Sushant Singh Rajput’s death by suicide has indeed brought about many questions on the fore, and with this open letter, an ardent Hindi film viewer, raises some hard-hitting questions about the industry and his demise.
It was during the course of my first month outside India that I started realising that whatever I had been shown in our films about life in the West and how us Indians lived in the West, in particular, was all a big lie. The Raichands of Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, the Kapoors and Patels of Kal Ho Naa Ho, the Prakashes and Kapoors of Hum Tum, the Talwars and Sarans of Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna. It started dawning upon me slowly that I wasn’t going to wear the kind of clothes they wore, own the kind of houses they owned, deal only with the kind of problems they had to deal with, and live, put simply, the kind of life that any of them lived. It occurred to me that I had forgotten conveniently what filmmaker Mira Nair had pointed out to Karan Johar no less on the latter’s talk show. I had not paid heed to her when she pointed out that most Indians in the West did not live in the manner portrayed in his films. And that one is more likely to see an Indian woman struggling to grasp the way to dress to keep herself warm on that first western winter and wearing, in truth, her husband’s oversized coat as she made that trip on foot to her local launderette. In other words, she would have no Manish Malhotra standing beside her to pick out and put together for her a wardrobe that consisted of the choicest of the season’s Couture and Prêt-à-porter.
And I remember expecting to see, as I was being driven home from the airport on my first trip back to India a few years later, all the streets swept clean, all waste swept out of sight. I had hoped to see, without having done anything whatsoever to help achieve it, all slums vanish from existence and replaced by decent housing, all sewage flowing underneath the ground on well-planned and laid out networks of pipes. All Indians paid well, all traffic in order. I had, in other words, hoped to see the streets of Aaja Nachle, of Bunty Aur Babli, and Fanaa, and parts of Veer-Zaara, and Dil To Pagal Hai before them all, and of course Mohabbatein, and Mere Yaar Ki Shaadi Hai and even Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi. A nostalgic India, an India of dreams that those Indians that lived outside it were particularly fond of – an India built either overseas or in one of the studio lots, an India, where the very worst thing that can happen to you is having your heart broken by a beautiful man or a woman; an India where all its people and places, their lives and languages and their dreams and goals are sanitised, perfumed, blow-dried and colour-saturated.
This is the India of mainstream Bollywood, a mythical land created, nurtured and populated by the Chopras and the Johar, aided and abetted by the Khans, the Kapoors and everyone else who wanted to be them, making works of mythology that people like me have worshipped at the altar of. An India that has since seeped into the mainstream screens of almost all Indian languages. A place in which, when viewed from where I and my kind are, actors’ existences are validated when they are invited to Koffee with Karan, and their success is certified when they find a spot in one of the lists in its Rapid Fire Round. A place where the worst thing an actor can do is to not be able to speak fluent unthinking English. And not just any English but the kind of lingo that the trendy in-crowd spoke, where everyone is light-skinned, and gym-toned and wrote catchy captions to accompany their everyday Instagram posts.
This is the Bollywood that doesn’t appear to have had a place for the late actor Sushant Singh Rajput to find his peace in. And if the validation or not by such a place could have meant as much as it did to a young man who was clearly as smart, and talented, and hard-working as he was, though as clearly as he thought, spoke as intelligently as he spoke, what does it say about someone like me who has put this place in a pedestal so high, so revered, so unrivalled, so almighty? I watch an interview of his from three years ago on and I ask myself, why did I not see it when it was first put out. Why did I choose to see an interview of say, Ranbir Kapoor multiple times instead? I see Mr Singh Rajput talk with such sophistication about the philosophy behind original thought and honest expression, and I ask myself why I chose to be amused instead by Mr Kapoor ask what the word Misogyny meant in another interview. I see the look on interviewer’s face as she hears Mr Singh Rajput speak, seems to sense that he is a misfit in the place he has chosen to be in, that he is too deep, too sensitive, too passionate for the crowd he is amongst and I find myself overcome with emotion when she asks him what he does for fun. He reads, he says, just to have a different take on things. And that is his fun, and that is the man who is no more. A man who I now realise, far from being beneath a spot on a Koffee episode couch, was in fact, far too bright, far too rational, far too smart to be expected to wrestle in its muddy pit.
And I ask myself, what is the true value of the place that has let down a man like Sushant Singh Rajput. And what part have I, you, and everyone like us played in making it our most powerful cultural institution?
Is not the purpose of culture to hold a mirror up to its people, except the mirror now acts like it is too precious to reflect, or to even be held by those very people. And the truth slowly dawns upon me, that we too, are Frankenstein, and we have helped create a monster. Now, where do we go from here? What do we do with this monster? In this age of Time’s Up, and Me Too, and Black Lives Matter, when cultural institutions all over the world are having urgent conversations about diversity and inclusivity in terms of class, colour, race, gender, where is the true Indian Soul, if, in fact, there is still such a thing?
By Shiva Karthik
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