Opportunism in Celebrity Death

Hours after the news of Sushant Singh Rajput’s demise broke, the internet was flooded with remembrances about the actor and search engine-optimised clickbait about his manager, his family and movies as online “publications” trawled for easy traffic.

Things devolved quickly enough into a cheap circus.

The initial wall of people adding nothing to the collective mourning except the sound of their own voices by saying nothing more than “RIP” or “Sushant Singh Rajput is dead” was especially grating. Brand managers made thinly veiled attempts to plug products while “grieving this loss”.

Perhaps the most annoying of all were those who laced their grievances on Twitter and Instagram with advice on maintaining mental health. Apparently armchair activists and the uber privileged weren’t given the memo that unless you’re a mental health expert, your opinions on depression-driven suicides are unnecessary.

The truly horrifying part was yet to come. Soon after, gory pictures of his body started making the rounds on social media, moving from WhatsApp groups to Twitter feeds. It felt like watching a macabre catastrophe in slow motion.

While a Zee News headline screamed, “Filmon ka Dhoni asal zindagi mein out kaise”, an Aaj Tak headline flashed a picture of his body accompanied with, “Sushant zindagi ki pitch par hit-wicket kaise ho gaye”.

The coverage on Zee News.

His family was then harassed at their Patna home by reporters for bytes and the minutiae of his suicide down to the colour of the noose was reported upon. While the outrage over such insensitive reporting is more than justified,  journalists across the board were largely just pandering to their target audiences.

Aaj Tak, and more talk of the colour of the cloth used as a noose.

The talk of his suicide was the flavour of the hour with neighbourhood aunties and uncles, who tsk-tsked in casual conversations laced with a “so sad-so young-he had everything-why would anybody do this?” while slurping their evening chai.

B-list Bollywood celebrities dug out old pictures with him and posted meaningless captions and managed to make it about themselves as per usual. Influencers baited people with their brand of toxic positivity.

But TRP-grabbing shenanigans aside, this whole incident has made us introspect about ideas of success. We were all predictably shocked – as we always are. Not because a human life is lost but because this particular life had attained all that the rest of us aspired for. Financial success, fame, beauty and the love of the masses for genuine talent.

Also read: Rishi Kapoor and Irrfan: A Tale of Two Thespians

Maybe that’s why the collective reaction to Sushant Singh Rajput’s death has been so vapid. Because we haven’t separated the star from the human. Our ability to empathise is severely hampered by our obsession with celebrity culture and maybe that’s the only way we can justify being as inhuman as we are in 2020.

Because the truth is that we are all equally complicit in this culture, the content maker and the content clicker. The events that transpired were never really about the actor or mental health; it is all about grabbing eyeballs. It is about creating content.

Probably the least edifying aspect of the death of a much-loved star is all the little dollar signs appearing in the eyes of editors the world over. Right now, there’s an intern at every content platform who has been tasked with compiling a nostalgia-driven listicle about Rajput’s greatest career highs and lows and/or rankings of his best and worst movies. Not because that’s what he’d like to write but because that’s what’ll pull in the numbers right now.

We saw it happen with Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade. Every time a celebrity suicide is reported, the whole cycle repeats itself. Once again, celebrity friends tweet their remembrances. Once again, endless think pieces will be published. And once again, the dark spectre of depression will be reconsidered.

But after a few days, when our vapid social media posts bellowing tone-deaf takes like “please reach out” and “it’s ok to not be okay” stop getting traction, will we move on to the next trend?

Perhaps that’s already happened with Kangana Ranaut managing to put the spotlight on herself yet again. Say what you will, but it’s astounding that Ranaut managed to slip in a quip about her directorial debut being a blockbuster while addressing a fellow actor’s death and eventually shifting the whole narrative to her favourite topic: nepotism.

The hypocrisy of this piece isn’t lost on me. Am I pointing out a flaw from a moral high pedestal while indirectly doing exactly what I am accusing the system of doing wrong?

Maybe I can sleep better knowing that my intention was to talk about the vapid and inhumane way we as a society deal with celebrity deaths, and not to profit off it. Perhaps there is a lot more to be said about the intricacies of celebrity culture and capitalism.

Perhaps there is a lot more nuance to this than what I’ve explored. But then again, old news wouldn’t get any clicks would it?

Fuelled by bhel and her imposter syndrome, Swarnim Jain likes to spend her time escaping from any form of meaningful conversation. Follow @swarnimjain on IG for infrequent updates about her life.

Featured image credit: Reuters