Stars and crime

Some of the biggest film celebrities have faced rape, torture and murder charges, writes K Puttaswamy
Last Updated : 22 June 2024, 01:32 IST

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Kannada movie star Darshan Thoogudeepa’s arrest in a kidnapping, murder and criminal conspiracy case is unravelling like a thriller and a morality tale. 

Heroes who fight evil and deliver justice on screen are always in the public eye and they develop a larger-than-life reputation. Fans adore them, and are shattered when they are accused of gruesome crimes.

Over the decades, we have heard of actors being involved in gambling, drug abuse, domestic violence, criminal intimidation and other illegal acts.

Hollywood scandal

The first major criminal act that shook Hollywood was the arrest of Roscoe Arbuckle, silent film comedian, director and mentor of Charles Chaplin and Buster Kaeaton.

In September 1921, Arbuckle was arrested for the rape and murder of model and costar Virginia Rappé. The scandal created a firestorm of controversy not just around Arbuckle but also the entire movie industry. The first two trials resulted in hung juries, but the third acquitted Arbuckle. The scandal overshadowed his legacy as a pioneering comedian. Rejected by society, he died of a heart attack in 1933 when he was just 46.

Chaplin story

Hollywood was again in shock when the mother of Joan Barry, a struggling actress, filed a paternity suit against Charles Chaplin in 1943. In 1941, Chaplin met a promising young actress named Joan and contracted her for his film, ‘Shadows and Substance’. The two reportedly became lovers shortly after their first meeting. However, Chaplin shelved the project, saying she did not show interest in acting lessons. He distanced himself from her. Enraged, Joan broke into Chaplin’s house brandishing a gun. She was calmed by Chaplin and she later claimed they had renewed their romantic relationship.

In October the following year, Joan gave birth to a daughter. When Chaplin denied paternity, she not only accused him of violating the Mann Act which sought to prevent exploitation of women for ‘prostitution and debauchery’. He was indicted, then exonerated, and she then took him to court to prove that he was indeed the father of her child. Chaplin’s popularity was shattered.

In the course of the trial, the prosecuting counsel humiliated him and called him everything from “a grey-haired old buzzard” to “a little runt of a Svengali.” Chaplin took a blood test, which proved, as he had said, that he was not the father of her child. But a blood test, at that time in California, was not regarded as final proof. The jury declared him guilty. He was compelled to pay child support.

Polanski trial

The case of Roman Polanski is another dark chapter in Hollywood. Born in Paris, he made films in Poland and England before moving to the US in 1968. He directed popular films such as ‘Repulsion’, ‘Rosemary’s Baby’, ‘Chinatown’, and ‘Macbeth’ and carved a name for himself among celluloid poets.

On March 10, 1977, 43-year-old Polanski was arrested and charged in Los Angeles for drugging and raping 13-year-old girl Samantha Gailey. Polanski pleaded not guilty to all charges, but later accepted a plea bargain. The terms included dismissal of five more serious charges in lieu of a guilty plea to the charge of engaging in unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor. However, on learning that he was likely to face imprisonment and deportation, Polanski fled to England and then to France in February 1978, hours before he was due to be formally sentenced. Since then, Polanski has mostly lived in France and avoided visiting any country likely to extradite him to the US.

MKT Bhagavathar

Two incidents in Chennai involving actors created an uproar across the country. The first was the murder of C N Lakshmikanthan, journalist working for a magazine notorious for its salacious celebrity reportage. He was a habitual offender and had served a jail term in Andaman. On his return, he started his own paper, Tamil Toothu, which turned out to be a yellow journal. Following its ban, he started another journal, Indu Nesan (Hindu Nation). 

In 1944, he published a series of articles with the title ‘Bhagavathar Leelaigal’ (Games of Bhagavathar). It was about the singer-actor M K Thyagaraja Bhagavathar (MKT) having an illicit affair with a woman in Mylapore. MKT, known as India’s first superstar – his film ‘Haridas’ had created a record for running three full years — was shocked and appealed to the authorities to ban the magazine.

On November 8, 1944, Lakshmikanthan was stabbed while riding in an auto. He died at the Madras General Hospital. Eight persons including MKT, actor N S Krishnan and producer S Naidu were arraigned in the murder case. The jury unanimously found the first and second accused guilty.

At the time of his arrest, Bhagavathar was the highest paid Tamil actor and had signed 12 films. The conviction broke Bhagavathar’s morale. He spent three years in prison before being released in 1947 after a Judicial Committee of the Privy Council verdict came out in his favour. He lost all his money and died in penury
in 1959. 

MGR and M R Radha

The second case that sent shock waves across India had the actor M R Radha in focus. On January 12, 1967, the character artiste, accompanied by his friend Vasu, went to M G Ramachandran’s house in Chennai. MGR and Radha had known each other since their theatre days and had starred together in several blockbuster movies. 

It was around 4 pm. A heated argument broke out between them. Accusing MGR of destroying his career, Radha reportedly whipped out a revolver tucked in his dhoti and fired at MGR at point-blank range. MGR sustained a bullet injury on his neck and left ear. Vasu pounced on Radha and restrained him but Radha wriggled out and shot himself. Both survived after surgery. Radha was sentenced to a seven-year jail term, later reduced to four years and three months.

Kannada producer

The Kannada film industry was mostly free of serious crime, until the murder of film producer Chidambara Shetty in the 1997. He had borrowed money from underworld dons. When he failed to repay it with interest, he was kidnapped and tortured. When he died, his body was dumped on the outskirts of Bangalore.

Bollywood cases

On September 28, 2002, Salman Khan’s Land Cruiser killed a labourer and injured four others sleeping on a Mumbai footpath. He was arrested, and later released on bail. After about 13 years, the Bombay High Court acquitted him of all criminal charges as the prosecution had failed to find any conclusive proof. Salman was also accused of shooting two endangered blackbucks in Jodhpur’s Kankani village.

Actor Sanjay Dutt served a five-year jail term for his involvement in the 1993 Mumbai serial blasts case. 

Balayya shooting

A criminal case was registered against Nandamuri Balakrishna, Telugu movie star and son of former Andhra Pradesh chief minister N T Rama Rao. He was accused of opening fire on producer B Suresh and astrologer Satyanarayana Choudhary at his Jubilee Hills house in Hyderabad on June 3, 2004. However the witness turned hostile and the case was closed.

Malayalam actor Dileep was arrested in 2017 for abducting and sexually assaulting an actress.

(The author is a well-known film historian)

Published 22 June 2024, 01:32 IST

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