Why is the 37-year-old businessman so deeply invested in it and what makes him so influential?
He’s at the centre of the “Justice for SSR” Twitter campaign. He manages at least three Telegram groups and 6,000-8,000 “volunteers”, by his own estimate. A year after the death of filmstar Sushant Singh Rajput – SSR to fans, many of whom believe that he was murdered – the campaign depends as much on Nilotpal Mrinal, 37, as he depends on it.
Every morning and every evening, without fail, the businessman posts a new tagline – usually a slogan demanding “justice” for Rajput – on his Telegram groups and pins it atop his Twitter timeline. In no time, the tagline starts trending on Indian Twitter.
On June 14, however, to mark Rajput’s first death anniversary, he released the day’s tagline, “SUSHANT JUSTICE MATTERS”, exactly at midnight. In about 40 minutes, it was the top trend on Indian Twitter with 1,29,000 tweets, rising to 2,19,000 by 1 am. By 4.45 pm the next day, there were over 1.44 million tweets with the tagline and it was trending worldwide on Twitter.
Outside the virtual world Mrinal held a prayer meeting for Rajput at his office in Mumbai’s Santa Cruz on June 14. He milled about a lifesize poster of Rajput decked in white daisies and jasmines opposite which was a professional camera setup. A few reporters, including from Republic, Times Now, ABP, and ANI waited about to speak with Mrinal. In a corner, a few sewing machines, tricycles and clutches were stacked up, meant to be distributed to the poor once the media was present in strength.
As fans filed in to pay their respects to the late actor, Mrinal rested next to the poster, lost in his phone.
“It was very emotional,” he recalled afterwards. “Even in the photos, I was very emotional. The entire day was emotional.”
Emotion is Mrinal’s currency, which he and fellow SSR justice warriors have used – critics would say abused – to ensure the actor’s death continues to be widely discussed online. To this end they have effectively leveraged Twitter, as a study, titled Anatomy of a Rumour: Social Media and the Suicide of Sushant Singh Rajput, found.
There, the study noted, “a small number of accounts have managed to consistently engineer engagement by hitting daily targets of making taglines or hashtags the most viral in India through astroturfed action”. This engagement, it added, “is consistently driven by the same sets of accounts. These are not necessarily fake accounts, but a group of dedicated fans, many of whom are motivated by a belief that there has been some conspiracy in the death".
I spent over three months observing these fans across social media platforms, and spoke with a few of them offline. I also interviewed Mrinal at length. And I found the businessman does indeed command an army of fans who call themselves SSRians. He confirmed as much, “This is a public movement and my role is of a moderator.”
But what makes Mrinal so influential in the “Justice for SSR” campaign? How and why did he become involved in it in the first place? Is the online campaign he leads organically driven by Rajput’s fans, as he claims, or by some political interests?
Mrinal insists that his motivations are noble. He’s driven by empathy for the actor’s family, he suggests, and the belief that they have been wronged – by the state, by the agencies which investigated the actor’s death, and by those who don’t believe he was killed.
It appears more likely, after speaking with Mrinal and a few of his followers, that his motivations are more banal. There’s the social media fame, the clout within the SSRian world that comes from his claimed closeness with the actor’s family, media appearances, and, of course, political ambitions. It’s far more visibility than he had managed as a local politician and a disability rights activist, despite having self-produced three YouTube films about himself and launched a website which features his pictures with actors and Sangh Parivar leaders, including union home minister Amit Shah.
Mrinal suggests his activism prepared him for the “Justice for SSR” campaign. “We differently abled are neglected, shy and conscious, but I have defeated my disability,” said Mrinal, who had polio as a child and walks with support. “I have everything. I fly business class. I stay in five star hotels. I have luxury cars. You name it, I have it.”
How does he pay for such a lifestyle? He owns two brands of beauty and grooming products which he claims have a total turnover of nearly Rs 20 crore a year. As for how his online campaign is funded, Mrinal refused to answer.
Yet, there are nagging questions about Mrinal’s involvement in the “Justice for SSR” campaign. Over the past year, he has repeatedly appeared on primetime debates on TV news channels such as Republic TV and Times Now, describing himself as Rajput’s family friend, even though he never met the actor. He claims to be a friend of one of Rajput’s cousins, Niraj Kumar Bablu, a BJP legislator in Bihar. “I have known his cousin for 6-7 years,” he said once. “I could have met Sushant if I wanted to, but I never tried.”
Why not? “I am not a filmy guy, but I have watched some of SSR’s movies.” He hesitantly recalled MS Dhoni: The Untold Story, Chhichhore and Dil Bechara, which released after the actor’s death.
He’s interested in politics. Mrinal stood as an independent candidate in the 2017 municipal corporation election from Santa Cruz, and stood a distant fourth. “Like a Brahmin’s leader is Brahmin, a Rajput’s leader is Rajput, even a Dalit’s leader is a Dalit,” he said, “the differently abled community should have a differently abled leader.”
He isn’t forthcoming about his political affiliations, but his online posts provide ample clues about where he stands.
In May, Mrinal complained that while the world was proud of prime minister Modi, he would be labelled a BJP supporter if he supported him. “SSRians With Narendra Modi,” he ended the tweet and the slogan was soon trending on Twitter with over 5,000 tweets.
SSRians had trolled, harassed and doxxed the authors of the Anatomy of a Rumour study, which concluded, among other things, that BJP leaders and their supporters were actively promoting the theory that Rajput’s death was the outcome of a conspiracy. Indeed, the Hindutva party made no secret of using the actor’s death as a campaign issue in Bihar, painting him as a son of Bihar who fell victim to the big bad world of Bollywood, run by the old elite.
But Mrinal wouldn’t comment on the BJP’s politics. “I do not know what will happen next year, so I can't say for or against the BJP. I am a patriotic guy. Someone who can do anything for his nation. But just see what happened, Jitin Prasada of Congress joined BJP and BJP’s Mukul Roy joined Trinamool Congress,” he said. “This SSR campaign is away from politics. The people who say I play politics don’t know that a fan who lives in the US can’t vote for me in Bombay.”
If not to further his political ambitions, why is he so deeply invested in the SSR campaign, particularly since, by his own admission, he’s not even sure whether to call himself a fan of Rajput.
“Sushant is from my hometown in Bihar,” he said by way of an explanation. “You may call me a fan since I am involved in the campaign, though I don’t have much interest in movies.”
It was a Sunday afternoon when news broke of Rajput’s death. Mrinal was home as the nationwide lockdown to contain the coronavirus pandemic was still in place. “I initially thought it was another actor with the same name, Sushant Singh, who acts in Savdhaan India. However, by evening it was clear SSR was no more. It was the biggest news in the media.”
Mrinal could not contact Bablu but managed to contact OP Singh, Rajput’s brother-in-law. The next day he went to the Mumbai airport to receive Bablu, his wife and Rajput’s father. Pictures of him accompanying Rajput’s relatives were played on news channels such as Republic TV and Times Now, and he still fishes them out whenever needed to show that he’s close to the late actor’s family.
The next day, he went to collect Rajput’s body. “As the family was in shock and grief, I arranged for the funeral, the priest,” he said. “I was one of the people who carried Sushant on their shoulders. I feel at that moment I was more connected to SSR than even his own family. I was the one who was doing all the rituals, from bringing sandalwood to ghee. In fact, for 45-50 minutes I was alone with SSR’s body. At that time, I felt the presence of his soul. My first meeting with SSR was my last meeting with him. But this last meeting lasted so long. At such a young age, Sushant had achieved the level of stardom which even the biggest stars don’t find. And he left it all behind, in a moment.”
At some level, it’s clear from talking with him that Mrinal saw his reflection in Rajput. He had come to Mumbai chasing his dream, as Mrinal had in 2008 with, he claims, just Rs 7,000 in his pocket; Rajput was a self-made man as Mrinal was; and he was wronged by the big bad world as Mrinal seemed to think he was.
“Sushant was from a middle class family,” Mrinal said. “He did not deserve this. He should have got justice.”
Rajput was found hanging from a ceiling fan in his Mumbai home on June 14, 2020, but the twitter storm did not start until mid-July. And it wasn’t until late July that the “Justice for SSR” gained traction, along with the demand for a CBI inquiry into the actor’s death.
On July 25, Rajput's family lodged an FIR with the police in Patna, where his father lives, accusing six people, including Rajput’s girlfriend Rhea Chakraborty, of abetting his suicide. The same day Mrinal received his first burst of instant social media fame. He posted 25 tweets about Rajput that received a total of 9,000 retweets and likes. He has been riding high since, his tweets constantly drawing thousands of likes and retweets.
In all, Mrinal has made 23,700 public tweets since joining the platform in 2014. Over 23,400 of them have come since 2020.
His influence in the SSRian world, though, doesn’t stem from his prolific tweeting. He is the conductor of the orchestra, or moderator as he prefers to describe his role. “The fans were demanding justice from the first day but they were scattered on different social media platforms. Some were on Instagram, some were on Twitter, some used Facebook. When the sister of Sushant Singh Rajput, Shweta Singh Kirti, started tweeting in late July, then we integrated the fans,” he said. “It peaked with the demand for a CBI investigation.”
Indeed, in his own tweets, Mrinal has mentioned Rajput fewer times than he has prominent characters in the SRR campaign. For example, he has tagged Kirti 1,304 times and Rajput only 399 times so far. Similarly, he has mentioned Republic TV and its editor Arnab Goswami more than he has Rajput.
Today, Mrinal claims, the campaign is on autopilot. SSRians are adept at using his daily taglines to manufacture Twitter trends. If there’s a sharp spike in posts containing a particular hashtag or tagline in a short period, Twitter’s algorithm lists it as a trending topic. "In the morning we release 'aggressive' taglines demanding justice for SSR which are often used by NRIs. In the evening we release taglines highlighting the qualities of SSR like how generous or talented he was. These are used by Indian fans," Mrinal explained their modus operandi. “We know the pattern now, what to do and how to do it. There’s no definitive number of how many users tweet since some people tweet multiple times but, on an average, there are two-three lakh tweets every day demanding justice for SSR using our tagline.”
He wouldn’t confirm but Telegram messages that I have seen indicate that at least Parekh did. Still, all Mrinal would say on the matter was, “There were people who said they didn’t like the tagline and separated from our campaign.”
Mrinal may project SSRians as common fans of the late actor seeking answers about his death, but they have been vicious trolls. They have targeted whoever they deemed to have wronged them. Such as Jimmy Wales, because Wikipedia, which he owns, states that Rajput died of suicide. “Wikipedia staff’s brains are rotten. They don’t consider CBI as proof and ask for a reliable article,” Mrinal declared, sounding irritated, when asked about it.
Mrinal himself has viciously attacked activist Sanjukta Basu, Rajput’s flatmate Siddharth Pithani; TV journalist Rajdeep Sardesai; and Maharashtra minister Aaditya Thackeray. He was reported to Twitter for releasing personal details of the authors of the Anatomy of a Rumour study, but escaped action.
Mrinal’s main target, however, has been Rhea Chakraborty, whom he portrays as a scheming gold-digger who ruined Rajput’s life and often compares with animals.
It apparently does not matter to Mrinal that none of the government agencies that have investigated complaints arising out of Rajput’s death has so far presented evidence of wrongdoing against Chakraborty.
Questioned about his targeting of women such as Basu and Chakraborty with distasteful and often pornographic content, he replied, “I’m all for the women ideology.” He was referring to feminism. “I have my mother, sister, daughter at home. But women ideology doesn’t come in when we talk about justice.”
So far, police in Bihar and Maharashtra, the Narcotics Control Bureau, the Enforcement Directorate and the Central Bureau of Investigation have looked at different aspects of the SSR case, but none has provided a possible reason for the actor’s death. In October last year, a panel of doctors at AIIMS, Delhi, ruled ruled out murder as the cause of his death but their finding was rejected by SSRians, who continue to demand “justice”.
“The truth is Sushant Singh Rajput is gone. Nothing can bring him back,” said Mrinal. “But we need answers. He had money in the bank, the best cars, a good house. Now, the CBI has to tell us what happened to SSR.”
And until they have the answers they want, Mrinal said, they are determined to continue the “Justice for SSR” campaign. “I do not know how long this campaign will last,” he said. “The CBI is investigating the case now, but it is important to keep this campaign active. I am also a Bihari. Justice must prevail.”