Once Upon a Time in Bollywood: The Death of Sushant Singh Rajput

A sociologist investigates the peculiar features of this Bollywood tragedy.

There have been more than 40 days of public mourning, protests, anger, political accusations and investigation demands following the actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s death on June 14, 2020. This is indeed unusual.

In the void left behind by Sushant, the ‘Experts’ have moved in – psychiatrists, doctors, policemen and their forensic teams, with their examinations and procedures and tight lips. A popular political and legal analysis too is coming from well-wishers on social media, focusing largely on the injustice of Sushant’s case. An overpowering polemic of assigning blame is emerging and will most likely stamp me as well. But for the record, I write here consciously as a sociologist, to investigate the peculiar features of this Bollywood tragedy.

Sushant’s death is far removed of course from the suicides that more routinely exercise the sociologist, even the economist, involving the poor farmer, the failed JEE aspirant, the rape victim and battered wife. Indeed, for their own part, adoring fans are not concerned with the public intellectual or human rights activist at all. Instead, they are lobbying the CBI for an investigation into the film industry which ‘condemned’ Sushant to a guiltless death. His ‘crime’, fans accuse, was simply being himself – an outsider to Bollywood, comfortably middle class yet uncomfortably successful, threatening industry insiders sufficiently to turn against him.

Sushant Singh Rajput, one could argue, died of a “cytokine storm” of a social kind, where his abundant immunity from the disease of failure ultimately consumed him. Sushant had it all – youth, talent, celebrity, education, good looks, a girlfriend, a bank balance and even a telescope to look at the stars and not one but more ‘hits’ – the latest being Chhichhore (2019). So, what happened?

Sushant Singh Rajput. Photo: Facebook

A sociologist’s response

Taking a cue from the public’s agitation, let me respond to this consuming question—but as a sociologist. Sushant’s death, I stubbornly maintain, over and above its dismaying marks of personal pain, depression, panic and fear, cannot be reduced to a tragic act of individual volition, moral failure or bodily pathology alone. Rather, it serves to expose a submerged social context, a milieu, and work organisation rarely before accessible to the public gaze.

Whatever the truth of the accusations being levelled against Bollywood today, the vocal expression of grievance and injustice against it is very real and very new and has thrown up questions of industry regulation for the very first time indeed.

Concern over the growing incidence of suicide in modern industrial society is not recent. Emile Durkheim a pioneering sociologist, looked for explanations in European police records and came to some astonishing conclusions in his classic Le Suicide (1897).

The average proportion of deaths by one’s own hand to the population under study he found, tended to stay constant over the years and was different for different cultures, nations and social milieus. If periods of economic depression saw more citizens kill themselves, then equally and less believably, they did so even in periods of sudden economic affluence.

Indeed, quite counterintuitively, poverty appeared to give immunity from the risk of suicide. The successful pursuit of personal happiness in modern market economies did not necessarily immunise against acts of self-violence. Indeed, in the absence of social regulation he cautioned, greater political freedom and riches actually put the individual at risk.

The pressure of bearing sole responsibility for one’s successes or failures without integration into a group also put one at risk. At the same time, over-regulation was not to be prescribed nor even desirable. In traditional societies, it led to unholy outcomes – the upper caste widow and sati, the dishonoured Japanese samurai and harakiri and today one could add, the brain-washed suicide bomber and jihad. Are these murders or suicides? As symptoms of the social acting on the individual’s ego to the point of its extinction, it hardly makes a difference.

The culture of ragging

In my early years at the IIT Delhi, before ragging was officially banned, I learnt that the overt intent of this college custom was to “socialise” outsiders. The freshers or facchas I was told, needed to be integrated and initiated into the power hierarchy of the group. But apart from a few instances of pure physical torture, most ragging mechanisms usually defined as just “having some fun”, were really subtle weapons of cruelty. These included public ridicule, social boycott, threats of exposure, slanderous gossip, sleep denial, running chores or ‘fagging’, instilling self-doubt about everything and nothing, performing obscene sex in word and deed and the like.

The instilling of mindless loyalty to power in an overall egalitarian but competitive campus environment was meant to toughen the newcomer. Just as surrendering to all unrealistic expectations of seniors was meant to eventually win you their acceptance and ‘help’; which then again it might not. A few suicide deaths and culpable homicide cases and a changed human rights environment later, the system was banned by law in 2007.

The IIT Delhi director said he has not been informed about the cancellation. Courtesy: IIT Delhi website

In IIT Delhi, I learnt that the overt intent of ragging was to “socialise” outsiders. Photo: IIT Delhi website

Bollywood and ragging

As scores of young ‘strugglers’ and Sushant fans are today testifying, entry into the microcosm that is Bollywood, is somewhat akin to a prolonged and insidious period of ragging where you have to constantly be seen to be loyal to your new ‘friends’, those who promote you and invest in you. If you display signs that you can make it on your own, you are in fact targeted more. You are constantly put to the test, your talent, your looks, your sex, your X factor, the limits you are willing to go to on all these battlefronts.

Unlike other cadre-based services like the civil services and the military, where strong codes of dress, etiquette, written rules of behaviour, official privileges and the like keep the system hierarchically integrated – in the film world, the intra-group ethos is superficially very egalitarian and chains of obedience and command are not laid out in clear terms. But they are nonetheless present and all the more oppressive for being subtle and based on informal sanctions of social control, increasingly legally perceived today as “harassment”.

Ultimately it is for Bollywood to choose. Does it genuinely want to emerge as a globalising industry or merely revert to a new version 2.0 of the gharana tradition, where gurus never gave the shishya – the talented outsider – the chances that their own sons enjoyed? Where the gurus’ punishing regimen and labour extraction and monetary hold over student earnings reached such a low point that the system imploded; and all with the best intentions imaginable of shaping and identifying new talent with the gharana, in order to keep it alive.

Not only are a gharana's singers not located in the supposed place of origin, but a huge abyss (somewhat larger and deeper that that line on the map) separates them from the place after which the gharana is named. Credit: Mathers Museum of World Cultures/Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

In the gharana tradition, gurus never gave the shishya the chances that their own sons enjoyed. Photo: Mathers Museum of World Cultures/Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

Given the way Sushant’s death is playing out in the media, Bollywood perhaps has no choice. The globalisation of its industry is inexorable. The cautionary tale of Harvey Weinstein and his ilk must be paid heed to. Careless behaviour is “bad for business”. Reputations matter. The system is increasingly going to take the side of the weak. By dying, Sushant has killed the latter’s aspirations, their hopes for the future. They will not forgive Bollywood easily.

Amrit Srinivasan is a sociologist. She has earlier served as a professor at the IIT Delhi.

If you know someone – friend or family member – at risk of suicide, please reach out to them. The Suicide Prevention India Foundation maintains a list of telephone numbers (www.spif.in/seek-help/) they can call to speak in confidence. You could also refer them to the nearest hospital.