Art & Culture

Jiah Khan's suicide: How acting is risky business in this era

Gautam Chintamani
Gautam ChintamaniFeb 20, 2016 | 19:24

Jiah Khan's suicide: How acting is risky business in this era

Jiah Khan would have turned 28 today. It's an age where most sportspersons hit their peak. Having been around for a while, actors who started young - Jia was 19 when she featured opposite Amitabh Bachchan in Ram Gopal Varma's Nishabd (2007) - often shift gears.

A failed relationship with Sooraj Pancholi, an upcoming actor who made his debut with Hero (2015), and the son of Zarina Wahab and Aditya Pancholi. Allegedly tired of his false promises, abusive behavior and ultimately a forced abortion led Jiah to depression and eventually her death on June 3, 2013. Following her death, Jiah attained a kind of immortality unique to films where early untimely death bestows certain timelessness to the ones who leave us early.


Many a times untimely deaths in the movie business mean the creation of legends and the younger they die, the longer they live. But even death isn't the great equaliser when it comes show business. Much like life, even in death, the world of cinema seems to willy-nilly tilt the balance in favour of the males who die young - James Dean in the 1950s, Bruce Lee in the 1970s, John Belushi in the 1980s, River Phoenix in the 1990s and Heath Ledger in the 2000s.

Compare this with the female actors who attained a certain kind of immortality following their death and the only ones that can be considered noteworthy are Marilyn Monroe, Madhubala, and Smita Patil. Strangely enough, female icons who lived up their youth and survived were often unceremoniously shunted when they went past their sell-by date. Once upon a time, Kanan Devi's name would not only be taken in the same breath, but also with the same veneration as KL Saigal's. A decade-and-a-half after her heydays in the 1930s and 1940s as one of the biggest singer-star in the Indian sub-continent, she was readily forgotten.


In Hollywood, Marilyn Monroe's death made her into a global icon and many believe that had death not snatched Monroe away so soon, she too might have gone the Bette Davis or Joan Crawford way - once considered popular and even counted among the greatest Hollywood stars but forgotten once they crossed a certain age. In fact, Bette Davis even took out an advertisement asking for "steady employment in Hollywood."


In the Indian context, Madhubala mirrors Monroe when it comes to becoming a bigger legend following an early death and Smita Patil's aura continues to grow with each passing year. The brief period in which Patil blazed the trail created a new template for actresses in Hindi cinema and the void she left behind is a testimony to her iconic status. But in a departure from these names, the actresses who in the recent past died young not only in India but also in Hollywood haven't been recalled in the same light.

A Brittany Murphy, Divya Bharti, or a Soundarya could never be in the league of a Marilyn Monroe, a Madhubala or a Smita Patil but all possessed a spark whose absence was conspicuous. In the 1990s when Divya Bharti died under mysterious circumstances, she was poised to become the next big thing and her accidental death or suicide, as some believe, suddenly created a vacuum. A look at the films that she was supposed to do gives more than an idea of the peak that she had ascertained in a short span and how her death ended up resurrecting the careers of two generations of actors - Sridevi replaced her in Laadla, Raveena Tandon in Mohra, Tabu in Vijaypath.


Jiah Khan was never in the same league as a Smita Patil or Divya Bharti. In fact, she had barely done three films but the promise that she displayed in Nishabd suggested that perhaps the passage of time would have seen her blossom into an actor worth watching out for. Look around and you realise that amongst the current crop Jiah was one of the very few who had what it took to display not just conviction but also a sense of desolation while portraying a character.

Arguably, beyond Nishabd the only other films that she featured in - Ghajini (2008) and Housefull (2010), rarely reveal the actor within. More than her it's a failure of the cinema she was a part of.

In a piece for The New Yorker where he juxtaposed the troubled career of Lindsay Lohan with the struggles that Marilyn Monroe, the actor, underwent because of Marilyn Monroe, the star's buxom blonde image, Richard Brody observed that our era's lack of barrier between the public and the private made acting a riskier business. This has somewhere prompted young performers to respond with professionalism - the supreme value of the age - but what this does is that it brings to the fore an actor's off-screen troubles and while this might not have anything to do with their art, it nonetheless becomes an inseparable part of their persona.

The troubled teen that Jiah portrayed in Nishabd would have always been compared to her in reality and therefore, the troubles that the young actor underwent just before she decided to end her life might have seemed like a part of the image. Reading Jiah's heart-wrenching suicide note, which talks about her failed relationship with Pancholi and how her efforts to keep up with a demanding relationship with a man who wasn't even faithful kept her away from pursuing films with greater enthusiasm.

This writer finds it very strange that no one close to Jiah could see the trauma of what was happening to her clearly enough to perhaps intervene and try helping her out of the mess. The reality of what happened to Jiah became more poignant following Deepika Padukone's public confession about her struggles with depression in 2015. Jiah Khan's handful of films might not be enough to make her a legend but it's enough to make her memorable and moreover the fight that she fought for the things that she believed in is enough to make her unforgettable.

Last updated: March 12, 2016 | 18:09
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