Sushant’s death exposes ugly truths

Sushant’s death exposes ugly truths

We should be addressing mental health crisis and power structures of Bollywood, we are faced instead with misogyny

As the world crumbles around us — with government, economy, healthcare and democratic freedoms falling apart — public discourse unearths a new rock bottom every day. It is unfortunate then, though unsurprising, that in the aftermath of the tragic suicide of actor Sushant Singh Rajput, fellow actor and romantic partner, Rhea Chakraborty, is being targeted in a witch hunt by the media and online trolls. A traumatic loss has become a power-grabbing circus involving the deceased’s family, as well as state and central governments — all targeting a lone woman.

When we should be addressing the mental health crisis in India and interrogating the power structures of Bollywood; we are faced instead with medieval misogyny and cultural chauvinism. Chakraborty has received rape threats, been accused of murder and called a ‘Bengali witch’. Sushant’s father has filed an FIR in Patna accusing Chakraborty of financially cheating his son and driving him to suicide. With an alleged Rs 15 crore transaction at stake, it is clear how the family is grieving. But the waters are further muddied by the upcoming Bihar elections. The state government has been accused of pursuing retributive justice in the hope of scoring electoral points, after the complete collapse of its healthcare and economy in the pandemic and the recent floods.

Losing a public figure during a global crisis, when most people who can afford the internet are stuck to their screens, has the power to bring everyone together to mourn and reconnect with each other. The loss of Irrfan Khan in late April did precisely this, with such an outpouring of love and affection the likes of which has not been seen in recent memory. Sushant’s demise should have done the same. He was a talented young artiste, an outsider to the notoriously incestuous industry, who had shown great promise. Yet what we are witnessing is the most predictable reaction of a deeply dysfunctional, patriarchal society — blaming the woman. It has happened before with Anushka Sharma who is abused every time her cricketer husband has a bad day on the pitch. Sania Mirza has been trolled when her cricketer spouse from Pakistan lost a match to India.

At this time of great uncertainty and magnified inequality, with people starving or being persecuted for their caste or religion, it is becoming necessary to view mental health as a medical issue. There have been over 300 suicides in the last five months alone because of the distress caused by the nationwide lockdown. Suicide is the most common cause of death in age group of 15-39 years in India, with a whopping 2,30,314 suicides recorded in 2016 alone. Farmers' suicides have been ignored in the mainstream media for years, while we are losing 28 students to suicides every day on average. The recent shift to online education and the lack of equitable internet access has undoubtedly added to the distress.

The state has clearly chosen religion over science, and the public sphere is completely devoid of sensitivity and rationality — uncensored photos of Sushant’s mangled corpse were being circulated on WhatsApp after his death.

“The spectacle is the nightmare of imprisoned modern society which ultimately expresses nothing more than its desire to sleep,” a French philosopher Guy Debord once said. If we are to avoid this nightmarish sleep, we must first acknowledge the problem before beginning the work of healing together.