Sushant Singh Rajput passes away: The unspoken hierarchies in Bollywood and what it means to be an 'outsider'
For every cliché-ridden post of being shocked and saddened after Sushant Singh Rajput's unnatural death, there are those calling out the powers that be for their cavalier attitude towards outsiders
A little less than three years ago, in an interview on the sidelines of his film Raabta, I spoke with Sushant Singh Rajput about the industry rumours about him being unapproachable and difficult. He laughed out loud. With his knees bouncing at pace with the tempo of his words, he said, “Acting was magical for me because I lacked the ability to communicate with people. Because it was so tough for me to talk to people, I convinced myself that I don’t have to talk to anyone. And, that’s how I was for the first 19 years of my life. I thought if I was very good in my studies, people would know I existed. But when I started acting, I found myself saying dialogues that mirrored what I really wanted to say to people. I found it easier to talk on stage because I could hide behind a character. That’s what made me want to act. I don’t have many friends because I lack the ability to open up to people”.
Since the news of his death began trickling in on 14 June, I’ve been thinking about the rumours and insinuations that are intricately woven into the fabric of Bollywood and how they build a narrative. The industry’s Chinese whisper network magnified Sushant’s reserved nature into someone who was difficult to work with. This was closely followed by variations of ‘he is so saas-bahu’. It didn’t matter how many crores his films raked in at the box office or that critics raved about his acting abilities, Sushant was always seen as the outsider who got his break on television, aka the lesser of the two mediums where out-of-work actors go to resurrect their career.
There is a hierarchy in Bollywood that goes beyond box office clout. About two decades ago, a second-generation producer explained to me what it took for an outsider to make it in Bollywood. “Imagine Bollywood is the VIP room of the most happening disco in the country. The door to this room is only one inch tall and is guarded by a ferocious four-headed tiger. You’ll have to be one in a million to get through but even once you are inside the disco, you have to find your clique, get a ‘godfather’ or you’ll be relegated to the fringe,” he said.
Every other ‘outsider’ who has found success in the industry since I first heard this has had to align him or herself with a stronger ‘insider’. This partnership wears different facades. It could be a romantic relationship with someone who might open doors. It could also mean signing up exclusively with a talent agency that’s backed by a major studio. This, then, becomes an actor’s safety net: a net that ensures unsuccessful films are quickly forgotten, that there’s an abundance of work and one that keeps malicious rumours at bay.
Interestingly, these ‘safety nets’ aren’t above sabotaging the careers of those they see as a threat to ‘their’ talent. Every time you see a ‘blind item’, ask yourself where and why it’s originated from. If these blind items were anything to go by, Sushant was a social climber and a drunk. Add to this, the well-entrenched, long-standing narratives that painted him as a difficult person to work with and not fit for the big screen, and you have the kind of lethal cocktail that could end careers. Showbiz, after all, is all about perception. And, it’s no secret that once the cameras stop flashing and the fans go home, the dark impulses of Bollywood take centre stage.
Then there is that ‘ferocious four-headed tiger’ keeping gate at the doors of Bollywood – the talent managers, casting agents, make-up artists, and stylists who prey on insecurities.
‘XYZ posts on Instagram so much more than you that’s why he has more endorsements than you’.
‘Babe, you need to be a C-Cup to carry off this dress’.
‘This role demands someone taller and fairer’.
‘Fuller lips are in these days; you’ll look so much prettier if you get lip filler’.
It’s an endless barrage that slowly and steadily picks at an actor’s self-confidence. Even the biggest, brightest stars have a list of things, both physical and mental, that they could change to become someone else’s idea of perfect.
At the best of times, show business is a cruel and lonely place. Only, humanity is currently experiencing the worst of times where so many are forced to live in isolation, away from their support systems. Since the end of March, when the country went into a lockdown triggered by COVID-19, five actors have died by suicide across the country. This pandemic will end but there are still many fragile psyches in our films and television that feel derailed by the public showcase of their lives and doomed by their quest for fame. At the other end of this equation is everyone from the old guard that doesn’t judge solely on the basis of talent, the media that perpetuates stereotypes, and an audience that takes perverse pleasure in reading about a celebrity’s failings.
For every cliché-ridden post of being shocked and saddened after Sushant’s unnatural death, there are those calling out the powers that be for their cavalier attitude towards outsiders who are trying to get a foot in; for discarding those going through a lull in their career or just pushing those at the peak to the point where they break.
In the future, though, the same people could maybe try not stripping a human’s fragility to its raw bones while he or she is still alive.
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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