Death by Bollywood: Jiah Khan's hunger for stardom
"She was fed up with the struggle... she was besotted with Bollywood, but Bollywood had nothing to offer her," Jiah Khan's mother, Rabia, told the police, explaining the 25-year old actor's decision to take her own life.
The tinseltown suicide is the unacknowledged twin of the red carpet. If the latter represents the dream of stardom, the former symbolises the dark side of fame — or the voracious desire for it. Punitive standards of beauty, minuscule odds of success, iron-clad and cruel hierarchy of stardom, loneliness of fame make for a Darwinian environment that fells innumerable victims, be it in Hollywood, Tollywood or Bollywood, be they A-list directors or aspiring starlets. Fame is a cruel mistress whether she is by your side or forever out of reach.
Despite the detailed coverage of Jiah's demise, we will never know the exact reason why she killed herself, whether it was clinical depression, a broken heart, or just a moment of fragility. While there is no hard data, the number of reported suicides of women in the Indian film industry is higher than of men — as opposed to the wider societal rate where male suicides are higher. Viveka Babaji, Nafisa Joseph, Parveen Babi, Divya Bharti, Silk Smitha are some of the better known cases. Nine female actors in the Tamil industry killed themselves back in the 1980s.
Many of these women were victims of entrenched sexism, working in an industry that treats women as sexual objects, pushing them relentlessly into commodifying their bodies. Mumbai Mirror's profile of Jiah documents her struggle to be taken seriously as an actor and break out of the 'Lolita' image created by her debut in Nishabd. In recent years, she was solely offered item numbers and sexualised roles which she turned down — and paid a high price for it.
"Inspite of being highly appreciated in Nishabd nd being a part of hugely successful Ghazni and Houseful she had no work for the last 3 years," tweeted her Nishabd director Ram Gopal Verma. In this she was no different than a Silk Smitha who leveraged her sexual appeal with great success, but ultimately fell victim to it, as Paul Zacharia writes in the Economic Times:
The industry had chosen her and now she could make her own choices. Yet in one sense she had no choice. Because she couldn't have chosen to be another kind of brand-name if she wished to. She was embedded and trapped in the brand that had made her a super success. To the industry and to the people nothing mattered but her body.
Jiah Khan was younger with more substantive roles on her resume, but she also had more competition than a Silk Smitha who enjoyed an unchallenged reign as a sex symbol. In the film industry today, the female body is equally prized but far more dispensable. Countless pretty girls from around the nation and now the world flock to Mumbai hoping their beauty will catapult them into fame. If one proves difficult or uncooperative, there are a hundred more jostling to take her place. Even heading South no longer offers a reprieve. Tamil, Telegu and Malayalam industries are now inundated with Bollywood hopefuls trying to salvage their film career a la Tabu or Katrina Kaif. Recently turned down by Telegu directors as "too thin," Jiah may have decided that the last remaining door to stardom had been slammed in her face.
“I completely understand why she did it," says fellow aspiring actor Meera Chopra, "Every girl who is trying to be independent and trying to make it here goes through highs and lows … if you want to make it here, you need to be strong. Remember, Jiah acted with superstars like Amitabh Bachchan and Aamir Khan in her first two films. All her films were super-hits. So when things don’t work out, you just don’t get it. It can be so cruel"
It is an odd thing to say since professional disappointment is hardly an "understandable" reason for suicide. Failure is not rare in the film industry or necessarily fatal — Jiah's own mother is a failed actor as was the father of her boyfriend, Aditya Pancholi. Besides, Jiah got farther ahead than many of her lesser known peers. Unlike Silk Smitha, Jiah was not faced with the prospect of returning to a life of poverty or loneliness. She was an educated, cosmopolitan young woman with a film degree from New York and an A-list rolodex of contacts. She enjoyed the support of her family, including her mother who urged her to consider an alternative career in interior decoration. Jiah Khan had options. She was young and could have found other roads to success and happiness.
Shobaa De claims Jiah was already on a downward slide into perdition that is the fate of most Bollywood starlets:
According to rumours, rejected and dejected, Jiah soon became a player who belonged to a desperate set - attractive, hard up women who hang around at parties and events hoping someone will notice them and cut a deal. Ugly situations and compromises follow.... it's a nasty story. Bollywood's party girls are easy meat. Sharks feed on their insecurity. Exploit them mercilessly. And then dump them. Soon, money runs out. What happens next is a straight descent into hell. Drugs, booze, prostitution....till there are no takers left even for that kind of diversion.
De paints this trajectory as inevitable, as though Bollywood were in itself so toxic as to induce such self-destruction. The reality is that the film industry disproportionately attracts fragile young women with severely low esteem who seek redemption in stardom. Like moths to the flame, they flock to a profession that is brutally competitive and punitive on their ego, treating them instead as easily substitutable bodies to be used and discarded — unless they turn out to be the rare chosen few who win the celebrity game. The real tragedy is that the number of Jiahs is rising with each passing year in a nation held hostage to Bollywood which now defines everything from our clothes to our aspirations. We imitate our stars and encourage our young children to do the same, be it jiggling to Chammak Challo or aspiring to be the next Katrina Kaif. Perhaps it takes a Jiah Khan to remind us of the high price of our infatuation with fame.