After actor Sridevi’s death in 2018, a male reporter climbed into a bathtub on live television in order to investigate her allegedly mysterious death. Two years after Jiah Khan died by suicide, Mumbai Mirror quoted an “unnamed source” who was privy to the Central Bureau Of Investigation’s (CBI) chargesheet to write a story with elaborate, graphic and crude details about an abortion the young actor allegedly underwent. After celebrity manager Disha Salian passed away in June and a professional connection with Sushant Singh Rajput was unearthed, some entertainment websites began publishing interviews with anyone who had a faint connection to Bollywood, leading to speculation that Salian was pregnant — her grieving father was forced to clarify that she was not. And after Rajput’s death by suicide, the overwhelming anger against the networks of nepotism in Bollywood was directed most virulently at female actors who belonged to film families. Once the focus shifted to more personal angles, Rajput’s former partner Rhea Chakraborty’s character was torn apart and she was accused of having affairs with various men in the industry. If there is a woman from showbiz, dead or alive, at the centre of a tragedy that has made headlines, you can be sure of one thing in India — her dignity will be eagerly shredded in the name of ‘news’, or just the grief of ‘well-meaning’ ‘fans’.
In the two months since Rajput’s death, irresponsible news channels and their devout followers have been directing a barrage of outrage at the people they claim are responsible. As the CBI takes over the investigation, it is necessary to take into account how India’s Bollywood-watching audience bared its deep, ingrained sexism while apparently demanding ‘justice’ for the actor.
A DEATH THAT HIT CLOSE TO HOME, AND A WITCH HUNT
Rajput’s death came as a big shock to many Indians who saw some of their own struggles reflected in the challenges they assumed the actor faced in Bollywood. A few days after his death, an acquaintance of my brother — a private sector employee facing a freeze on his salary till his organisation’s finances were back on track — rued how networks of nepotism drove people without ‘contacts’ to their wits’ end. He recollected how, after clearing an exam for a clerical job at a government agency several years ago, he got a call from the office asking him if anyone in the organisation could ‘refer’ him for the job ― meaning, if he knew some already working in the organisation. When he confessed he didn’t, the man asked for a bribe, saying that he could recover the money with three years of work. The man did not have that kind of money and subsequently did not get the job, he said.
Rajput’s journey from Patna to Mumbai via Delhi, along with his acting skills and famed humility, had struck a chord with viewers even before his Bollywood debut. While some of the rage directed at star kids came from this sense of proximity with Rajput’s struggle, a part of it was simply rooted in sexist entitlement. A flood of hatred was directed at Alia Bhatt after snippets of old videos from Koffee With Karan started doing the rounds. This became worse after rumours began floating around that Bhatt’s father Mahesh Bhatt had directed Rhea Chakraborty to leave Rajput.
Even if there was any truth to the allegations against Bhatt, the death and rape threats that landed in the inboxes and comments section of Alia and her sister Shaheen did not arise out of grief or rage — they were simply the work of men and some women who turned the tragedy into yet another excuse to harass and abuse women. While male actors from film families, such as Varun Dhawan, Tiger Shroff and Hrithik Roshan, received some criticism, it was nowhere close to being similar in nature and intensity to the barrage of hatred faced by their female peers.
After Sonakshi Sinha quit Twitter following relentless heckling, her name began ‘trending’ because thousands of Twitter users found it necessary to express how much they did not care about her leaving the platform, by constantly tweeting about it. Irony isn’t Indian Twitter’s strong suit, so that was understandable.
Immediately after the news of the suicide, people started to criticise and abuse Rajput’s women co-stars when they couldn’t find a condolence message on their social media accounts. Actor Kriti Sanon’s sister posted an update condemning the abuse and heckling they faced on Instagram for not issuing a public statement immediately. Sanon, who visited the crematorium to attend Rajput’s last rites, later wrote multiple posts on Instagram in his memory, also protesting the treatment she faced from media persons and social media users during the tragedy.
In contrast, no one criticised former Indian skipper MS Dhoni for not issuing a public statement on Rajput’s death — in fact, the cricketer is yet to publicly comment on the subject. Filmmaker Neeraj Pandey, some websites reported, called up Dhoni and said the cricketer ‘shattered’ by the death. Rajput played the role of the former Indian captain in his hit biopic and spent a considerable amount of time with him for purposes of research. But Dhoni, deified widely by Indians, didn’t face a smidge of the abuse and harassment thrown at women actors associated with Rajput, save a handful of upset comments much later on some of his Instagram photos. Instead, reports speculated that he hadn’t said anything due to disbelief and shock. While he was rightly accorded the dignity to grieve in private, the women were treated as if their sentiments were public property.
The difference between the respect accorded to a male cricketer and a female actor is deeply rooted in the stereotypes that fester in Indian homes, which identify men in sports as markers of power and success and women in films as insignificant and bereft of moral integrity. That ugliness spilled out in full force after Rajput’s death.
There was also sheer male entitlement at display in trying to dictate the “appropriate” way in which women should behave. In the case of the female actors, futile, impotent rage at how their regressive opinions don’t matter in the lives of these successful women, also drove men to rant on social media.
This duplicity was evident when Kangana Ranaut — who, ironically, has been driving mass hysteria against Rhea Chakraborty — posted a tweet about Sara Ali Khan and Hrithik Roshan. She was commenting on a report that claimed Sushant and Sara were “in love” but parted ways after the latter’s film Sonchiriya flopped. While speculating that the alleged break-up could have been because Sara was “under pressure”, Ranaut added that this could also be why Hrithik Roshan turned “hostile” towards her (Ranaut has maintained that she and Hrithik were in a relationship some years ago, which the latter has denied). While Twitter users continued to trash Sara and her alleged unscrupulousness, they also found time to school Ranaut about leaving Hrithik ‘sir’ alone. Hrithik, a successful Hindu man from a film family, somehow did not seem to fit into the anti-nepotism narrative of the trolls.
A ‘VISUAL’ TRAGEDY
As women journalists watching the circus, these double standards are neither unfamiliar nor, perhaps, shocking anymore. The tendency to turn a woman embroiled in a tragedy into a ridiculous visual that symbolises either villainy or desperation is not new.
As mentioned at the beginning of this story, Sridevi’s death gave several mainstream news channels a chance to take out their investigative skills, coupled with lurid graphics of a corpse in a bathtub. These reports were supplemented by rumours of a ‘botox treatment’ gone wrong. Deccan Chronicle even spoke to plastic surgeons for a story about whether Sridevi’s death had discouraged botox procedures across the country.
Sridevi’s death was just one more example of the obsession to turn women into objects — of either pity or vilification — even after their death.
In contrast, when Rishi Kapoor passed away, and some social media users brought up his abusive behaviour on Twitter, people doubled down on them, chastising them for being insensitive or even abusing them for not ‘respecting the dead’.
The barrage of hate that is being directed at Chakraborty, however, is unprecedented and disturbing on many levels. Photos of Rajput’s former partner Ankita Lokhande in a saree have been juxtaposed against those of Chakraborty in dresses, proclaiming that Lokhande was the ‘sanskari’ woman who ‘deserved’ Sushant and Chakraborty the villainess who drove him to his death. It did not matter to the trolls that these baseless moral assumptions of good woman-bad woman reduced Rajput, Lokhande and Chakraborty to absurd stereotypes. Not only has Rajput been stripped of any agency in the matter of his personal relationships, Lokhande has been reduced to a pining ex-girlfriend. Chakraborty, of course, can be nothing but an evil sorceress, as was made evident in a Hindi channel visual of a photoshopped picture of her doing ‘kala jadoo’ on her former partner.
While Chakraborty has promised to cooperate with the CBI, her every move continues to be dissected viciously. When she appeared in a video to address the allegations against her, wearing a white salwar kameez, Twitter and Instagram users alleged that this was a facade to gain public sympathy. According to this warped logic, if a woman who has posted photos of herself in swimsuits wears a salwar kameez, she must be covering up murder.
As TV channels continue to stir up hate and Twitter users hail themselves as investigators, unsurprisingly, it’s the women who face the brunt.