Mourning Sushant Singh Rajput: Notes on the Hegemonic Bollywood Bully Club

On June 14, 2020, Sushant Singh Rajput was found dead in his Bandra apartment amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. His death by suicide sparked widespread shock, disbelief and grief, even as many conversations reignited the insider/outsider debate.

Over the years, I, as a fan, have followed the graph of the actor who started in nondescript roles but had a meteoric rise. The kind of fame, success and above all, the journey that Sushant Singh Rajput owned are stuff that dreams are made of. After all, it’s not every day that a television actor transitions into a Bollywood ‘A-lister’, as the Hindi film A-lister club is a closed cartel that might make way for “outside” talent every now and then but only truly legitimise those from its own ilk – those who feed off mutual admiration.

It’s also not every day that an unassuming Manav (played by Rajput) from Pavitra Rishta on Zee TV – shy, romantic, rooted – is able to win a million hearts in Kai Po Che! (2013), Shuddh Desi Romance (2013), PK (2014), Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! (2015) Kedarnath (2018) or Chhichhore (2019). Each a different genre and character – the actor’s sheer range and versatility showed how he refused to be stereotyped or labelled.

Rajput rose from the rows of background supporting dancers in choreographer Shiamak Davar’s troupe to immortalise former Indian skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni in the biopic M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story. Rajput shared his middle-class and Bihari roots with Dhoni – while he hailed from Patna, Dhoni is from Ranchi; both small-town boys with big dreams.

Interestingly, Rajput openly expressed his regard for another television phenomenon – Shah Rukh Khan, a larger-than-life hero of the same middle-class script.

It is Rajput’s middle-class background, humility, his Twitter handle interspersed with anecdotes from his nerdish obsession with astrophysics for his 1.8 million followers – that made him a rarity in Bollywood. The star, who maintained a diary of 50 dreams – was not a Bollywood insider.

In fact, he was mocked – as many others are as well – by the privileged and glamorous members of gossip-chat clubs/award shows where entitled members take jibes at outsiders or “audition actors” like Rajput, much akin to the performative codes of high-school bullying.

This is not to suggest that any such particular act/individual is responsible for the actor’s death, but it is important to call out acts of bullying. Bullying thrives on mocking, pressurising and alienating the unacknowledged victim. Like the nerd who is bullied in a school of glib-talking, privileged school kids, or the gossip-wary, not-part-of-the-herd colleague who is cornered in a corporate office.

Also read: Opportunism in Celebrity Death

A student of engineering with an interest in star-gazing – Rajput’s mind obviously had a broader range than the limited discourse of shared privilege club-talk of industry godfathers and star kids.

It is telling that Rajput urged his fans (when he complained in jest how the actor dies in every film) on Instagram to watch Sonchiriya as he had no “godfather”, and that his run in the industry would come to an end if people wouldn’t watch films he was in.

Filmmaker Shekhar Kapur posted on Twitter about how there were some who let the actor down so badly that he would weep on his shoulders, adding later that the system needs to be pulled down – and not some individuals, as even the perpetrators are products of the same system.

Filmmaker Anubhav Sinha said as much on his Twitter handle; that the privilege club should sit back and think about Rajput’s death, adding later that where the insider/outsider debate ends, the kind/mean debate begins.

Why does Bollywood escape every movement (remember #MeToo)? Why do we hear stories of how a certain actor wields so much clout in the industry that a young actor’s career can be completely shut down over some petty revenge?

Rajput, who reportedly lost “seven films in six months”, was an underdog; what led to his suicide will be best left to the investigative team looking into it.

The question here is of the politics of favouritism played by goody-goody Bollywood that sheds copious woke tears on social media.

Will the cartel culture go unquestioned? What happens once the news cycle over Rajput’s death is done and dusted? The least we can do as purveyors of Indian cinema is to not forget that the nexus run by moguls sabotages individual talent in order to propel collective mediocrity of yes men and women.

Featured image credit: Reuters