Sushant Singh Rajput's death puts the spotlight on the relevance of cancel culture and 'take-down' pieces

When we actively create a culture of crushing loneliness, fear, and open hostility, where a person’s worth is almost entirely determined by the opinion of strangers’ perception, we also make the world too difficult to keep living in for far too many among us.

Sonali Kokra June 22, 2020 08:00:08 IST
Sushant Singh Rajput's death puts the spotlight on the relevance of cancel culture and 'take-down' pieces

I was 13 when I sat my parents down and gravely told them that no, I wasn’t going to be a cardiac surgeon after all, I had decided to be a writer instead.

I will remember the day I stumbled upon that truth about myself for as long as I’ll live. The day that I truly, in my heart, knew that this was it for me with a singularity and sense of purpose that you only get to feel once or twice in your lifetime, and that too if you’re enormously lucky because you’ll later find out that unlike you, most people trundle through life without ever experiencing that kind of blazing certainty and euphoria.

If someone had told me on that star-spangled day, almost exactly 20 years ago, that I was actually starting down a path that would, 20 years on, lead me to the day I would realise I was partially responsible for someone’s death, I’d have thrown up. It’s a sickening realisation that’s made me throw up more than once in the last couple of days.

This was not supposed to happen. The 13-year-old me had wanted to use her words to reflect and to heal, to leave her tiny corner of the world a little bit better than it was when she had found it; not to nudge a person into giving up on life.

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I was bemoaning the state of journalism and Indian media with a morose journalist friend when news of Sushant Singh Rajput’s death by suicide overtook the airwaves. At first, all I felt was curiosity. The morbid curiosity that makes us all secretly wonder why the rich-and-successful would ever want to give up on life. What could they possibly be wanting for? How much more do they need for it to be enough?

Sushant Singh Rajputs death puts the spotlight on the relevance of cancel culture and takedown pieces

Sushant Singh Rajput/Image from Twitter.

I did get around to feeling bad, but it was the kind of self-serving bad that most of us feel only so we can actually feel better about our own lives. See? Even the stupid amounts of fame and adulation that Sushant was privy to hadn’t been enough to protect him from the grinding miseries that might make someone say, “I’ve had enough”. In a perverse way, the downfall of a celebrity makes us feel better about our own irrelevance. It’s why watching them crash and burn gives us an illicit thrill, even if we don’t want to own up to it. Schadenfreude is delicious, and we hunger for it. But we’re also good people. We won’t go so far as to wish them lasting harm, but would it really be so bad if every now and then they could be brought down a peg or two? No.

I’ll admit I felt more than a little disgust at the performance of grief and public chest-beating. Many lamented that he was “gone too soon,” as if there’s ever an objective “right” time to go. “Gone too soon” is a banality spouted by those who have no skin in the game, but feel the need to fill the silence with something adequately sombre, but ultimately hollow. As if, unless these wise souls made it a point to remind the rest of us, we would be in danger of thinking that 34 is an okay age to pack up and take leave of the world.

I didn’t know Sushant. Never met him, never spoke to him. My only connection to him was through his movies, of which I’ve seen only a couple. Some film friends tell me he was a deeply unpleasant man to be around. Rude, arrogant, drunk on a disproportionate sense of importance. Others report the opposite. That he was kind, thoughtful, and deep. Maybe neither version is true, perhaps with are. What I do know is that more than once, I’ve heard him being referred to in words far less charitable than “wannabe”. Bollywood is gifted like that. At picking on people and making them arbitrarily feel like they don’t belong, that they’ll never belong, like they’re permanently going to be on the outside, looking in.

Given that our paths never meaningfully crossed, I had no intention of writing anything about Sushant’s death. But I did flirt with the idea of committing to paper what I thought of Bollywood’s performance of empathy and grief. Especially when those who openly mocked him on sets and among large circles, getting raucous laughter at his expense, knowing fully well that word would reach him soon enough, and not caring one jot about the acute humiliation they would make him feel, were among the loudest voices bemoaning his loss. Not to mention all the self-righteous finger-pointing about how “everyone had known, but no one had cared”, as if they themselves were excluded from these all-knowing “everyones” and uncaring “no ones”.

It’s true, everyone had known about Sushant’s volatility. And it’s also true that no one had cared. The world had gone right on, ridiculing him for his “desperate Andheri vibes” (that’s an exact quote, in case you were wondering).

But the thing is, we don’t have to care. We shouldn’t have to assume the burden of caring before choosing the language we deploy while talking to people, or about them. And this is where I feel I’ve failed in my duty as a writer.

I’m not delusional enough to think that any one writer — and least of all I — can be credited or blamed for a culture’s language of discourse. But together, and bit by bit, we do decide the limits of what’s acceptable. Little as it might be, each one of us has a power we’re not always sensible to, or are responsible enough with. What the 13-year-old version of me implicitly knew, but today’s me had forgotten, is that words are magic — some eviscerate and destroy, others build and heal. And unfortunately, “hot takes” writers like me often end up walking on the side they never consciously intended to.

While writing the original piece about Bollywood’s duplicity, I started reading everything I’ve ever written about this person or that in the past. And it was unsettling how often I’d blurred the lines between thoughtful critique and gleeful rebuke. It’s easy to identify and dismiss malicious take-down pieces and hit-jobs like the one published by The Cut about Priyanka Chopra, days after her wedding. But it’s a lot harder to pinpoint snide comments and subtle digs masquerading as irreverence. We’ll draw the line at outright name-calling, but we’ll give a wholehearted pass to thinly veiled and viciously worded “blind items” because hey, everyone knows, but no one knows, knows, you know?

It’s a chicken-and-egg story. Did we start writing the way we did because snark sells, or did we start selling celebrity-directed snark because it’s just easier, and honestly, with all their privilege and power, they can surely handle this much? It’s not like they can’t afford an army of therapists to help make sense of their feelings, right? I don’t have an answer, but the question makes me uncomfortable.

I’m not proposing that we suddenly overcorrect and start fawning all over celebrities. God knows there are enough lady, lad, and film mags around to do that for us. Social commentary and critique play a crucial role in poking our often-slumbering collective conscience and giving our scattered thoughts a direction to move in. Public figures should and must be held accountable for their words, actions, and inactions. It’s perfectly normal to wonder, and ask, why some of our biggest celebrities hem and haw when confronted with no-brainer questions about what they believe in on basic issues like feminism and human rights. It’s not a stretch, to my mind, to expect social accountability from people who amass tens of millions every year by selling their ability to influence us.

But I do feel that it’s time to cancel the cancel culture, a monster that feeds on hostility and has an insatiable appetite to be the first one to pinpoint and call out problematic people and beliefs. A culture that gratifies the desire to be the sharpest tool in the shed, capable of inflicting the deepest cuts, in real time, while completely ignoring the far superior merits of being the fairer or most thoughtful ones.

One poor choice caught on camera, one confused public utterance, and the internet hyenas will come for you, and keep coming for you, until you’re done. What a terrifying world to live in. And the cruel irony is, the most vicious verbal lynchers are the ones who had the freedom to grow up, introspect, and shed their own problematic beliefs before social media came along with its relentless scrutiny. They grew up in a time that allowed them to breathe and toy with cringe-inducing, embarrassing thoughts until they were ready to give them up. I, for one, know that I’d have been irredeemably cancelled many times over even before I turned 20. I also know that the thought of getting it wrong worries me all the time — but not for the inherent value of getting it right, but because what getting it wrong could mean for my life.

What has that to do with Sushant? Everything, and nothing. When we actively create a culture of crushing loneliness, fear, and open hostility, where a person’s worth is almost entirely determined by the opinion of strangers’ perception, we also make the world too difficult to keep living in for far too many among us.

We — I — need to stop before any more incidents of “gone too soon” come knocking at our doorstep. Death by suicide is a complicated, messy affair. Maybe I’ve got it all wrong, and no amount of kindness and acceptance could have stopped Sushant, in the end. We’ll never know. But we owe it to all the other Sushants around us to give them a reason to believe that the world is not as cruel as it might seem. Because right now, we may not be handing the Sushants of the world the rope ourselves, but we’re certainly contributing to a culture that’s egging them on to reach for it. Let’s stop.

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A collection of Suicide prevention helpline numbers are available here. Please reach out if you or anyone you know is in need of support. The All-India helpline number is: 022 2754 6669

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