It was 2016. I couldn’t have been more excited because I was finally going to get a glimpse into the life of my favourite cricketer, a nation’s hero, and my only celebrity crush. Little did I know, the film would also give a nation obsessed with stars and stardom yet another hero in the form of Sushant Singh Rajput.
Shortcomings of the film notwithstanding, Rajput is impeccable in his immersion into the persona of MS Dhoni. He is strikingly similar in his gait and mannerisms to the former Indian cricket captain to a point that he even gets Dhoni’s characteristic ‘helicopter shot’ right — an out and out stupendous performance! Ironically, MS Dhoni – The Untold Story was not his first, but it was clearly his biggest film in a career spanning a little over seven years. How wonderful it would have been for Sushant to play a cricketing great onscreen after making his debut as a failed cricketer in Kai Po Che three years ago. In Ishaan, Rajput essays the role of a young man determined to quash the burden of a failed past by creating a beautiful future. Though there is a lot to love in Kai Po Che, helmed by Abhishek Kapoor, the dreamer in Ishaan tugs at your heartstrings. In retrospect, it feels like a young Sushant was letting us into his world – of dreams yet to be fulfilled and life waiting to be discovered.
Watch: Sushant Singh talks about his journey
We jumped on the ride with the actor as he navigated through all that life had to offer. In his second film, released within months of his debut, Sushant turns into an indecisive Romeo, lovelorn but commitment-phobic. He is awkward, sometimes irritable; but rarely comes across as annoying owing to Rajput’s sincere performance. The film was touted as one of the best films of 2013 by critics across the board. Baradwaj Rangan, commenting on the performances remarked, “All of them are very good, especially Rajput, who gives a touchingly awkward performance befitting an awkward character,” whereas noted American film critic Roger Ebert went a step further in lavishing praises on Rajput saying, “Rajput, barring any unforeseen obstacles, should be a major star in years to come.”
What could have been?
Two breakthrough performances set the tone and tenor of Sushant’s prospective career path. The stakes were higher also because he was the only actor whose career trajectory mirrored closely to that of Shah Rukh Khan, who, decades earlier, transitioned from being a popular TV face to becoming the undisputed Baadshah of Bollywood, both of them building a film career on the heels of a supremely successful television career. And like SRK in the early nineties, Sushant chose roles – vast and varied – that stood him in good stead.
From a charming presence in PK, he metamorphoses to the restrained Byomkesh with ease in Dibakar Banerjee’s brilliant Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!. He falters in a clumsily written Kedarnath – a film trying to do too much all at once – but makes a resounding comeback in his career-best performance in Abhishek Choubey’s Sonchiriya. The film is a master class in filmmaking and Sushant is its soul. He personifies the metaphorical redemption alluded to in the title. As the Bundeli bandit Lakhana, he sheds all the bearings of a star and sinks into the character with sincerity. I wept when the character died.
In Chhichhore, his last film, unfortunately, he delivers a fine performance. In portraying Anni, a middle-aged man grappling with his teenage son’s attempted suicide, he seems to have outgrown the youthful, boyish charm of Ishaan (Kai Po Che). Talk about life coming to a full circle… He has a couple of duds in the form of Raabta and Drive but isn’t that a part and parcel of showbiz? Barring a few chinks in the armour, Sushant Singh Rajput’s cinematic oeuvre stands out mostly for its range and ambition, promise, and potential. Who could have thought that the life story of an aspirational young man would culminate in such a cruel climax! It feels brutally unfair that an actor of such calibre would be defined by a career that never reached its zenith. There is so much more that he could have done and achieved but all of that now lies in the realm of the ‘could have’.
Rajput’s cinematic oeuvre stands out mostly for its range and ambition, promise, and potential. It feels brutally unfair that an actor of such calibre would be defined by a career that never reached its zenith.
The grim Sunday morning
June 14, 2020, came like a jolt out of the blue. Sushant died of suicide sending shockwaves across the world. As with any public figure, there was an expected public outpouring of grief. But the nature of the death, the promise of age (he was just 34) and a stunning repertoire of work made it grim, almost incomprehensible. Since no suicide note was found, speculation became rife, the consensus being that depression led to suicide. He was apparently undergoing treatment for depression during the last six months of his life.
Watch: Actor Sushant Rajput found dead in his apartment
That’s the only known fact. What followed is nothing short of a whirlwind; a whirlwind of social media diatribe, unsavoury dissection of minute details of the deceased’s life, and a rather ugly blame game within Bollywood being played out in the public. Adding insult to injury, the rather shameless and irresponsible primetime coverage of the news turned a tragedy into a spectacle. The discourse is reaching new lows with every passing day. The most harrowing bit is that the majority has transpired (or is still transpiring) lies in the realm of conjecture and is in a very bad taste (barring a few instances which are anyway far and few).
Adding insult to injury, the rather shameless and irresponsible primetime coverage of the news turned a tragedy into a spectacle.
The media coverage of Sushant’s death has been the most disappointing. In a complete departure from propriety and grace, TRP-starved anchors hawked on to the news like hungry vultures. One news channel even went to the extent of asking, “Aise kaise hit wicket ho gaya Sushant?” throwing ethics out of the window while another kept pestering Sushant’s father wanting to know how he was feeling. Yet another channel went a step further and even broadcasted a photo of the actor lying dead on his bed. The already falling standards of mainstream media stood completely exposed emboldened by a vicious social media trial running parallelly.
As human beings when we are hit by something we are not prepared for, we desperately start searching for a reason, some shred of rationality to explain the inexplicable in a bid to retain a modicum of sanity. Except in Sushant’s case, it unleashed a series of finger-pointing and name-calling, leading to a stifling environment extremely counterproductive to the debate of mental health brought once again to the forefront by his death. A barrage of actors, producers, and members of the film fraternity make of whom had worked with Sushant came out on Twitter saying they knew he was going through a hard time and that they should have reached out to him. People divulged personal details of their interactions with the late actor while exclaiming that Bollywood is a difficult place to be in.
Now here’s the thing! While this could have been well-meaning introspection on the part of the parties involved, they being in the business of films need to realize the beast that social media is, how things are taken out of context and new narratives are written at the drop of a hat. Most importantly, if they must have reached out, they should have. The initial few tweets of this nature, regretful and full of lament, were enough for people to come out all guns blazing on the never-ending debate on nepotism and how the Hindi film industry protects its own while ostracizing the rank outsiders.
Old interview clips were frivolously taken out of context and flippant conversations from the facetious Koffee with Karan started floating all over the internet as potential reasons behind creating an environment that led Sushant towards the extreme step. Ludicrous opinions suggesting not getting invited to Deepika and Ranveer’s wedding aggravated Sushant’s anxiety also began doing the rounds. Some people went on to the extent of wishing suicide for Sonam Kapoor, a product of nepotism in a ‘camp’ like industry.
Watch : How Bollywood laughed at Sushant Singh
A lawyer in Bihar even filed a criminal case against eight people including Ekta Kapoor (who hit back saying she launched Rajput), Karan Johar and Aditya Chopra for allegedly dropping Sushant from several films. Social media aside, Bollywood went into a complete meltdown. In no time, it became a battle between us vs. them. Film stars with massive following such as Kangana Ranaut known for holding no punches released videos going to the extent of calling the suicide ‘a planned murder’. Many other videos followed suit with a sitting parliamentarian even requesting a probe into the matter.
The Debate around Nepotism
In the time of this writing, singer Sonu Nigam and Divya Khosla Kumar are embroiled in a bitter battle over nepotism in the music industry. I am sure there is more but the magnitude of hate and toxicity makes it overwhelming to keep tabs on all that is transpiring. There’s no denying that this furore has raised some very pertinent questions but the manner in which it has unfolded is unsettling. It is a shame that the death of a young actor has been used as a weapon to wage personal battles and settle scores.
There’s no denying that this furore has raised some very pertinent questions but the manner in which it has unfolded is unsettling
That Bollywood is a nepotistic society is no secret with several people raising alarm bells time and again. But can all0 those who are ferociously singling out and even harassing celebrities on sheer conjecture, hand on heart, say it’s an endemic specific to Bollywood? India, as a society is replete with examples of people following in the footsteps of their family. Singling out the Hindi film industry (and Rahul Gandhi) is being selective and counterproductive to the greater cause. Change must come and it must come holistically in all sections of the society. Besides, the film industry, as with other professions, is littered with star kids stumbling to carry forward their weighty legacies. There is easy access but post that they are pretty much on their own.
They are in fact, subject to far more intense scrutiny than people with no industry connections. People have made entire careers making fun of star kids (Uday Chopra, Abhishek Bachchan, Tushar Kapoor, Sonam Kapoor and many more). How can we be sure that this mockery does not impact their mental health? How can we assume that just because they are born into privilege, they are insulated from online trolling? Secondly, my gripe is with people who are now calling Sushant a genius. These are the same people who never gave Sonchiriya the audience it deserved despite Rajput’s repeated pleas. He, in fact, even deleted all his posts on Instagram post the release (and commercial failure) of Sonchiriya. As with politicians, there are two types of actors. Ones who draw their power from the industry and others who have a mass connect. Unfortunately, indie cinema or art-house cinema as they call it fails to connect with the masses. It has struggled over the years to draw crowds for reasons widely debated. Sushant’s Sonchiriya fell under this category, something that seems to have impacted him dearly.
The fault in all us
What do the dismal numbers of art cinema tell about the audience’s complicity in this culture? Are we not complicit in driving a star-driven culture? Who accounts for the huge TRPs of Koffee with Karan which has now come under the radar for allegedly abetting a suicide? As they say, we judge ourselves by intentions and others by actions. But it is this convenience that needs to be questioned to honour Sushant’s contribution to the ongoing mental health debate. I am no apologist for Karan Johar and firmly believe that people in positions of power wield greater responsibility of setting the right example but I choose to not be selective in my outrage. To see a change we need dialogue; it can’t really be a one-way attack because clearly, this witch hunt is not working.
In a 2019 interview with Rajeev Masand, Karan Johar on being questioned on nepotism rather irritably exclaims, “We have introduced 21 directors out of which 17 are not nepotistic young filmmakers. They are not from the fraternity or the industry. They are completely from the outside…Why don’t I get the benefit of that?” This is a raspy rejoinder to anyone who feels movies are all about actors when even gifted actors like Sushant are unable to salvage a shoddy film (like Drive).
It is heartbreaking that within days of his death, Sushant gained over 4 million followers on Instagram with his Twitter following also increasing exponentially (by the way, Alia Bhatt still has over 40 million followers as opposed to Sushant’s less than 14 million followers). People started analyzing (and psychoanalyzing) his social media posts, applauding instances when he donated money to those hit by natural calamities and marvelling at his rather impressive and ambitious bucket list. As if in death there is no vice, all virtue. How telling this is for human nature that doesn’t look out for the living but hails the dead!
The cacophony notwithstanding, Sushant has left a void too big to fill and as a marker of respect to his larger than life legacy, we must collectively try to not taint it with baseless rumours, conjectures, and social media vitriol. His reasons we will never know. In showbiz, the boundaries between the personal and professional often get blurred with people demanding a piece of flesh, a price stars pay for their stardom. But in death, they deserve some privacy even when it feels a bit too unfair. It takes time to overcome grief and there is grace is grieving privately especially when the departed has left us with hard questions to ponder upon.