Sushant Singh Rajput was a talented and rising star in the Hindi film industry. The 34-year-old actor had several successful films under his belt and a seemingly bright future. His suicide in Mumbai on June 14 came as a shock to the industry, all the more because it was the third suicide in Bollywood during the nationwide lockdown. There was a general impression that perhaps the actors were suffering from mental illnesses and the lockdown isolation brought about the final breakdown.
Unfortunately, Rajput’s death has turned into a live-streaming potboiler replete with accusations of murder and witchcraft, siphoning off of wealth, money laundering, and peddling and consumption of drugs. Political parties are out to make the most of it all. Sections of the electronic media play a key role in stirring the pot. Sadly, their lopsided, sensationalist reporting and the pursuit of a political agenda have resulted in the vicious victimisation of the actor Rhea Chakraborty, who was Rajput’s girlfriend. She is currently in judicial custody with three others on charges of drug trafficking that are reportedly trumped up.
The suicide certainly makes a compelling story and has television viewers riveted to the drama unfolding daily on news channels. Yet, there are so many disturbing factors in this case that it is necessary to discuss it in a less hysterical and more mature space.
To begin with, why did this particular suicide take a horrific turn? Who would gain from making such a public spectacle of it, and why did it become relevant to the rest of the country, which is struggling to regain a sense of normalcy post months of being in lockdown? Three investigation agencies are involved in the case: the Enforcement Directorate (E.D.), the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB). Even the so-called “anti-nationals” who are involved in “Maoist” activities are not probed by so many authorities.
Rajput, who hailed from Bihar, has suddenly become a part of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) election strategy ahead of the State Assembly election in the form of a “Justice for Sushant” campaign. A well-known film director said: “Once the Bihar elections are over, this case will die. Unfortunately, Rhea Chakraborty will pay the price.”
The amount of time, effort and resources going into the investigation when there are bigger concerns in the country is being questioned on various platforms. A few observers say the sensationalism of this case is typical of the current regime, which uses deflective and desperate tactics while grappling with problems beyond its control. Right now, it faces a combination of a raging pandemic, a plummeting economy and an international crisis.
Television industry insiders told Frontline that the campaign around Rajput’s suicide is driven by a cold-blooded strategy of increasing television rating points (TRP), an index that shows the popularity of a programme and thus forms the basis of advertisers’ decisions on where to invest. One highly placed network executive said: “Once these companies saw the potential of the story, they drummed it up, and the TRP ratings have gone through the roof. We needed material as COVID news started becoming repetitive. It became like a reality show. How come the same attention was not given to Kaushal Punjabi, Samir Sharma or Disha Salian, who also committed suicide and are reasonably well known in the industry?”
Frontline spoke to rights lawyers, a police officer involved in the case and a politician (all of whom prefer to remain unnamed) and they all said that the most significant revelation from the episode was that the electronic media neither abided by any regulations nor respected any boundaries. This is cause for concern because the upshot appears to be the targeting and arrest of a young woman without due process of law being followed. Rhea Chakraborty was practically mauled by cameramen and subjected to hours of interrogation by male police personnel, in complete violation of her rights. She was the subject of lewd Bhojpuri songs, which went viral on social media, indicating a perverse sexism. A women’s rights activist said: “The hounding and persecution of Rhea Chakraborty is disgusting. Adding to this, the way she was interrogated is absolutely unacceptable and telling of what kind of people we have become.”
Several influential names and Bollywood celebrities have come out in support of Rhea Chakraborty. Rarely does the film industry band together and stand up, so it is significant to see stars taking to social media on this issue. The director Anurag Kashyap has even said he will cast her in a film as soon as the ordeal is over. N.C Asthana, retired Director of General of Police of Kerala, wrote in a column that the case “reminded one forcefully of the ‘witch trials’ of medieval Europe… the sordid saga did not expose Rhea as much as it exposed the perversity and misogyny inherent in Indian society.”
A classic potboiler
More than a month after Rajput’s death, Rhea Chakraborty, for some inexplicable reason, pleaded with Union Home Minister Amit Shah to order a CBI probe into the suicide. A film director conjectures that some of her colleagues in the industry perhaps led her to believe that Rajput hanged himself because of depression caused by problems he had with top film-makers who apparently were shunning him for reasons Rajput could not understand. The actor Kangana Ranaut has claimed that like her Rajput was a victim of nepotism in the industry.
The Mumbai police interrogated directors Karan Johar, Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Shekhar Kapur and Aditya Chopra in this context. Their findings are yet to be revealed. Rhea Chakraborty got no response from the Ministry. Instead, a few days after her plea, Rajput’s father, K.K Rajput, filed a first information report (FIR) in Patna against Rhea Chakraborty, three of her relatives—father Indrajit Chakraborty, mother Sandhya Chakraborty and brother Showik Chakraborty—a house help, Samuel Miranda, and an associate, Shruti Modi. He charged them with abetment to suicide. K.K Rajput also alleged that the house Rhea rented for the couple was haunted and that had an impact on Sushant. He told mediapersons that she practised tantrism and her witchcraft had led to Sushant’s depression problems.
The FIR was filed under the Indian Penal Code’s (IPC) Sections 306 (abetment of suicide), 341 (wrongful restraint), 342 (wrongful confinement), 380 (theft in dwelling house), 406 (criminal breach of trust) and 420 (cheating). Rhea Chakraborty moved the Supreme Court, saying the case should be transferred to Mumbai as it was within the city’s jurisdiction and not Patna’s. Meanwhile, a team of senior police officers from Bihar flew to Mumbai for investigations. One of them was quarantined by the Mumbai Police, who said they followed the COVID-19 protocol. Furious at this, the Bihar police accused them of mismanaging the case and said the CBI should intervene.
In early August, the Supreme Court took cognisance of Rhea Chakraborty’s appeal and asked all parties to file affidavits saying “whether there is any criminality in the situation and is the matter to be investigated”. At this point, the CBI decided to take over the probe. The Maharashtra Police said the investigating agency was “acting in indecent haste”. Rhea Chakraborty told the apex court the Bihar Police were seeking this probe as it had become a political game and that Rajput’s death was being used by the Chief Minister of Bihar in his election campaign.
However, the Supreme Court held that the FIR registered in Patna was valid and allowed the CBI to investigate the case. The Mumbai Police said they would continue with their own investigations.
The E.D. also intervened and started interrogating Rhea Chakraborty, as the FIR said she had syphoned off Rs.15 crore of Rajput’s money. An all-male team questioned her for eight hours, an exercise which revealed little, according to informed sources. The NCB stepped in and filed a criminal case against Rhea Chakraborty after going through the “conversations” recorded in her phone history. It claimed that she consumed and procured illegal substances.
During the NCB’s investigation, 10 people who are allegedly part of a drug cartel were arrested in Mumbai. After questioning the accused, the NCB told the media that there was enough evidence to establish Rhea Chakraborty was an “active member of a drug syndicate”. Showik Chakraborty was arrested on September 5 and Rhea was taken in on September 8. Both are at present in judicial custody, and their bail applications have been rejected. Interestingly, the sources say, neither the post-mortem nor the visceral report says Rajput had consumed drugs. And not a single narcotic has been found in the possession of Rhea Chakraborty or her brother.
In several interviews and statements to the media, Rhea Chakraborty has consistently maintained that while Rajput did consume soft drugs such as marijuana, she did not use them and neither did she supply them. In fact, a day before her arrest, she accused Rajput’s sister, Priyanka Singh, of sending him a prescription of allegedly psychiatric medication, which she alludes to being the cause of his frame of mind at the time of committing suicide. Rhea Chakraborty has openly spoken of Rajput’s depression issues and is firm in her knowledge that he was going through a deep-rooted mental illness which was not caused by drugs.
At the time of her arrest, the feisty young actor wore a T-shirt berating male chauvinism, which prompted a wave of support for her. Through August and September, the electronic media have covered every minute of the saga. It is widely believed they are responsible for the smear campaign against Rhea Chakraborty that has made her look like the proverbial Hindi film vam p, without a shred of evidence.
The noted lawyer Satish Maneshinde, who is representing Rhea Chakraborty, has called her arrest a “travesty of justice”. “Three central agencies are hounding a single woman just because she was in love with a drug addict who was suffering from mental health issues for several years and committed suicide due to consumption of illegally administered medicines, drugs,” he said.
However, the most poignant comment came from Rhea Chakraborty’s father, Lieutenant Colonel Indrajit Chakraborty, who said: “Congratulations India, you have arrested my son, I’m sure next on the line is my daughter and I don’t know who is next thereafter. You have effectively demolished a middle-class family. But of course, for the sake of justice, everything is justified. Jai Hind.”
If there is any truth in the allegation that Rhea Chakraborty supplied Rajput with drugs, it exposes the fact that Rajput was a drug addict, which the family is denying. It also means a flourishing drug trade operates in Mumbai. In fact, one fallout of the NCB’s drug trail is that a few well-known actors are coming under the scanner for possession and consumption of illegal drugs. That will be an entirely separate angle to this sordid tale.