How a Bollywood star’s death case took a ‘misogynistic spiral’

Mumbai, India – Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput was found dead by apparent suicide at his Mumbai residence on June 14. What was a tragic end to a promising young star’s career has turned into a media frenzy that has centred on the 34-year-old actor’s girlfriend Rhea Chakraborty.

The case has since drawn in the top central investigation agencies, officers from Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) and even become a political talking point for the upcoming elections in Bihar state – home state of Rajput.

Chakraborty was arrested earlier this month, while top Bollywood personalities, including Deepika Padukone, have been questioned in an escalating drug investigation.

Police said it was a case of accidental death and post-mortem and viscera reports accessed by the media ruled out foul play.

We see many male actors being accused of crimes but I have not seen a nastier trial before a guilty verdict

Actor Tapsee Pannu

But Rajput’s family have accused Chakraborty, the actor’s live-in partner, of abetment to suicide, theft, cheating, conspiracy and wrongful confinement.

The Enforcement Directorate, examining money-laundering allegations against Chakraborty, has not found big transactions from the late actor’s account to the accused’s account. The Central Bureau of Investigation has not held a news briefing to reveal their findings.

But Chakraborty has been subjected to a vilification campaign by the media, including social media where “justice for Sushant” has trended multiple times in the past couple of months, activists say.

Moral judgements

The actress and her brother remain in judicial custody under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, for allegedly procuring 59 grams of cannabis for Rajput. The drug probe agency, NCB claims that Chakraborty is part of a “drug syndicate”.

The investigation and the unprecedented media coverage is a disquieting reminder of how women in Bollywood meet with harsher moral judgements than their male counterparts, lawyers and activists said.

Nandita Rao, Delhi High Court lawyer and activist, said that the charges against the actor are not commensurate with the evidence.

“Marijuana is a ‘conventional’ drug. The quantity is so small. To be a drug dealer, you have to procure commercial quantities and there has to be someone apart from your boyfriend that you have to sell it to,” Rao told Al Jazeera.

The public scrutiny in such cases is based on the ‘Raja Beta’ syndrome – the son can do no wrong.

Yasser Usman, the author of the unofficial biography, Rekha: The Untold Story

The NCB is now probing the alleged drug nexus in Bollywood and it has summoned more female actors for questioning based on WhatsApp conversations that were also displayed on news channels raising privacy concerns.

Al Jazeera tried to contact officials from NCB but received no response by the time of publication of the article.

Rao said that the media trial appears to be politically orchestrated.

The case turned into a media frenzy that has centred on the 34-year-old actor’s girlfriend Rhea Chakraborty [Francis Mascarenhas/Reuters]“It started out as an agenda against second- and third-generation Bollywood producers and actors. When Rajput died by suicide, the narrative was that he was pushed to do it by nepotism in the film industry,” she told Al Jazeera.

“[But later,] when the Bihar election took centre stage, the same people started shouting from the rooftops that he was ill-treated by his girlfriend and that she stole his money and abandoned him. Some even said that he did not have a mental illness and that she had drugged him.

“All factually incorrect allegations. Murder and abetment to suicide are contradictory allegations. Then, it took a misogynistic spiral,” Rao said.

Earlier this month, the governing Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) cultural cell unveiled posters with a photograph of Rajput with the message, “na bhule hai, na bhulne denge (we have neither forgotten, nor will we forget)”. Critics said the BJP has tried to derive political mileage from Rajput’s death.

The 24/7 media coverage

Noted filmmaker Hansal Mehta said the case looks like a diversionary tactic. “The real issues have taken a backseat – a migrant crisis, floods, the pandemic, nosediving GDP, the India-China standoff etc.”

The 24/7 media coverage of the case has trumped the coronavirus crisis and the India-China border crisis, and TV media saw record viewership – which seems to show the public interest in the case.

Counselling psychologist Revati Deshpande attributes the society’s speculations to cognitive frameworks that arise from a learned world view.

“There is a heavily gendered schema that Rhea [Chakraborty] fits into. Historically, women have been seen as serving a purpose for men – common examples are media tropes like the manic pixie dream girl or demanding and abrasive wife,” Deshpande told Al Jazeera.

The Indian male’s infantilisation is passed off as the purity of his nature.

Naomi Datta, media commentator

“A woman is either supposed to cure a man’s depression and be the meaning of his life or conversely ruin all his potential.”

When Chakraborty presented her side in a news channel interview, people on social media questioned her ‘audacity’ and judged her for “moving on too soon”. Columnist Shobhaa De even wrote a piece on “the lack of a twitch on her face” and her “sati-savitri” (a loyal, devoted wife) attire during the interview.

Naomi Datta, former broadcast journalist and media commentator, weighed in on the “righteous anger reserved for the girlfriend”.

“Thanks to the pandemic putting an end to all recreation, news channels have stepped in with their version of soap news. We casually talk about girls who ‘phasao’ (hook) a good catch (a boy with prospects). The Indian male’s infantilisation is passed off as the purity of his nature,” Datta told Al Jazeera.

“A channel bombarded us with a video where both Sushant and Rhea are smoking, we don’t know what, but the headline is ‘Rhea Exposed’. For smoking? And isn’t he smoking, too?” she asked.

When Rajput’s therapist Susan Walker disclosed to senior journalist Barkha Dutt that he had bipolar disorder and that Chakraborty was his “strongest support”, social media users castigated her for violating client-patient confidentiality. “Women are perceived as having a higher Emotional Quotient and, therefore, also have to bear the labour of a man’s mental health,” said Deshpande.

Women in Bollywood

But this is not the first time female actors in Bollywood have generally been held to different moral yardsticks for their romantic relationships or public conduct.

In the 1990s, Bollywood actress Rekha was blamed for the suicide death of her husband Mukesh Aggarwal.

Magazines like Showtime and Cine Blitz called her “The Black Widow”.

Yasser Usman, the author of the unofficial biography, Rekha: The Untold Story, said that people, including his mother, believed that Rekha killed her husband.

“Rekha didn’t claim Aggarwal’s property. There was no case against her but her mother-in-law’s words were all over: ‘Woh Daayan Mere Bete Ko Kha Gayi’ (The witch gobbled up my son). The public scrutiny in such cases is based on the ‘Raja Beta’ syndrome – the son can do no wrong,” Usman told Al Jazeera.

“This life-altering vilification turned her into a recluse and silenced her.

“[Bollywood actor] Sanjay Dutt was honest about his addiction from the start. He was never portrayed as a villain for that but for the arms case. People were compassionate to him and blamed his drug addiction on his mother’s long battle with cancer or his volatile love life,” Usman said, who has also authored, Sanjay Dutt: The Crazy Untold Story of Bollywood’s Bad Boy.

He said Bollywood is being portrayed as “a den of vice where only women consume drugs”.

In 2013, actor Sooraj Pancholi was charged based on a suicide note left by his ex-girlfriend Jiah Khan. When he was granted bail, the media reported that “the prosecution had been on a witch-hunt against Pancholi because of his celebrity status.”

Deepika Padukone was questioned at the weekend in an escalating drug investigation [Niharika Kulkarni/Reuters] (Reuters)The court also stated, “Jiah and Sooraj were in a live-in relationship by volition. It cannot be said that the deceased had no option but to commit suicide.” Rajput did not leave a suicide note but that did not deter media from wild speculation about Chakraborty’s role in the actor’s death.

Karishma Upadhyay, film journalist and author of the biography, Parveen Babi: A Life, recounts how the film industry learned about the popular actress’ mental breakdown in 1979.

Some films were kept on hold for a few months. Mental health was so stigmatised that her manager initially disclosed that she had jaundice.

“People refused to believe that someone as beautiful and successful as her could have been struggling with mental health issues,” Upadhyay told Al Jazeera.

“Even today, the public and large parts of the media are ready to believe that a woman has performed black magic on a man than believing that he suffered from mental health issues that a host of doctors have confirmed.”

Actor Tapsee Pannu laments that it may take a few more lifetimes for things to be fair for women.

“We see many male actors being accused of crimes but I have not seen a nastier trial before a guilty verdict, even with three agencies on the case,” said Pannu, who is known for critically acclaimed films such as Pink, Thappad (slap), and Mulk (country).

“A certain section of the media and the society were so interested in seeing her (Chakraborty) behind bars that they forgot that she has been arrested on charges unrelated to the main investigation.”

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