Looking back at the conversations we should’ve had after his death, and the ones we had instead.
It was the afternoon of June 14, 2020, four months into the Covid lockdown. Suddenly, social media platforms and news websites were flooded with messages, an outpouring of love for an actor who had just passed.
This was Sushant Singh Rajput: the performer, dancer and self-made star, the engineer and philosophy enthusiast who spoke with wide-eyed wonder about scientific abstractions. He was as much a man who would theorise on the universe’s infiniteness as he was a boy with dreams to be the “next Shah Rukh Khan”.
As the news broke of his death, social media posts reminisced about a talent lost too soon. His films were venerated as underrated gems, their reputations conflated with that of a cherished actor, even as fans collectively waited for the posthumous release of Dil Bechara.
But in the days and weeks and years that followed, Rajput’s death was held hostage to something else. It wasn’t much-needed conversations on mental health or nepotism, it was a tumultuous “justice” campaign hijacked by loudmouths whose interests were far removed from addressing systemic issues. It led to media trials that brought the industry to its knees, and the hounding and vilification of Rajput’s girlfriend Rhea Chakraborty.
It also led to a purported “reckoning” of imagined foes to the Hindu – read Hindutva – way of life. Ironically, these imagined foes had been characterised in many of Rajput’s movies. Kai Po Che!, for example, addressed the Gujarat riots of 2002 under then chief minister Narendra Modi. Released in 2013, it was an intimate film that conflated the personal ambitions of three young men with the aspirations of a nation, spotlighting how communal hatred laid waste to talents that may have been a national treasure.
And that was just SSR’s debut. He had seven more years to go.
‘Mujhe drugs do!’
Who hasn’t seen some version of primetime thespian Arnab Goswami begging for drugs on live television? But its absurdity was marred by the intense politicisation of Rajput’s death and the demonisation of Rhea as a vamp, even a witch, who “killed” Rajput. The privacy of the living and the dead was invaded in this quest for “news”. With an assembly election due in Rajput’s home state of Bihar, the BJP and friends perhaps hoped to score political points.
We also heard “expert” opinions from people like Kangana Ranaut, actor and full-time troll, whose conspiracy theories fuelled the media circus playing out on television screens. Liberal Bollywood became the enemy – the singular institution responsible for the death of a much-loved actor. The issue was no longer about honouring his legacy, it was about “justice”.
This is the same group of people who accused Rajput’s 2018 film Kedarnath of glorifying “love jihad”. In the film, Rajput, a Hindu, played a Muslim pithoo in love with a Hindu woman played by Sara Ali Khan, a Muslim, in the holy Hindu city of Kedarnath. This story of interreligious love and communal harmony was viewed as a threat and not just by “fringe elements” – the BJP thought so too.
This communal hatred, with some hyper-nationalism thrown in for good measure, was also challenged in the 2014 movie PK, starring Aamir Khan, an actor the right-wing loves to hate, and featuring Rajput in an extended cameo. Rajput played Sarfaraz, a Pakistani man in love with an Indian woman. Needless to say, PK too was condemned for purportedly offending Hindu sentiments.
Rajput’s brief filmography acknowledged the atrocities of caste too. In 2019, his movie Sonchiriya was hailed as an anthropological study at the intersection of caste and gender. It’s worth remembering that Rajput in 2017, just four years into his career, removed his surname on Twitter to protest against the Rajput Karni Sena inflicting violence on the sets of Padmaavat.
Also in 2019, Rajput starred in Chhichhore, a film that sought to break the stigma around mental health. When he died a year later, news channels broadcast shouting headlines on “irony”, in complete violation of journalistic ethics on suicide reporting. It further stigmatised mental health issues through coverage that was irresponsible, sensationalised and speculative – and this would continue for three years.
In the process, Rajput’s death became a “political proxy war”, distracting the public from key issues such as the migrant workers’ exodus during the pandemic. His family, friends and fans were not allowed to mourn him in peace, while basic empathy and kindness went out the window.
Make no mistake, SSR’s death and the circus that followed was not done in public interest. It was an exercise in titillation, agitation and distraction. As for the real justice for SSR – we’re still looking for it three years later.
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