यह दुनिया अगर मिल भी जाए तो क्या है/ Even if one gains this world – so what!
Over the last few weeks, we have witnessed a macabre circus unfold around the unfortunate and untimely passing of a young Bollywood star. The story of why he was driven to take his own life has been mutating and getting more pernicious since the day he was discovered lifeless in his own home. That it was an act of suicide shocked everyone, because why would someone at the peak of their career, with the world seemingly at their feet take such a step?
This is not the first suicide the entertainment industry has witnessed, but it was the first time a star of the stature of Sushant Singh Rajput had died by suicide in over four decades. The last big name that comes to mind is Guru Dutt, who had allegedly overdosed on sleeping pills and alcohol in his house on Peddar Road in Mumbai in 1964.
Dutt’s suicide, however, was nothing like Rajput’s. Dutt was separated from his wife, acclaimed singer and actress, Geeta Dutt. All accounts of the couple’s life published by film magazines of the time suggest that the separation took a huge toll and drove them both on a path of self-destruction. There were rumours that their separation had been a result of Dutt’s romantic involvement with actress Waheeda Rehman, while others believed that it was Geeta’s possessiveness that drove him away.
Describing the day Dutt was found dead in his apartment, his sister Lalitha Lajmi writes, “The next morning they had to break open the door. Guru Dutt’s half-open eyes and his hand positioned in a particular manner suggested that he was about to say something. It was what you in cinematic parlance call ‘freeze’! It brought untold trauma to my mother and me, something which affects me till date!”
It was reported how Geeta, though estranged from Dutt, was devastated by his death. As per upper caste Bengali Hindu tradition, she mourned the loss of her husband by wearing only white and eating simple vegetarian food for an entire year. By 1972, grief triggered alcoholism which caused her to suffer from liver cirrhosis.
Lajmi describes the evening of her death, “That particular evening (July 20, 1972) when she took her last breath remains haunting. She was unconscious and had tubes all over. Blood was oozing from her nose, ears… it even splashed on the walls. It was heartbreaking to see our Geeta whom I loved and who loved me equally suffer such a violent death.”
Here was a pure tragedy. Pure – because it was underwritten by the rules of marriage and caste, and tragedy – because the projected utopia of these institutions was muddied by the chaos of individual lives. That Geeta removed herself from life, and drifted into the clutches of near certain death, in 1960s Bombay, would have seemed like modern Sati. The whole episode sordid, but not really unsettling. It could be explained away into the pact of marriage, love and domesticity.
Rajput’s death, however, was not easy to explain. He was unmarried and living with his partner Rhea Chakraborty, who was not (yet) as professionally successful as him. He had moved up from television into the world of films. While on the one hand, he was a rare success story, he was also still chased by the shadow of his TV days.
Further, unlike the somewhat mysterious and enigmatic Dutt, Rajput had appeared in reality television shows where he had seemingly laid bare his soul to a hungry prime time audience. Everyone felt they knew him. A vulnerable, young man who had lost his mother very early in life. The emotional void left by this loss could seemingly only be filled by a devoted selfless wife who would parent and love him at once.
His role as Manav, in the long-running soap opera Pavitra Rishta (Sacred Ties) also fed into the image of someone who needed devoted conjugal support to navigate the challenges of life. No on-screen role that he played after seemed to undo this image of him. He was hugely successful in his portrayal of cricketer M.S. Dhoni, fictional detective Byomkesh Bakshi and a vigilante bandit Lakhna in Abhishek Chaubey’s 2019 film Sonchiriya.
Even as he played all these roles deftly, in the public’s imagination he was always a vulnerable man-child. Perhaps a quality that propelled his stardom. One could argue that the die for the current witch-hunting of Rhea Chakraborty, had been cast years before her actual entry into Rajput’s life. No one, however, could have predicted the abuse and torture that has come her way.
A few days after Rajput’s passing, his family accused Rhea of drugging and controlling him, they said that she had laundered Rs 15 crore from his account, that her entire family was living off Sushant and had forced him to cut ties with his own family. All this, the argument was, amounted to abetment of suicide.
Today Chakraborty is being investigated by top law enforcement agencies like the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), Enforcement Directorate and the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB). The media is buzzing with salacious rumours about her private life. Her personal phone number, WhatsApp chats and residential address have been flashed on television channels. Her family has been manhandled. She has received innumerable rape and death threats. National news channels and tabloid portals are outdoing each other by reporting how Rhea indulged in black magic and hypnotised Sushant into eventually taking his own life.
In summation, unlike the tragic widow, who donned white and drank herself to death to join her husband in the afterlife – Rhea is the modern day witch. What we are witnessing is the building of the stake on which she will be burnt alive. The fabricators of this stake include entertainment industry professionals, politicians, law enforcement officials, journalists, social media users, socialites and sanskari Indians who believe in upholding the rules of caste and marriage over life and liberty.
In this scenario, what do you reckon are her chances of survival? Everything that she says or does is taken as an admission of her guilt. That she was quiet for nearly two months as this hateful propaganda went on, was initially thought to be “clinching evidence” (a term used by a leading television journalist) of her guilt. When she did recently speak up on the two channels that had not replayed ad nauseam, animated “reconstructions” of her performing black magic, “fleeing” Sushant’s house with valuables and cash and spiking his food with banned drugs – she was labelled “a glitch free prime time performer”, “the coolest customer on the planet” and an expert manipulator.
That she could have had a concrete response to all the wild allegations being made against her so far, was simply not acceptable. So now that we know that there is no way out of the damnation to which Chakraborty has been sentenced by society and the media, let us turn to the heart of this darkness.
Soon after the suicide two schemes to explain this death were rolled out. One by Kangana Ranaut who held that nepotistic “Bollywood mafia” was responsible for Sushant’s death by keeping good professional opportunities from him, and the second by Sushant’s family who accused Rhea of laundering his money and administering illegal drugs to him.
Before we knew it, both these schemes started to fester and collapse into one another. They grew poisonous sub-plots involving rave parties, murder, strangulation, a possible rape, drug trade and even a blackmailing and extortion racket – all based on loose rumours and prejudice. The fumes of this putrefaction were all over our screens, and we were high on its perverse invocations.
Sushant Singh’s mental health
Around this time Sushant’s psychiatrist decided to come on record and give a statement to the press about his prolonged fight with mental illness. She said that her statement was coming from a moral compulsion to intervene in a scenario where Chakraborty is being unfairly targeted and the very important issue of mental illness is being trivialised and cast aside. Soon after this, many more doctors whom Sushant had consulted from 2013 (much before Rhea’s entry into his life) came on record to confirm that he was indeed diagnosed with mental illness and was seeking treatment for it.
Further, more than one doctor confirmed that Rhea was the primary caregiver to Singh for the entire period of their relationship. Anyone who has ever suffered from mental illness or has been a caregiver knows how demanding and challenging the process is. Once a very dear friend, who has struggled with mental illness for many years explained the feeling to me. He said, “The first time it hit me what I suffering from was when I was sitting in a room with four people. There was one woman and three men including myself around a table and we were talking about several things. Suddenly I realized – I did not know which of them was me. I had no way to explain this to anyone back then. It’s only now that I am better, do I have the language to express it.”
Mental illness robs people of their sense of self. No matter who or what one appears to the world outside – a successful star, a happy lover, a responsible son – the darkness inside the mind is immeasurable. Mental illness is not something a mother, a wife or a lover can fix. It is not a sign of weakness. It is a condition that needs to be acknowledged and managed, socially and medically.
Nearly all the doctors who treated Sushant have said that the star was extremely anxious about his condition becoming public knowledge. This is testament to the societal stigma associated with mental illness and the crushing impact it has on people’s lives.
In the last few days it has surfaced that after vehemently denying that their brother ever suffered from mental illness, Sushant’s sisters had procured medication for manic depression and anxiety, for him. Some publications have also reported that one of Sushant’s sisters had made a Facebook post in 2011 detailing their mother’s chronic mental illness and her eventual passing due to related complications – a post that has recently been deleted. Further, no trace of the laundered money has been recovered so far from Rhea or any of her family members.
Unfortunately, none of this really matters, because the television is still on and it’s still proclaiming Rhea of being guilty of Sushant’s murder. Mental illness has now been stigmatised even more and pushed into the darkest recess of our collective conscience. Caregivers are being hounded and harassed by state agencies. No shred of privacy or dignity has been granted to a woman who is possibly grieving the loss of her lover, while being socially and sexually humiliated by millions of people.
None of this will stop till we break her, till we can terrorise people into covering up mental illness, till the conjugal and biological family is reinstated as the pure kernel of society. We will not ask if it is possible for biological families to levy violence on people’s minds and bodies, if it is possible for us to choose our caregivers, if the sharing of resources between a couple can only be judged by bank statements. We will not ask these questions because we are addicted to the cheap high of misogynist, communal and casteist junk – and we need our next hit.
Sushant was among the thousands of migrants who come to Bombay every day in search of their dreams. They meet people, forge circuits of trust and love, outside the confines of the family. In the vilification of his caregiver and partner is also encoded the brutal dismissal of the promises and labour of friendship, that keep us from falling apart in unfamiliar places.
Meanwhile, even if Rhea does somehow make her way out of this rigged game – there will always be this Guru Dutt song gently playing somewhere.
ये महलों ये तख्तों ये ताजों की दुनिया
यह इंसान के दुश्मन समाजों की दुनिया
यह दौलत के भूखे रवाजों की दुनिया
यह दुनिया अगर मिल भी जाए तो क्या है
यह दुनिया अगर मिल भी जाए तो क्या है
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.
Pallavi Paul is a video artist and a PhD candidate at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, JNU.