Role-playing has never been just about that little mysterious alchemy that actors undergo. It’s what all of us do all the time: we are actors caught up in everyday performances, enacting a script, never really off-stage—even in our most intimate moments. But it’s perhaps reserved for professional actors, the more sensitive among them, to be in a place most excruciating of all: they are the ones fated to pass through the mirror multiple times, in multiple ways. The shadow between the presented selves and the ‘real self’ is perhaps etched with the darkest ink for them. A celebrity living under the public spotlight also lives under an unremitting self-gaze, measuring himself or herself against the ‘ideal self’ out there—happy, successful—and also one’s personal markers, where there has to be meaning in life. Lack of acceptance, or a fledgling stardom slowly slipping away, is only one facet. Sushant Singh Rajput, who appeared on our horizons as that tall, lithe, winsome figure steaming in to bowl at a little lad in Kai Po Che!, has now exited quietly. The cloud he leaves in his wake is made up in equal parts of pathos and shock and, now, as others enter the frame, also strafed by angry, spiteful lightning. There’s never a serene context in which to understand depression, but the triggering words and events that now engulf his former world will hopefully become part of an enduring legacy of questioning.
Bollywood, the world Sushant tried to make his own, is now plagued by a clangorous, personalised debate on why his attempt remained only partially successful—and was, finally, thwarted. No one from any side either denied his undoubted talent or his easy likeability on screen. Then why? Several videos and fragments of his writing on social media are now viral: the actor is to be seen repeatedly asking for acceptance in the industry. The latter is often shorthand for a settled elite that rules Hindi cinema and sustains itself via a network of second, or third-generation family ties. It isn’t surprising that the words ‘nepotism’ and ‘discrimination’ are so much in the air; newcomers have always struggled to find a way into this grid where all the electricity flows. Sushant’s fans feel he was never given his due and was treated with the special disdain insecure old-timers reserve for the talented ‘outsider’.
Kai Po Che! 2014; Shuddh Desi Romance 2014.
The actor’s unsuccessful, six-month-long battle with depression has also once again put the spotlight on the importance of mental health care among celebrities—on account of the special kind of stress they put themselves through. As media prowled between his old Bihar homestead and his rented Bandra bungalow, the public was left ruminating on the 34-year-old’s slender but quality filmography: Kai Po Che!, M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story, Chhichhore. Also, at an avalanche of invenctive. There’s even a case for suicide abetment against a handful of stellar industry figures. “Sushant was removed from around seven films and some of his films were not released. A situation was created that forced him to take the extreme step,” said the advocate who filed the case in a court in Bihar’s Muzaffarpur.
In one of the videos shared by his fans, Sushant stresses on the word ‘nepotism’ and speaks strongly about it, “Nepotism can coexist and nothing will happen, but at the same time if one intentionally doesn’t allow the right talent to come up, there might be a problem.” Nepotism exists everywhere, he said, but added that without a certain openness to the system, “the whole structure of the industry would collapse”. Filmmaker Shekhar Kapur took to Twitter to reveal that a distraught Sushant would confide in him. “I knew the pain you were going through. I knew the story of the people that let you down so bad that you would weep on my shoulder. I wish I was around the last six months. I wish you had reached out to me. What happened to you was their karma. Not yours.” But he too was not spared a glimpse of the surging public anger. Hiding the truth is the same as telling a lie and it’s important to be open, honest and reveal everything, a fan told him. “If you have to hide, you should not be talking about it. A young, beautiful, talented and academically acclaimed life has ended…make an effort to stop recurrence!” His tweet thus got the pressure mounting on him to take names. “Speak up, sir. The least you could do for the departed soul…. If you don’t speak today, tomorrow you will regret another Sushant.”
PK 2014; Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! 2015; M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story 2016.
Sushant’s last Instagram post, uploaded on June 3 along with a collage of his late mother (whose 2002 death had left him shattered), revealed a mind swamped by sadness and despair. “Blurred past evaporating from teardrops / Unending dreams carving an arc of smile / And a fleeting life negotiating between the two.” One reason he was struggling to fit in was perhaps because, unlike many Bollywood stars, he was genuienely bright, different and intellectually alive. As he himself mentioned repeatedly, he didn’t have many friends and all he did during his free time was read books. There are several posts on his social media handles about the galaxy, planets, the moon, dark matter and even of him looking through his telescope at the dark sky. Quite a telling irony: a star more interested in the stars in the night sky than those crowding the next B’wood party. But then, the package that he was an individual and as an actor would have sufficed to trigger pangs of insecurity among others—and he was, tragically, dependent on their patronage. The withdrawal of that would be like yanking an oxygen tube off a patient.
Sushant Singh Rajput made a cameo appearance in Welcome to New York, a 3D comedy, where Karan Johar plays himself and Arjun, his doppelganger.
In one screenshot doing the rounds, Sushant writes to one of his fans, “If you do not watch my films, they will kick me out of Bollywood. I have no godfather; I have made all of you my god and father. If you wish, please see it…(and) I will be able to live in Bollywood. Lots of love and respect.” Unbeknownst to many, he was being sidelined by some of Bollywood’s most powerful people. That’s why celebrity hairstylist Sapna Bhavnani, in one of her posts, slammed B’wood celebs now shedding crocodile tears on his death. Sharing a picture of herself with Dhoni and Sushant (who played Dhoni in the eponymous 2016 biopic), Bhavnani wrote: “It’s no secret Sushant was going through very tough times for the last few years. No one in the industry stood up for him, nor did they lend a helping hand. To tweet today is the biggest display of how shallow the industry really is. No one here is your friend. RIP.”
Pavitra Rishta, 2009-2011, the TV serial which put Sushant on the way stardom.
Framing this whole picture of an ‘outsider’ caught in a web spun by insiders were many viral videos and B’wood tales. One video shows Shahrukh Khan and Shahid Kapoor trolling Sushant on-stage with some caustic attempts at wit, with the young actor looking distinctly humiliated and uncomfortable and a gallery of prominent faces laughing their heart out. In his defence, this free offence-giving is offered as a mannered emcee trick from ‘King Khan’, who dishes out mean jokes to everyone—Neil Nitin Mukesh is seen upset and angry in one video when subjected to this rude ragging-style humour from SRK, whereas Vidya Balan took it in her stride on another occasion (when she was presented the ‘Na-real’ award, shaped like a coconut, apparently to rib her for her attire). SRK, of course, was famously an outsider himself. Not so Salman Khan, who reportedly shouted at Sushant once for “misbehaving” with his mentee Sooraj Pancholi. Later, questions like “Who Sushant?” and “Why will I make a film with him?” were attributed to him.
Raabta 2017; Kedarnath 2018; Sonchiriya 2019.
The one to really sink her teeth into the subject of nepotism was, of course, actress Kangana Ranaut. Her team has posted a video where Kangana speaks of a systematic dismantling of Sushant’s chances. His deserving films were never acknowledged at award ceremonies, she said, asking questions like: why did a “terrible film” like Gully Boy win all the awards when a “spectacular movie like Chhichhore” was ignored? “How can a person who had scored a scholarship to Stanford University be mentally weak?…. He was a rank holder. How can his mind be weak? If you look at his last few posts, he is clearly saying, literally begging, ‘Watch my films. I have no godfather. I will be taken out of the industry’.” Depression and insecurity is deliberately instilled in you, Kangana said, revealing that even she gets messages from people who tell her not to take any wrong step in life. “Why do they want to put in my mind that I should commit suicide? But in Sushant’s case, he accepted it. He was called worthless and he agreed,” she said. The same people who wrote about Sushant’s alleged drug use find Sanjay Dutt’s addiction cute, she added. The caption of her post carries the words, “…if celebrities are struggling with personal and mental health issues, the media should try and empathise.”
Chhichhore 2019; Drive 2019.
Karan Johar, the arch second-gen Bollywood insider, stands at the centre of this nepotism debate. Others range around him—their casual, jokey putdowns looking ominous in retrospect. The way, on his Koffee With Karan show, Alia Bhatt said, “Sushant Singh Rajput, who?”, when asked to rank male actors and given a menu of choices including him. Like with the average Hindi film, that came with a flashback. Alia’s uncle, producer, Mukesh Bhatt, had this to say to a television channel, “He had come to our office for Aashiqui 2, but things didn’t work out. Then when we were beginning Sadak 2, Alia and Mahesh Bhatt said Sushant was very keen. He came over and met me, we spent about an hour talking about various things. I could make out he was a very disturbed soul. There was something about him…he was not connected, not there, not on the same plane. That bothered me. This was about a year-and-a-half back. He was a very disturbed boy. There was something amiss, something wrong.” The one voice to come out against blanket denunciation of ‘nepotism’ was actress Swara Bhasker, herself an ‘outsider’.
Wherever the causes lay, his biography was beginning to close in around Sushant. It’s not the easiest thing for a depression-ridden celebrity to reach out for help: the fear of being scrutinised further, when your fortunes are already playing fickle, only exacerbates your alienation. Mumbai psychotherapist Padma Rewari, in fact, says “production houses should make it mandatory to recruit mental health teams”. But this was also a period of strange lull. The lockdown, no shooting, and all the abnormality of the Covid season perhaps accentuated the gloom—Sushant was known to be a sensitive man, who’d reached out to help victims during the 2018 Kerala floods. This time, in a way, he joined that victimhood; a migrant who walked away quietly from a heartless city.