It’s been a year since the death of Sushant Singh Rajput, a rising star who never quite fulfilled his early potential, but whose alleged suicide exposed much of the ugliness inherent in Bollywood’s beautiful people
June 14th, 2020. India was in the middle of a pandemic, the size and shape of which it was trying to come to terms with. A sudden lockdown had been announced, vast numbers of people were walking hundreds of miles home, and our way of living was being altered, perhaps forever. Suddenly, the death of a young actor in Bandra, Mumbai, took over everyone’s lives—or, at least, those who watch news television. What seemed like a case of suicide soon acquired more sinister proportions. Everyone had a point of view and they shared it.
There was a leading actress, who used the episode to highlight a trend that has become only too evident now, of treating outsiders to the industry with a mixture of suspicion and contempt if they don’t conform to the rules of submitting to the guardians of this galaxy. There were news anchors hoping to juice a story that had everything that sells—movies, drugs, depression, sex. There were government agencies responding to TV studio outrage against the so-called perversions of the high and mighty. And there was a nation that was only too willing to be distracted from the strange fugue it found itself suspended in.
It was, doubtlessly, a curious case, a tragedy of epic proportions. Here was a young man, who had made it from Bihar to Mumbai, via Delhi College of Engineering, which he dropped out of, to become a star in Bollywood. He had done well on TV, made an accomplished screen debut in a noted director’s Kai Po Che! in 2013, based on a Chetan Bhagat bestseller, and was snapped up by the talent mavens at Yash Raj Films who have created stars such as Ranveer Singh and Anushka Sharma.
Plus, he was articulate, fond of quoting quantum physics and happy to discuss the books he was reading. When I met him one evening in 2017 in a Delhi hotel room for a conversation, he didn’t have to think twice before telling me the five books he was reading: Ways of Seeing by John Berger; Deviate: Seeing Reality Differently by Beau Lotto; What We Cannot Know by Marcus du Sautoy; You Are Not So Smart by David McRaney; and This Will Make You Smarter, edited by John Brockman.
I have a video record of parts of the conversation and it is painful to watch. This was in 2017 by which time Bollywood had started to deliver hard knocks to Sushant Singh Rajput. He had spent a year preparing for the lead role in Shekhar Kapur’s Paani, a film that eventually Yash Raj Films never made. Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! (2015) had not done well at the box office, and stories about his supposed reckless sex life were being told and retold in newspaper columns. He seemed nervous, enthusiastic, excitable and discontented all at the same time.
In a heartbreaking comment, when asked to talk about the similarity between physics and Bollywood, he said: “The kind of readiness we have in the industry to pull down people, you will fall at a rate faster than the speed of light. You will be forgotten.” Even if you’re accelerating, there will be multiple forces trying to stop you, he added.
In the week of his death, I wrote about how different he was in these columns. This is what I’d written: What made him stand out among the muscled masculinity of Bollywood was a certain earthiness, a certain beauty that has not travelled merely from Bandra to Juhu, but from Patna to Mumbai. Abhishek Chaubey, the director of Sonchiriya, where Sushant played Lakhna, a dacoit, said it well in an interview: “Most Bollywood male actors actually look like different versions of the same guy. But Sushant was different. There was also something very desi about him, perhaps because of his heritage as he didn’t come from Bandra and Juhu.”
Perhaps there was a certain fragility that did not prepare him for the disappointment of Drive (2019), a Tarun Mansukhani film that was to have been a Fast & Furious franchise for Dharma Productions going straight to streaming early last year. The delay of his film Dil Bechara (2020), directed by Bollywood’s star casting director Mukesh Chhabria, was also a huge disappointment (it was released only after his death). It was not enough to compensate for the success of Kedarnath (2018) as well as Chhichhore (2019).
In the year since his death, his erstwhile girlfriend has become the victim of systematic social lynching. Bollywood stars have been made to visit the guesthouse of the Narcotics Control Bureau to explain the presence of drug-related comments and requests in their WhatsApp chats. And Kangana Ranaut has made it her life’s mission to fight for outsiders against the high priests of Bollywood hype, while also cleverly linking it to the larger debate on nationalism vs libertarianism, dynasty vs meritocracy and insiders vs outsiders.
There are still those who are keeping the fight alive for Sushant Singh Rajput. They are convinced he was murdered, though nothing uncovered by either the Mumbai Police or the Central Bureau of Investigation points to that. His family, especially, has refused closure. His death has become a tragic reminder both of his unexplored potential and the yawning gap between the entitled few and the disenfranchised majority in the film industry as well as in society.
He will, however, last in public memory as forever young, eternally romantic and always bathed in beauty.