The spectacle of Sushant Singh Rajput’s death has exposed society's misogyny, apathy towards mental health
Sushant’s death should have turned the spotlight on the fragility that lies beneath the glamorous façade of showbiz. There is a desperate need to address the mental health crisis in the industry along with a conversation about the lack of economic viability in the arts.
It’s been over a 100 days since the untimely death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput.
Celebrity deaths are like metaphorical supernovas – a star dies but the art he or she leaves behind takes on a more powerful glow. In these three months, Sushant’s death has morphed into a spectacle propelled by our society’s deep-seated misogyny, a complete lack of understanding of mental health issues, and a media witch-hunt.
Stories of police leaks, drugs, money, Bollywood feuds, nepotism, and the impending state elections in Bihar, have completely tarnished Sushant’s life and legacy. We, now, know about the actor’s drug habit, his struggles with mental illness, his insecurities, and his far-from-ideal relationship with his father. There’s been little or no conversation about Sushant’s electrifying screen presence or the diligence and hard work he put into his work. Is this the kind of #JusticeforSSR the online warriors wanted?
It all started on 14 June, when the 34-year-old actor was found dead in his apartment in Mumbai. In the hours that followed, there was equal parts shock and grief among family, friends, fans, and his movie fraternity colleagues. Young, talented, and boundless, Sushant had so much yet to offer. A star in the twinkling firmament of Bollywood was snuffed out.
The police, initially, had ruled that there were no suspicious circumstances and that Sushant had died by suicide. However, public speculation about Sushant’s death continued to grow and it was fuelled largely by Kangana Ranaut’s claims that nepotism in Bollywood and the industry elites had driven the actor to his death. The narrative being built at the time was that cliques within the industry had ostracised and sabotaged his career; and this was all because he was an ‘outsider’. A criminal complaint was filed against eight Bollywood personalities including Salman Khan, Karan Johar, Aditya Chopra, and Ekta Kapoor, accusing them of conspiring to not let Sushant’s films release. They were also accused of replacing him in their films under Section “you can’t make this sh*t up” of the Indian Penal Code. Expectedly, the eight denied these charges, and this was soon forgotten.
Then came the police complaint from Rajput’s father against Sushant’s former girlfriend and fellow actor Rhea Chakraborty and her family. They were accused of abetment of suicide, mental harassment, wrongful confinement, and stealing crores from Sushant. Even as details emerged about Sushant’s struggles with mental illness – multiple doctors who had treated him spoke about his diagnosis and the medication he was on – his family, especially his father, maintained the actor didn’t suffer from any mental illness.
A turf war broke out between Mumbai Police and Bihar Police, the media frenzy continued unabated and the focus quickly shifted from nepotism and Bollywood’s elite to the ‘evil woman’ because someone had to be blamed, right? Rhea was painted as the archetypical gold-digger who was controlling her boyfriend’s every move. A headline on Aaj Tak screamed ‘Sushant Par Rhea Ka Kala Jaadoo’ while CNN Network 18 had the headline ‘Love Sex Dhoka: Sushant Death Probe’. Even as the CBI and the Enforcement Directorate were investigating the case, Rhea was being vilified, slut-shamed, and accused of drugging Sushant and stealing his money. TV reporters had parked themselves outside her Mumbai home 24/7 and even harassed a food delivery boy.
In what can only be described as a complete erasure of common sense and basic decency, news channels picked clean every aspect of Sushant and Rhea’s life together. Her personal chats ended up as ‘exclusive screenshots’ in the hands of hyperventilating news anchors who were desperately looking to distract viewers from a raging pandemic and a plummeting economy; the looming threat of China in the north and the rising authoritarianism of the central government. Even as none of the investigating agencies were able to uncover any clinching proof of her role in Sushant’s death, the young actress and her brother Showvik were arrested by the Narcotics Control Bureau for allegedly procuring drugs for Sushant.
It’s hard not to wonder how Sushant’s marijuana habit would have held up in the face of an investigation of this kind. Considering his ‘fans’ and the news channels have already dismissed suicide and any mental health issues, why are they letting decency get in the way of branding him as a drug kingpin and ‘charsi’? Or, are these terms only to be used for the young girl who tried to help the man she loved through his darkest phase?
Does the nation only want to know what it takes to put down strong and independent women who refuse to conform to our misogynistic ideas of how a woman should be? Do dead men get a free pass?
For almost a month now Rhea, who in the past has talked about her own anxiety issues, has been in jail. Forget about having the time and space to grieve the unexpected loss of a loved one, she is now fighting for her own freedom. Even after they had found a scapegoat, this most grotesque and prurient parody was far from over. What started as a witch-hunt against one actress soon engulfed several other famous women including Deepika Padukone, Sara Ali Khan, and Shraddha Kapoor and it’s showing no signings of abating any time soon. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think that only the women in Bollywood did drugs in this country.
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 related lockdown that started in March of this year almost a dozen actors from film and television have died by suicide. Many, like TV actor Manmeet Grewal or Chennai-based brother-sister duo Sridhar and Jaya Kalyanai took the extreme step because they were struggling to pay their bills. Laal Ishq actor Preksha Mehta left behind a suicide note in May where she wrote that ‘it’s difficult to live with this negativity’.
The cherry on this dystopian cake is that top doctors at AIIMS have ruled out murder and confirmed suicide as the cause of the actor's death.
Sushant’s death should have turned the spotlight on the fragility that lies beneath the glamorous façade of showbiz. There is a desperate need to address the mental health crisis in the industry along with a conversation about the lack of economic viability in the arts. Instead, the shrill cabal of media, along with law enforcement agencies, fed the voyeuristic tendencies of the aam junta with a ringside view as they demolished the lives of the rich and famous.
Not for a minute has anyone asked how this frenzied attack has mentally affected those who unwittingly have been dragged into this mire, or what the last three months have done to the dignity, privacy, and legacy of the deceased.
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