As is often the case with movie stars, Sushant Singh Rajput’s death meant different things to different people.
The biggest debate that followed the 34-year-old actor’s tragic death by suicide on Sunday was around mental health. The advice ranged from learning to live with depression – the actor was reportedly undergoing treatment for it – to dealing with suicidal thoughts and being alert to warning signs in others.
One message rang out loud and clear, whether from medical health professionals or celebrities – you are not alone.
What role was played by show business, famous for fulfilling dreams and equally notorious for crushing them? Some of the commentary revolved around the cruel, fickle ways of the Mumbai film industry, which elevates as quickly as it dumps. The talented Rajput starred in one of 2019’s big hits, Nitesh Tiwari’s Chhichore, and his performance in Abhishek Chaubey’s Sonchiriya in the same year was acclaimed. But the straight-to-Netflix Drive drew scorn. His final movie Dil Bechara, in which he plays a cancer patient, has not been released yet.
Media treatment of Rajput’s death created a separate strand of conversation. Some television channels could not resist punning on the themes of some of Rajput’s films, which include Kai Po Che! (2013) and MS Dhoni: The Untold Story (2016). The insensitivity on display, which included barging into the house of Rajput’s elderly father and shoving a mic into his grieving face, was hardly new. The only surprise here is that viewers expected these channels to behave differently.
Rajput’s death also set off a storm of analysis about the insider-outsider debate in Bollywood. Some saw in his premature demise the end of dreams of a passionate individual who had worked his way up. Rajput was held up as a successful example of an actor who made it on sheer merit, without any connections. Kangana Ranaut’s views on nepotism in Bollywood, first articulated forcefully on Karan Johar’s talk show Koffee With Karan in 2017 and reiterated in several interviews since, had a separate hashtag-fuelled following on social media.
The nepotism debate is as complex as it is necessary. Interestingly, Rajput got a leg-up in television from the second-generation queen of the small screen, Ekta Kapoor. It was her company, Balaji Telefilms, which produced his star-making TV series Pavitra Rishta (2009-2011). Rajput’s film debut Kai Po Che! (2013) was directed by Ekta Kapoor’s cousin, the former actor Abhishek Kapoor. Over his career, Rajput worked with both “outsider” filmmakers as well as film family-run studios.
What was Rajput going through? One area of insight into his psyche could have been recent interviews. Unfortunately, most of these yield no peek of the man behind the mask. Conversations with film stars are most often planned around their movie releases. They are carefully timed – “You won’t need more than 15 minutes, no?” is more of a diktat than a request – and tightly controlled by handlers and producers. The sheer numbers of reporters lining up for interviews, the need to peddle product, and the desire to project optimism that will translate into better ticket sales result in interviews that stay on the surface.
Every now and then, a journalist will achieve a rare breakthrough. Stars might allow their real faces to emerge from behind the maquillage and talk about the things that make them less god-like and more human – financial insecurities, the strain of being a role model, the pressure of being seen as beautiful, happy, successful and strong at all times. The norm, however, is to play along with one of showbiz’s central tenets: make-believe.
And yet, the debate about the very purpose of the celebrity interview too has no easy outcomes. Is it a journalist’s duty to be an inquisitor rather than a conversationalist? Do reporters owe it to readers or viewers to lay bare the movie’s star soul rather than accepting whatever comes their way in the absence of any real and meaningful connection between the two?
And what about the celebrity’s own desire to keep the mask on and play along? In an age of the relentless commodification of the self through endorsements, Instagram posts and tweets, an actor’s need to remain private and enigmatic is increasingly under threat. The act of parcelling out parts of a complex life to filmmakers, journalists, fans, publicists and advertisers is fraught with tension.
Communication with an insatiable fanbase is governed by the “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” principle. Soul-baring can be dismissed as a gimmick. Honesty can be mistaken for yet another attempt at image-making.
The demand for admirers to see the “true face” of their idols, rather than be content with what is up on the screen, can often by punishing and destructive. Some movie stars, such as Deepika Padukone, have allowed their vulnerable sides to emerge and have boldly gone public with their mental health issues. Others hide their frowns behind fake smiles. Their agonies remain in the realm of speculation, and it is only when tragedy strikes that some version of the truth emerges.
We cannot and may never know what made Rajput do what he did. Perhaps it’s best that way.