Sushant Singh Rajput, Rhea Chakraborty are sub-plots of a much larger Mahabharat
A grand war is being fought between two opposing ideologies to control the enormous soft power which Bollywood wields.
If its parts were to be read in isolation, it could have been just a story about an honest prince with a gambling problem. Or a story about a king in lust denying his son his rightful claim to the throne. Or of another king’s blind love for his son leading to a devastating war.
But the Mahabharat is a sum of all these stories. These are just important sub-plots of the world’s most thrilling, expansive epic.
Sushant Singh Rajput’s death and the public spectacle that has ensued is a riveting story. Many of us are annoyed by the daily, primetime inquisition of his girlfriend Rhea Chakraborty by screaming anchors, singling her out as the sole villain, or she being thrown into jail on charges seemingly unrelated to Sushant’s death.
Others are angry at what they feel are an elaborate PR exercise by certain channels and a part of Bollywood to whitewash her role, as also the Maharashtra administration’s apparent desperation to save her from scrutiny.
But Rhea’s story – or even the great Sushant saga for that matter – is a part of a much larger Mahabharat unspooling slowly.
Only if you look down at the events from a helicopter, will you be able to see the real Kurukshetra. A grand war is being fought between two opposing ideologies to control the enormous soft power which Bollywood wields.
It started in 2014 right after the arrival of Narendra Modi in Delhi as the Prime Minister. An influential section of the film industry has been at the forefront of narrative-building and campaigns against what it called ‘intolerant India’, ‘Lynchistan’ and suchlike.
Simultaneously, a much smaller but vocal part of Bollywood started openly praising Modi and wearing their Hinduness with pride. First it was Anupam Kher, but gradually that voice has got stronger with Akshay Kumar, Ajay Devgn and others joining, and now approaching crescendo with Kangana Ranaut.
After Modi’s 2019 sweep and subsequent passing of the Citizenship Amendment Act, the fight reached the streets. Actors and directors physically joined protests at Azad Maidan and Shaheen Bagh. India’s nationalists accuse Bollywood of doing the bidding for shadowy, anti-India forces who are waging a proxy war against Modi government’s idea of a muscular India.
Right after this came Sushant’s death. It was a tipping point, inexplicably uncorking the bottled-up anger of an entire nation at Bollywood. It gave voice to what ordinary Indians seem to be silently bristling over all this while: that Bollywood is a lawless zone where nepotism and the underworld rules; where star brats can get away with anything including drugs, gun-running, terrible behaviour and even murder; and where India’s traditional values and love for the nation find no respect.
There are other crucial factors at play. Millions of households have been glued to the TV, even while being exasperated at loud anchors, to see that justice is done to a small-town boy who dared to dream big and achieved much of that. They see in Rhea a gold-digger and druggie who corrupted their son, slow-poisoned him, worked constantly against his family and finally took him away from them for good.
A smaller, urban, English-speaking set sees in Rhea a young woman from its own milieu being hounded without solid proof, and being hanged in public perception for just possessing some pot and chemicals.
But what they both miss is that the real war is for the control of Bollywood. The Uddhav Thackeray-led Maharashtra government is desperate to stop the investigation. The reasons are best known to those who head it. It has used its police force and BMC to bully, threaten, break into premises of rival voices, and dig dirt on them.
The Centre has sent at least three to four major investigative agencies to sniff around. The Sushant probe is its key to Bollywood’s room of dark secrets. The CBI is doing its work quietest, having learnt a lesson from the Aarushi case on what media glare can do to an investigation. The Narcotics Control Bureau is using this opportunity to beef up its dossier on dozens of celebrities. And the Enforcement Directorate is following the dirty money. Obviously unannounced, the Intelligence Bureau has swooped in as well.
Imagine the leverage the Modi government will have on the entire ecosystem as this probe progresses.
By the time all this ends, those like Rhea could just be collateral damage, left with a punishment possibly much harsher than she deserves. But that is the tragedy of wars. Regardless of which side wins, it is often the individual who loses, sacrificed to history’s turning tides.