Jiah Khan's suicide shows how we ignore depression

Deepanjana Pal

Jun,04 2013 18:34 48 IST

There are some things that seem throwaway at the time they happen. Later, with the benefit of hindsight, they acquire a chilling quality. Like this interview of Jiah Khan from 2008, a year after she made her debut film Nishabd. She was asked to define love and she replied, “Love is a feeling I wake up with in the morning and it’s gone by the time I go to sleep.”

On Monday night, Khan didn't go to sleep. She hanged herself with a dupatta.

It's a terribly Bollywood death and in more ways than one. So many heroes' sisters and wronged women in Bollywood films have chosen to end their lives just as Khan did, right down to the dupatta. But suicide is turning out to be a very real aspect of contemporary show business. In 2004, actress and model Nafisa Joseph hanged herself. According to Joseph's parents, the 25-year-old committed suicide because her marriage had to be called off. In 2006, Kuljeet Randhawa, 30, hanged herself. She had recently completed shooting for her debut film. In her suicide note, she had written that she wasn't able to cope with the pressure she was feeling. In 2010, Viveka Babaji hanged herself and it was concluded that the model and actress was suffering from depression. In 1993, Divya Bharati, 19, died mysteriously when she apparently fell out of her apartment. The widespread response is shock initially and then attempts at sympathy that imply these women had been weakened by depression, as though everyone is an expert on that state of mind when you not only decide to end your life but actually go through with it.

Jiah Khan. AFP.

Jiah Khan. AFP.

From the reactions that have been coming in to Khan's death, there's no doubt that Bollywood was taken aback. Khan was 25 and only three films old. Statistically, she looked like a starlet on the rise since two of the three films -- Ghajini and Housefull -- were hits. While statistics may not lie, they don't necessarily represent the truth either. Khan became the girl to notice even before her debut in Nishabd. She was 16 when she was cast in Mahesh Bhatt's production, Tumsa Nahin Dekha. While shooting a song sequence set at a swimming pool, Khan had to wear a swimsuit. The way the crew reacted to her appearance unsettled young Khan enough to make her abandon the project. However, the fact that she was ready to wear a swimsuit was enough for many to label her "sexy". This would be fine if "sexy" didn't preclude being intelligent and talented.

Khan ultimately made her debut in 2007 with Nishabd, Ram Gopal Varma's attempt to do mash up of Lolita and Anokha Rishta. Even though critics appreciated her acting, the Lolita stain meant that her chief qualification was her sex appeal. It didn't help that she cheerfully (and perhaps naively) circulated the story of how she got the role: by walking into Varma's office "wearing the sexiest hot pants and heels". In 2008, she starred in Ghajini as the second lead. Two years later, she was seen in Housefull as an almost-minor character. As successful as the last two films may have been at the box office, it must have seemed to Khan like her career was going downhill. She'd begun as Amitabh Bachchan's co-star and the lead heroine. From there to Housefull was disheartening. As an actress, her options were limited. In Bollywood, she didn't conform to the conventional notions of beauty and she wasn't getting many roles, but it was still more hospitable than trying to break into Hollywood or the British acting scene.

Like any competitive film industry, Bollywood is a cruel world. The popular perception is still that women (and even men) get plum roles because they've slept with a producer and/or director. This isn't always true. What is undeniable, however, is that making it as an actor when you're of Indian extraction is easier in Bollywood than it is abroad. It is also true that particularly when you're a woman, success as we define it involves lots of hustling, luck and PR. Talent is low on the pecking order. It's a curious fact that the Bollywood PR machinery works its socks off to project actors as good lads who are looking for or are in committed relationships, while actresses are portrayed as sexual objects who are available.

Does this make Bollywood responsible for Khan's decision to commit suicide? Not directly, no. In any profession in the world, there are more heartbreaks than there are successes. Different people deal with the knocks in different ways. Most aspiring actors who come to Mumbai don't make it, even though many of them are fair, good-looking, slim and talented. Few get the exposure that Khan did. But you can tell from the Twitter responses from Bollywood that there is a sense of guilt. Everyone seems to trying to be make up for having forgotten about the young girl who just five years ago was hailed as the starlet to watch.

It's easier for most people to understand a young woman would kill herself because she was disappointed in love. But to commit suicide because your career was following a disappointing trail? That too when you're 25 and youth -- the most important qualification in the world of acting -- is on your side? That doesn't make sense to most and it emphasises how none of her colleagues had realised how seriously depressed Khan was. Worse, the only way to stand by her now seems to be with something as fleeting as a tweet.

The first wave of industry reactions came from those grappling with the truth that Khan was so deeply unhappy. The second wave will claim they knew she was depressed -- Varma has already said on Twitter that she had confided to him that "everyone around her makes her feel like a failure" -- but no one will acknowledge how depression isn't regarded as a serious issue in India. People who are 'strong' will 'get over it' on their own, we think. Depression needs to be ignored, rather than discussed. Will Khan's untimely death make her a little less forgettable? Perhaps. Will it make anyone in show business look at the next newcomer or depressed person with a little more empathy? Probably not.

In our eagerness to see her as a sex symbol, we dismissed the knocks she'd suffered in her short life. Born and brought up in London, Khan's biological father left her mother when Khan was three months old. Her mother remarried but when Khan was seven, her stepfather left the family. Khan, her two stepsisters and mother were practically homeless for some time.

At 16, Khan decided to rename herself Jiah (her real name was Nafisa), inspired by Angelina Jolie in the biopic Gia. Jolie played Gia Carangi, model who battled many demons, including heroin addiction, but ultimately emerged victorious before dying in her 20s. Khan said she chose the name because of its sex appeal. Perhaps she had hoped that she would, like the real Gia, be able to celebrate despite all the ricocheting sadness in her life. Maybe Jiah just wanted Gia's notoriety. Tragically, she ended up with far too much in common with her namesake.