Despite crises, India fixes its gaze on a Bollywood tragedy

By Shalini Veneugopal Bhagat

A rising young movie star meets a tragic end. His family blames his death on his glamorous girlfriend. As she sits in jail, her friends proclaiming her innocence, police hint at a shadowy network of money laundering and illegal drugs deep within the world of show business.

India has been captivated by the story of Sushant Singh Rajput, a 34-year-old actor whose death has been ruled a suicide by the police in Mumbai. News outlets have focused on every twist in a tale that for many encapsulates Bollywood’s hypocrisy and elitism.

Three federal agencies are investigating whether his girlfriend, actress Rhea Chakraborty, gave him marijuana and was involved in Bollywood drug dealing and money laundering. Police are interviewing other Bollywood actresses. Chakraborty’s attorney said police had found no evidence to support their allegations.

The scandal has puzzled and infuriated social critics. With hard proof lacking, they say, the investigation and coverage appear to be fueled by institutional misogyny, a taboo against discussion of mental health issues and an increasingly partisan news media.

In fact, many of the media outlets sympathetic to the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi have focused on the story at the expense of bigger problems. India may soon surpass the United States as the world leader in COVID-19 infections. Its economy is in a tailspin. An increasingly bellicose China is testing its borders.

The investigation has become an election issue in Rajput’s home state of Bihar, which is controlled by an ally of Modi. The state’s chief minister, Nitish Kumar, has criticized police in Mumbai, which is controlled by a rival coalition, and he has promised Bihar voters, who go to the polls in the coming weeks, that he would uncover the truth behind Rajput’s death.

Still, even many outlets critical of Modi could not resist the story.

“I think it suits the government to use news television as a weapon of mass distraction,” said Vir Sanghvi, a journalist, talk-show host and media critic. Nevertheless, he added, high ratings “show that there is a great hunger for this kind of news among viewers.”

India is hardly alone in turning to celebrity news to distract from real-world problems. For many Indians, Rajput’s story also taps into a rising sense of anti-elitism. Many believe he was driven to suicide by a clubby culture of Bollywood insiders. Bihar is one of India’s poorer states, and they see Rajput as a rare outsider who broke into the industry but was held back from even greater stardom.

“The condition of the economy due to the coronavirus or other issues is in front of all of us,” said Jaya Mukherjee, a 28-year-old school counselor in Delhi who has followed the developments. “We are tense, but we can’t avoid injustice, which happened to Sushant.”

Others believe Rajput did not kill himself. Federal police, who have taken over the investigation from Mumbai authorities, have not ruled out other conclusions.

Chakraborty’s allies and experts on Indian society say the explanation for Rajput’s death is simpler than many people believe, but more difficult for them to talk about. Susan Walker, a psychologist in Mumbai and Rajput’s therapist, has said that he suffered from bipolar disorder and disputed that Chakraborty had anything to do with his death.

“In India, depression is a serious illness that has spread like an epidemic, but there is very little discussion about his illness,” said Ashis Nandy, a psychologist and social critic, referring to Rajput. “It has been artificially blown up to turn it into a political circus.”

Walker could not be reached for comment. Rajput’s family has complained to Indian medical officials that she violated patient confidentiality.

Rajput’s family declined to be interviewed. Vikas Singh, their lawyer, said they believed that he had been murdered and that police in Mumbai bungled the initial investigation. He also said they believed that Rajput had not suffered from mental health issues until he met Chakraborty.

Rajput, a versatile actor with an easy smile and chiseled chin, appeared in soap operas before winning a role in the 2013 dramatic film “Kai Po Che!” His performance as a gifted but troubled cricketer earned him a nomination for the Filmfare award, Bollywood’s most prestigious prize, for best male actor debut.

He then went on to star in films like “Shuddh Desi Romance,” “MS Dhoni” and “Kedarnath,” several of which were commercial and critical successes. He cultivated an image as a wholesome boy-next-door from Bihar.

Rajput was found dead in his Mumbai apartment June 14. Mumbai police listed the cause of death as asphyxia by hanging.

Attention turned to Chakraborty, who had been dating the actor for more than a year. Rajput’s father, K.K. Singh, filed a police complaint against Chakraborty, her parents and her brother alleging abetment to suicide, theft, cheating and wrongful confinement. In India, driving someone to suicide carries a sentence of up to 10 years in prison.

Chakraborty became the target of vicious attacks online, including rape and death threats, as well as on TV channels. The coverage prompted the Press Council of India, a self-regulating press watchdog, to warn the media not to “conduct its own parallel trial.”

“She was unable to work, to socialize, because she felt that she needed to be with him and look after him,” said one friend, Shibani Dandekar, a singer and actress. “The vicious media trial hasn’t even given her a chance to grieve for him.”

Chakraborty was arrested last month on suspicion of buying and supplying marijuana to Rajput as well as financing illicit traffic, a nonbailable offense.

Satish Maneshinde, Chakraborty’s lawyer, said that no drugs had been found in her possession and that the police lacked evidence. Police have 180 days to file charges.