Spotlight

How the media reacted to Sushant Singh Rajput's suicide

Print edition : October 09, 2020

Rhea Chakraborty, mobbed by mediaperons as she arrives at the Narcotics Control Bureau office in Mumbai on September 6. TV channels claimed that her arrest by the NCB vindicated their battle for justice. Photo: PUNIT PARANJPE/AFP

Powerful sections of the electronic media have built up mass hysteria around actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s death and almost succeeded in turning the narrative of a government failing its people into one in which the government pursues a morally suspect elite.

NEVER before in recent times did the untimely death of an actor create the kind of media storm and frenzy witnessed in the aftermath of the demise of Sushant Singh Rajput, an upcoming actor in the Mumbai film industry. Sushant Singh was found hanging in his flat in Mumbai in June, and prima facie his death looked like a case of suicide. Even as the Mumbai Police began investigations, certain sections in the film industry insinuated foul play. Soon this was taken up on social media where there were allegations of “bullying” by a certain film lobby.

Within days, the issue became one of Bihari pride. The narrative was that of a small-town boy from Bihar who was made to feel like an outsider and pushed to the brink by a callous industry. It was quite another matter that the young actor did not ever identify himself as representing a region. He was a newcomer like several others, experienced his share of struggle, and later tasted success by dint of sheer acting talent.

Adding grist to the mill were hyperventilating media, especially the vernacular media in northern India, and a certain section in the film industry having known sympathies with the ruling dispensation at the Centre. A section of the media decided to play vigilante. Head-hunting had begun. While the actor’s family and fan club decided to run a campaign, “Justice for SSR”, the media made hay as the sun shone brightly on television rating points or TRPs. The feigned outrage was almost comical. It became a no-holds-barred game with minute details of all those involved, including the deceased actor and his family members, presented for the consumption of a captive audience.

That the peak of the coronavirus pandemic was nowhere in sight and there seemed to be little hope of a vaccine anytime soon; that the gross domestic product (GDP) had plummeted to negative decimals; and that job losses, including within the media, had taken place all seemed irrelevant. There was no worthwhile discussion on why the PM Cares Fund needed to be accountable or why health workers or farmers were protesting in several parts of the country or why the government was insisting on examinations being held amid the continuing crisis. Similarly, there was graveyard silence on the timing of the issue of agriculture ordinances and major policy initiatives like that of the National Education Policy or the constitution of a committee on criminal law reforms. No objective discussion was seen on the investigation of the Delhi riots by the Delhi Police.

The continued preoccupation with the unfortunate death of an actor did not seem innocuous. It was a deliberate and constructed distraction in order to divert attention from the real economic, social and political discontent among the people. The narrative of a government that had failed the people was replaced by one of a righteous Central government taking on a morally decrepit elite. In playing along with this script, the media unleashed regional chauvinism of a kind that will resonate in the days to come.

Constructed theories

A conspiracy theory was constructed around the late actor’s partner, actor Rhea Chakraborty, as being instrumental in causing his demise, one way or the other. Each television channel with its array of aggressive anchors masquerading as news presenters declared to the viewers each night for hours together that it was “committed” to bringing “justice” to Sushant Singh Rajput. This went on from June until September on prime time. At one point it seemed that a serious debate might ensue on the importance of mental health and treatment of depression, but that was temporary and soon got pushed to the background.

Many things were insinuated about Rhea Chakraborty—that she was a gold-digger, a Jezebel, a bad influence, that she supplied drugs to him and that she sought to gain from him financially. When little of that could be established, the drug charge miraculously stuck, and as an actor pointed out, she was booked for 50 grammes of “pot”, slang for marijuana.

The Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB), people suggested on social media, could conduct periodic raids during Kanwar yatras and the Kumbh Mela if it was really serious about arresting people for smoking ganja (a colloquial term for marijuana). The manner in which Rhea Chakraborty was being hounded was ridiculous. A retired police commissioner commented wryly on a television channel that the NCB had better things to do but “if they want to get her, they have got her”, referring to the arrest of Rhea Chakraborty.

Tragedy and farce

“One successful man, who doesn’t leave a suicide note—should it not be investigated?” screamed a prominent anchor with a Hindi news channel. “He drank juice, ate food and committed suicide,” she went on to add.

A lawyer on her show tried to reason with her, suggesting that not all of the large number of suicides in the country qualified as murder. The anchor was ready with a rebuttal. “But no one saw him.” The fact that there was no any witness to the alleged suicide meant that it was murder. As simple as that.

‘Boy from Bihar’

Sections of the electronic media relayed interviews with the Bihar Director General of Police, Gupteshwar Pandey, who felt that the Bihar Police had a “natural” right to investigate the case even though the incident had occurred in Maharashtra. After all, it concerned a “boy from Bihar”. Everyone was milking the opportunity that the death had offered. He slammed the Maharashtra Police for behaving “unethically and unprofessionally”. He told a TV channel: “They could have told our officers that they had no jurisdiction.” Not once was he cross-questioned by the TV anchor on why the Bihar Police landed up in Mumbai in the first place and whether there were not more sophisticated ways of handling inter-State issues, if at all this case was one of them.

He said with supreme confidence that Rhea Chakraborty had been arrested not because of her sacrifice for “love” but because she was an active member of a “drug syndicate”. He claimed that no proof had emerged to establish that Sushant Singh Rajput was a “drug addict”. But then there was no proof either that Rhea Chakraborty was a member of an active drug cartel or a queen of drug trafficking.

After the NCB arrested Rhea Chakraborty, the channels gloated as if they had been vindicated in their battle for justice. “Will she finally admit she took drugs?” ranted a TV anchor. “Rhea jail jayegi ya ghar jayegi?” (Will Rhea go to jail or go home?), read the tag lines on television news channels. One male reporter got inside her vehicle and kept on asking questions even as she looked poker-faced and did not reply. How he was allowed to enter the vehicle was a big question.

One prominent bespectacled English-speaking anchor known for his high decibel levels shrieked “Bollywood—listen—all the druggies will be caught” and warned that the actor “will use all her tactics to try to divert the issue”. He also urged the audience to “boycott all the channels who gave importance to druggies”. Rhea Chakraborty was “the Samba of the gang; the Gabbars were yet to be caught”, said his reporter on the field with a reference to dacoit characters in the film Sholay. “Rhea ki giraftaari, Satyameva Jayate,” declared the bespectacled anchor with absolute finality (Rhea arrested, victory to truth). A woman anchor stated: “Sushant’s warriors had won one third of the battle but we have to go a long way before justice is shown.” Her channel claimed to have access to “exclusive” WhatsApp “drug chats”. All this was the outcome, she claimed of 86 days and “2000 hours of relentless focus”. It was relentless propaganda at best.

When the witch-hunt went on relentlessly, more than two thousand persons, including young actors and directors like Anurag Kashyap, Mira Nair, Swara Bhasker, Zoya Akhtar, Farhan Akhtar, Alankrita Srivastava (of Lipstick Under My Burqa fame), Reema Kagti and Dia Mirza, wrote an open letter calling for an end to the hounding of Rhea Chakraborty by the media. “Hunt news and not women,” they wrote. They asked the news media why had they “assassinated her character” and “egged an online mob against her and her family”. When at some point she revealed that the late actor was under medication for depression and had drug dependence, she was accused of calling him a “drug addict” and using the slur of “mentally ill”.

A former print journalist turned television anchor, who claimed to have revealed the “drug chats”, posed with pompous self-righteousness: “I’m accountable to my viewers. Is it wrong to pursue the truth for a 74-year-old father, three sisters? Is it wrong to go after a drug cartel?” she said. She also did not agree that it was an invasion of privacy: “Is it wrong to raise our voice to demand justice?” In one of her programmes, she requested a panelist to leave the show and go to another channel if he wanted to discuss the falling GDP.

The piddly drug busts by the NCB and the exaggerated revelations by the anchor (undoubtedly leaked to the channel by the agencies) would have embarrassed a Pablo Escobar greatly. It was becoming increasingly clear that stories were being “fed” to the media so that the focus remained on Sushant Rajput and the Mumbai film industry to the exclusion of all other issues, including even mental health, which was at the crux of it all.

‘Manufacturing’ justice

The drama did not end with sending Rhea Chakraborty to jail. No questions were ever asked in the media about why the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) or the Enforcement Directorate (E.D.) had not found anything incriminating against her. Neither did any media person question the profligate waste of the national exchequer as not one but three national agencies were deployed to investigate the death of the actor.

In fact, people were surprised when the Supreme Court directed the CBI to investigate the case, especially when the Maharashtra Police was already seized of the matter. There were some sane voices on news channels, but they were rare. A lawyer on a TV show observed caustically that it would be interesting to see how many convictions were there under the Narcotics Drugs and Pyschotropic Substances Act, 1985, following raids on rave parties.

But as the dominant discourse was “fix the woman and her patrons”, there was little room for rationality and reason. One woman anchor claimed: “We have to find Sushant’s murderers and that is our aim.” The theory that it was a murder and not suicide had been constructed long ago.

Another well-known actor, Kangana Ranaut, tweeted that nepotism and bullying in the industry were the reasons for the suicide.

Kangana Ranaut had made her affection for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) very clear in the last Lok Sabha election and the latest Assembly elections in Maharashtra. She is an avowed admirer of Prime Minister Narendra Modi as well. She used the words “film mafia” to describe the Mumbai film industry, notwithstanding the fact that she herself had worked with many of the people she described as the “mafia”. The television media began relaying all that Kangana Ranaut had uttered right from the first tweet in which she expressed suspicions about the suicide. Later, when she likened Mumbai to Pakistan-Occupied-Kashmir and took on the Shiv Sena, television channels, especially the Hindi ones, gave her the kind of space they had given no one before. “A David taking on Goliath” was the allegory used to describe Kangana’s crusade. The media had now found something else to keep the “victim” narrative going. The rallying cry was “justice for Sushant and Kangana” and of course “fix the druggies in the film industry”. It was a relief that the print media and other regional media, for all their warts, remained least bothered about this and continued with their coverage of COVID-related matters and incursions on the border.

Some pertinent questions

If at all a huge drug syndicate was operating in the Mumbai film industry, as claimed, what had the NCB been doing all along about it? Its inaction over all these years was reflective perhaps of its inefficiency rather than anything else. Secondly, did the agency buy into a narrative that had already been rigged even before the investigation started?

The narrative that it was not suicide but murder suited the BJP-led Central government the most as it came handy in attacking the Shiv Sena-Congress-Nationalist Congress Party government in Maharashtra and, by default, created an atmosphere for the Bihar elections. A number of suicides were reported during the lockdown and after, by students and by others. No investigation by Central agencies was instituted in their case.

The disproportionate interest shown by the Central government in deploying its agencies is therefore hugely suspect. A large section of the electronic news media and investigating agencies with their “relentless focus” succeeded in diverting attention from key issues, which seems to have helped the agenda of the Central government.

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