her captor’s clutches. Cinematographer Cameron Bryson limits the action to a few large rooms and corridors. The verticality of an empty corporate office — a promising playground for a psycho thriller — never fully comes into play. Rakul navigates the escape room setup with composure and presence of mind. Given the sheer absurdity of the film’s central conceit, a more flagrantly frightful performance would have helped. Pavail Gulati is a fine actor in better films; here, he can’t quite ham it up with glee.
In a feminist step-up from Darr, I Love You does not resuscitate its Sunny Deol to save the day. It’s an empty gesture in an empty film about an empty building.
I Love You is currently streaming on JioCinema