Actor's Death Fuels Media Frenzy in India

The death of a young Bollywood star has transfixed India for 90 days.

The story that started in June, when actor Sushant Singh Rajput was found dead in his apartment in Mumbai, was initially one of grief and tragedy. Police have confirmed that he's killed himself, reports The Guardian.

Yet the circus it has morphed into since – involving misogyny, drugs, money, media witch-hunts, feuds, police leaks, federal inquiries, state elections, and the arrest of a Bollywood star – has become an unparalleled national obsession, with everybody wading in from senior politicians to Amnesty International.

To outsiders it seemed that Rajput had plenty to live for. Born into a poor household in the impoverished state of Bihar, he had spent seven years working his way up Bollywood and starring in six hit movies including MS Dhoni: The Untold Story, in which he played the legendary cricketer, and his most recent box office success, the Chhichhore comedy.  

But his mental health had started worsening behind the scenes, according to a close friend of his girlfriend's family, Rhea Chakraborty. During last autumn's trip to Europe with Chakraborty, he started experiencing depressive episodes and plunged into a deep depression, leading them to early return to India.

The couple retreated from the public eye, afraid that it would ruin his career if Rajput's mental illness became widely recognized. In January Chakraborty confided that he had been given a number of diagnoses, from psychotic depression to schizophrenia, and finally bipolar disorder, to the friend who doesn't want to be called.

“Rhea did everything she humanly could for Sushant, and every time he had a good day, she would call me up, so excited and determined she could help him beat this,” said the friend. “He moved into her family house and they looked after him like he was their own child. He did not feel like his own family really understood his mental illness.”

On 14 June, Rajput, 34, was found dead.

Police were initially clear there were no suspicious circumstances around his death. However, interest was renewed in the case when the actor Kangana Ranaut, known for her pro-government leanings, took to social media to blame nepotism and certain Bollywood elites for driving him to his death. She alleged that they had ostracised Rajput, attempted to sabotage his career and prevented his films from being released because he did not come from “pure” Bollywood lineage.

The anti-elitism theme struck a chord and began to develop a social media movement calling for "justice for Sushant," with politicians weighing in from the ruling Bharatiya Janata party ( BJP). A complaint against eight Bollywood stars was then filed, accusing them of a nepotism plot that had forced Rajput to commit suicide, which amounted to murder. Everything firmly denied the allegation.

The media, already whipped into frenzy over the Bollywood mudslinging, were further fuelled when Rajput 's father filed a police complaint against Chakraborty and three members of her family 10 days later. The complaint accused her of suicide abetment, stealing millions of his money and denying Rajput had suffered from depression.

Chakraborty dismissed the allegations in interviews as "baseless" and "pathetic," but as demand arose to assign responsibility for the death of Rajput, so did an apparent witch-hunt. As public pressure grew, the supreme court stepped in in mid-August and directed the Central Investigation Bureau to launch an investigation into his death, defying legal precedent in the courtroom.

On rightwing, government-friendly TV channels, the case has become an obsession knocking on India's record-breaking coronavirus infections, China's border aggressions, and the worst quarterly economic slowdown since records started off the news agenda.

Reporters camped outside the homes of Chakraborty and her family and questioned her as she left her house. Online, she was bombarded with charges of being "manipulative," a "gold digger" who got drug-addicted Rajput, and a "sex trap" who "performed black magic" to drag him to death.

“The campaign to bring down Rhea and blame her for the death of Sushant in the name of justice has been a surreal, shocking and hysterical witch-hunt, driven by misogyny, the strength of public voyeurism and TV ratings points,” said the actor Swara Bhaskar. “She had already been declared guilty by a media trial and so it feels like the agencies had to come up with any reason to arrest her.”

Rajput’s therapist even took the unusual step of speaking publicly about him, explaining he had suffered from bipolar disorder and depression, and that Chakraborty had been a crucial source of support for him.

Critics say the magnification of Rajput’s case, in particular the decision by the supreme court to approve a federal investigation into his death, appears to have been driven by a realisation that it could be used as lucrative political capital.

Rajput is from Bihar, a BJP state that next month will hold tightly contested elections, and “justice” for his death is being used as an emotive election issue by the BJP. In Bihar, the party is distributing 30,000 stickers and posters and 30,000 face masks with Rajput’s face printed on them, with the slogan: “We have neither forgotten nor will let one forget Sushant,” alongside the BJP logo.

Anna MM Vetticad, a journalist and author, noted the irony of the BJP positioning itself as a champion of justice for Rajput.

“The BJP and its supporters had viciously attacked the actor’s films in his lifetime for promoting Hindu-Muslim amity and for featuring Hindu-Muslim romances, at one point turning their wrath on Sushant himself when he publicly condemned extremism from the powerful Rajput community to which he belongs,” said Vetticad. “In the din surrounding Sushant’s death, political opportunists have sought to erase this inconvenient aspect of his legacy while they appropriate him for their own ends.”

The allegations that Chakraborty had facilitated Rajput's suicide and stolen his money are unsubstantiated, but she was summoned to the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) last Sunday for more allegations that she had procured Rajput cannabis based on WhatsApp messages. On Tuesday, on her third visit for questioning, she was arrested. The NCB asked the court to detain Chakraborty in judicial custody without bail, describing her as part of an “active drug syndicate”.

As she entered the NCB office to be placed under arrest, the message on Chakraborty’s T-shirt sent a clear message: “Roses are red, violets are blue, let’s smash the patriarchy, me and you.”

The supreme court lawyer Karuna Nundy criticised the investigation into Chakraborty as a “fishing expedition”, and said her subsequent arrest was “mainly to satisfy a manufactured public bloodlust before the Bihar elections”.

“This is a fascist cocktail of media, politics and the misuse of legal machinery,” said Nundy. “It’s a wag-the-dog style of creation of spectacle to take eyeballs away from the economy, which has shrunk by 24% in the last quarter, and Covid mismanagement. Both of which would otherwise be disastrous for the ruling party.”

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