Celebrity deaths are their own brand of pain and sadness. They serve as a reminder of not just our own mortality, but that of our youth – the faces that remain frozen in time, holding on to the last memories of the person you were when you first saw them. These deaths don’t carry just grief with them, though. They catalyse a generation into finding old prints of movies and HD rips of songs they hadn’t heard in years.
That’s what should happen. But that’s not what was allowed to happen. Sridevi’s untimely death at 54 left a generation that wasn’t ready for its icon to die reeling. It wasn’t her time – and no one was quite prepared with words of bereavement for a contemporary. Usually, these deaths come with enough intimation to insulate people from the shock they bring with them. Sridevi’s death came like a rude, uncomfortable reminder of how we haven’t tamed death with the finesse we think we have mastered. It was possibly a combination of this shock and relative, perceived proximity that lead to the vicious dissections of the superstar’s death.
“Her implants, weight loss and excess doses of Botox shots regularly could also be the cause of Cardiac arrest.”
Piyali Ganguly’s Comments on Sri Devi’s sad demise. pic.twitter.com/KZct876IgA
— P Purewal (@PenduShehari) February 25, 2018
It started with a viral Facebook post that started doing the rounds on WhatsApp as soon as Sridevi’s death by cardiac arrest was announced. Piyali Ganguly’s paternalistic, contemptuous declaration of Sridevi’s inability to deal with the pressures of staying relevant in the industry spread like wildfire. It accused Sridevi of being weaker than she ‘should’ have been, wondered why Boney Kapoor didn’t ‘stop’ his wife from getting too many cosmetic procedures and going on too many diets. It ended with a blanket damnation of Sridevi’s failure as what was, according to Ganguly, the most important facet of her being. She was accused of being a bad mother for leaving behind such a tragic legacy for her daughters.
Women and their bodies are quartered, halved, and sold off at the price that they gaze they attract command.By this metric, Sridevi was priceless. The fact that Shekhar Kapur famously didn’t know where to rest the camera lens on her body is telling of how she was consumed, as an actress, as a product, onscreen, and a persona. This fear lent itself to a heartless, tasteless smear campaign that cast aspersions on a dead woman, her family, and her morality.
The idea that an industry like Bollywood puts a premium on the youth of women, forcing them to resort to extreme, harmful methods to create the illusion of agelessness, is worth arguing against. It’s important to talk about how much pressure women are put under to abide by unrealistic expectations. But it’s important, especially in case of a tragedy, to understand that these conversations must be conducted with nuance and empathy. To attack a dead woman and her bereaved family on the basis of (what have now proven to be) unsubstantiated claims speaks of a deep rot that we, as a society, have allowed ourselves to become.
When reports rubbished claims of a cardiac arrest and declared that her death was caused by drowning and that her body contained traces of alcohol, news channels were quick to suggest foul play. It quickly became a free-for-all, with the media making a mockery of her death. Garish graphics depicting bathrooms and repeat loop scenes from the movie Chaalbaaz, where Sridevi pranced around with a bottle of wine in her hand, took over television screens.
The death of beautiful, glamorous women is always titillating. The smug morality of the middle class in such cases manifests in its most violent form, casting aspersions on the woman’s character and her private life. People find immense pleasure in ripping apart what they seem to see as facades when the deceased can’t defend herself. It’s almost as if people want to reassure themselves that they won’t meet the same end. It’s a grotesque celebration of schadenfreude, and one that depicts an erosion of who we are as people.
It’s easy to just blame the media for this degradation. But we, as viewers, are just as complicit in perpetuating this culture of abasement. We relish the jokes, laugh at the humiliating statements, revel in the fall of titans. We absolve ourselves of responsibility, forget that the relationship between the media and its viewers is an active, and not a passive one. We claim to be absorbed in what the media gives us – but the media gives us only what we truly want. We refused a woman rest even in death.
It can be argued that demanding the media not exploit a death as sudden and wrenching as Sridevi’s is naïve. But can we not hope to share her memory with dignity?
Harnidh Kaur is a policy analyst, pop culture nerd and author.