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The twists and turns of the SSR case

Sometimes the medium becomes more important than the message.

Most of the commentary following Sushant Singh Rajput’s death has focused on TV. Such phrases as “trial by media” have been flung around and people have asked if the tragedy deserves continuing saturation coverage.


Fair enough. But let’s get real. In any society, the sudden and unexpected death of a young movie star would trigger lurid and sensational coverage. Twenty years after Marilyn Monroe was found dead, conspiracy theories over her overdose were doing the rounds. (They still are.) Michael Jackson’s death kept the media engaged for months. So did Elvis Presley’s.


   So yes, the media coverage of the “SSR case” may seem over the top. But that is the nature of the beast. This is how the media behaves in these situations all over the world. If we don’t like the coverage, we can switch channels.


   Whenever a famous, glamorous person meets an unexpected end, we look for someone to blame. When Princes Diana died in a car crash, public anger focused on the paparazzi and the royal family. Later, the conspiracy theories began (did M16 have her assassinated?)  and they have never really gone away.


   In the case of Sushant, something similar has happened. Once the shock wore off, the public mood turned to anger. People needed someone to blame. Much of the anger was directed at Bollywood which was criticized for being too insular, too incestuous and too clubby. An outsider like Sushant, it was said, who had not grown up in a film family or in Pali Hill or Juhu would never really find acceptance in the fraternity.


   Much of this anger was overstated and its targets were unfairly selected. But it is hard to deny the substance of the allegation. For all the outsiders who have made it (Shah Rukh Khan, Ranveer Singh, Akshay Kumar, etc.), Bollywood is still very much a family business. The people who run much of the industry grew up together, lived near each other and their daddies had drinks together.


   Bollywood has said, in its defence, that this is true of all of Indian industry. But there is a difference. Indian industry is actually easier to break into now than it was 30 years ago. Bollywood, which once welcomed men like Dilip Kumar, Dharmendra, Manoj Kumar, Sunil Dutt and so many others who came to Bombay with nothing, is now much more of a closed shop.


   If the anger had stopped there and if it had forced Bollywood to take a long hard look at itself, then this would be no bad thing. The Bollywood people I spoke to when the uproar began were outraged and surprised by the level of public rage. But after a week or so of constant battering, they had become worried enough to wonder how they had alienated so much of middle India with their we-are-all-cool-guys-together attitude.


"Sushant’s was a sad death. But it has been made even sadder by its aftermath."

   But as the controversy has raged, it has gone in too many different directions and far too many people (movie stars, politicians, etc.) have jumped on to the bandwagon for their own selfish reasons.


   There was always a Mumbai vs Outsiders element to the early anger. But Bihar politicians, who are preparing to fight an assembly election, have twisted that anger to play on Bihari sentiment. Nitish Kumar’s party’s appeal to his voters is unashamedly emotional and exploitative. A talented young Bihari died in Mumbai in mysterious circumstances. We will seek out the truth and avenge him.  Cue the “Bihari Yuva” campaign slogan


   So, we had the unusual spectacle of the Bihar police arriving in Mumbai to conduct their own investigation. This set a curious precedent. Mumbai is a cosmopolitan city. What happens if a Bengali who lives there dies? Will Mamata Banerjee send the Bengal police to investigate his death? Will a Malayali’s death attract investigations by the Kerala police?


   Nitish was doing this for his domestic constituency and when the Mumbai police protested, he asked for the case to be transferred to the CBI -- which the Supreme Court today said is essential


   The centre also got in on the act. There are allegations that money was transferred out of Sushant’s account. But the sums quoted (which turned out, in any case, to be exaggerated) were hardly large enough to warrant an Enforcement Directorate inquiry. But one was ordered anyway.


   Then the Maharashtra unit of the BJP, which, these days, lives only to pull down the Shiv Sena-led government, jumped in. Former Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis inveigled himself into the story and began making allegations about how the case had been handled. Next, social media handles suggested that Sushant’s ex-girlfriend, Rhea Chakraborty, might have some connection to Aaditya Thackeray. There was no evidence of this but it was used to smear the young Shiv Sena heir.


   Next, Chakraborty became the target. While the CBI have yet to probe her role (if any) in the death, I think it is fair to say that much of the commentary about her has been misogynistic and anti-woman. Her supporters allege that there is also a domestic chauvinism angle: exploit the Bihari-Bengali divide for electoral purposes. This might explain why, in the statement she released to the press a couple of days ago, she pointed out that her father had been in the army and that her mother was Maharashtrian.


   Also in that statement was a claim alleging same-sex groping by Sushant’s sister - an allegation that was certain to attract attention. (The claim has been denied and seems impossible to substantiate.)


   What started out as the story of a nation shocked and then angered by the tragic death of a talented actor has now become a tamasha where everyone takes part and gets attention for themselves and their own interests. Given the salacious nature of the allegations and the fact that the CBI will have to start from scratch, this means that this rage will run and run unless the public finds something else and moves on.


   Sushant’s was a sad death. But it has been made even sadder by its aftermath.



Posted On: 20 Aug 2020 11:45 AM
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