I have been a passive spectator to most things around me. Sometimes, agitated, I have tried to express myself in convoluted poetry lest all the parts of me should unravel at once. But today I sit here, reflecting upon my own past through the eyes of Sushant Singh Rajput, who I refuse to address in the past tense.
I grew up mostly in Madhya Pradesh, India’s seemingly neutral no-man's land. And yet, throughout my childhood, when I told people that my roots lay in Bihar, it was often associated with caricature, loud expressions, and Lalu Prasad Yadav’s overgrown ear hair. This sentiment became more pronounced when I moved to Pune in the 11th grade. Auto drivers could not be addressed as ‘bhaiyas’ and children from typically accomplished, urban families casually spoke of Biharis stealing jobs and diluting their culture in passing.
To what extent do the perceptions about us outline people’s behaviour towards us? Can identity-based condensation persist in the upper echelons of the high society? Can one’s identity be so intertwined with ones’ home address or fluency of English that it starts limiting our options, even in creative spaces? And if all this culminates into a lack of access and opportunities, then doesn’t it become a structural problem that systematically discriminates and marginalises people and therefore must be re-evaluated at the earliest?
Sushant’s untimely demise has left a deafening silence amid the stalwarts of Bollywood. (Photo: Facebook/ @SushantSinghRajput)
Many such feathers have been unruffled since Sushant passed away. Aspersions have been cast on the strength of one’s mind to cope with the challenges that come with surviving in this ruthless city of dreams, especially when one hails from a small town. So, on the one hand, a popular female actor, who openly talks of depression and often faces backlash for her stances or her movies that supposedly hurt religious sentiments, is always deemed to be successful in public opinion. On the other hand, the same industry is quick to declare that a small-town boy from Patna, who prefers keeping to himself, his telescope and his collection of books, could not handle his own stardom and succumbed to the pressures of this industry and his weak mind.
This narrative is not restricted to social circles, but percolates to the professional and financial aspects as well. It restricts prospects and constricts one’s ability to integrate and belittles creativity on the basis of one’s existing social stature.
Let us assume for a moment that cinema is a purely artistic endeavour and hence the worldly rules of equity and morality do not necessarily apply to this space. Even then, it hardly makes any statistical sense for there to be only a handful of roles to be played by a handful of characters in such a diverse country with the second-highest population in the world. If we argue that some people are ‘better suited’ for some characters than the others, then how do we justify that a film about a boy from Bihar studying at St Stephen’s could not have the actual boy from Bihar who studied at a premier college in Delhi? The answer is somehow always scheduling issues.
Even if we adopt the most capitalistic approach and think of cinema as just part of one profit-driven entertainment industry, the entire film industry, which amounts to nearly 2 billion dollars, cannot possibly rely on only a few names (some of whom have not produced a single hit in decades) to sustain itself. What happened to not putting all your eggs in one basket? Thus, this socio-economic distinction has no creative or economic basis and frankly seems quite arbitrary.
This also sets a dangerous precedent. It demotivates the aspiring dreamer, who is not a ‘street smart’ Delhi-kid but instead the 15-year-old staring at billboards while going to his tuition classes in Kanpur. Imagine this child being confronted by Rachel McAdams on his way while she tells him, “You can’t sit with us.” It is, however, ironic that while the mean girls in teenage dramas eventually learn their lessons by the end of the movie, in Bollywood it seems like they neither graduate high school nor are they incentivised to grow more accommodating. Their snide remarks and petty opinions on talk shows are eagerly watched by us, rewarding them eventually with more popularity, recognition, and brand endorsements, thus feeding this vicious cycle. So, it is not surprising that when a 27-year-old popular star speaks unabashedly about calling up directors demanding to be cast in their films, we find her little insinuations “cute”.
It is true that nepotism is everywhere. But we must understand that the Indian film industry is still mostly supply-driven. Audience’s choices are limited to the movies being made and distributed to the cinema hall near them. Once they indulge, they end up validating this systemic appropriation of the cinematic space with its subjective barriers to the entry that typically undermines talent, undervalues hard work and aggrandises the pre-established networks.
Sushant’s untimely demise has left a deafening silence amid the stalwarts of Bollywood. Token condolence messages are being perceived as reductive arguments about mental illness and self-nurturing saviour complexes. An unprecedented trend has emerged. Locked down and confined to digital modes of communicating that are the otherwise ignored, middle-class, non-English-speaking, tiered India, has taken the onus upon itself to call out such instances of hypocrisy in Bollywood. Moreover, in an entirely citizen-driven campaign, people have gathered and cross-checked evidence and are speaking about 'discrepancies' in the investigation, and collectively raised their voices demanding an impartial probe into the matter.
It is also important to realise that this emergent segment of viewers is no longer a captive audience. The rise of the popularity of OTT platforms promises to be truly disruptive. The content has become more broad-based and customer-centric, significantly expanding their respective choice sets. Armoured with social media and a plethora of alternatives, the digital distance between stars and their ‘followers’ has also diminished. The typical viewer is not awestruck watching the snow-capped mountains of Switzerland to seek respite from the drudgeries of their own lives. They look for stimulating content and have dynamic aspirations. In this context, Sushant’s death has glaringly unravelled the many paradoxes in this industry. It has awakened our collective consciences towards demanding and enabling a cohesive and representative ecosystem for showcasing the different narratives that have emerged, from the people, by the people and for the people. Both these aspects of entertainment can co-exist, as does Sushant’s legacy: a photon, in a double-slit experiment.