A Star Snuffed Out

What caused an intelligent young actor to take his life? The industry—and his fans—try to make sense of Sushant Singh Rajput’s tragic and untimely demise

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Bandeep Singh

Photon in a double-slit. Read what you will into the social media bio of Sushant Singh Rajput, but it does indicate that the young actor was a thinking man.

His death by suicide at the age of 34 on June 14 has left the entertainment industry shaken, triggering introspection and heated debate on the endless opportunities for the privileged and the many obstacles for the outsider. "The Bollywood Privilege Club must sit down and think hard tonight," wrote filmmaker Anubhav Sinha on Twitter. In a video rant, actress Kangana Ranaut, apart from the big stakeholders, also blamed the media for maligning his image with malicious gossip. "His mistake was that he believed when they said he was worthless," she said.

For those who had worked with him, such as actor Manoj Bajpayee, the loss left them "feeling a little apprehensive about each other... how they are doing", the actor said in a TV interview. For others, the tragedy was a stark reminder of the dark realities behind the spotlight, and their own fragility. "...This is to everyone that goes through this kind of pain or loneliness," wrote actor Sikander Kher, son of Anupam Kher, on Twitter.

Rajput's passing resonated with many actors who, like him, have come to Bollywood, in pursuit of their dreams. "From Bandra to Andheri, Goregaon, Malad to Mira Road and beyond, thousands of young actors like me are sitting alone in their rooms right now wondering what all this means, trying to make sense of this strange mess of feelings and thoughts," wrote actor Amol Parashar, best known for the web series, Tripling.

The tragedy hit hard because Rajput was the outsider who had not only managed to make his way into the industry, but also done well. It's why Rajput's manner of death is particularly "disturbing" for actor Gulshan Devaiah. "He was doing so well. It shakes you up, and [makes you] wonder [that] 'it can happen to anybody'," he says. "We work so hard, play the game, hustle, kiss the right ass, shake the right hand and are still not accepted." Bollywood being "one big happy family", says Devaiah, is "a false narrative. It doesn't exist."


From Patna to Mumbai via Delhi

Rajput, to some degree, was aware of it. Born and brought up in Patna and the youngest of five children, Rajput wasn't the blue-eyed boy of any studio, nor a part of any clique. Publicist Rohini Iyer of Raindrop Media, which represented Rajput briefly, wrote on Instagram, that he didn't care about "lobbies" or "camps". His journey to the big screen was a long one, akin to that of Shah Rukh Khan, one of his screen idols. His favourite actors, though, were Motilal, Balraj Sahni, Dilip Kumar, Irrfan Khan and Nawazuddin Siddiqui.

Like Shah Rukh, Rajput began with theatre, studying with theatre director and teacher Barry John in Delhi, where he had moved to study at the Delhi College of Engineering. He quit the course midway to move into a 1BHK with six others in Versova, a Mumbai suburb home to many a struggler. Here, he joined the Ekjute Theatre Group. The group's founder and actress-director, Nadira Zaheer Babbar, remembers him as a 20-something "full of humour, socially aware" and whose strongest attribute lay in his "sadagi (simplicity)". "Even after he became a star, he would stop the car if he met one of his old friends [from theatre]," recalls Babbar.

At Prithvi Cafe, a favourite joint of theatrewallahs, Rajput caught the eye of a Balaji Telefilms member who cast him as the second lead in a show. It took that one show for him to make an impression on Ekta Kapoor, its head, who picked him to be the leading man of her new show Pavitra Rishta. The drama made Rajput the most popular star of the small screen. During his two-year stint, he also found a friend for life-fellow cast member, Mahesh Shetty. In fact, the night before Rajput took his own life, he called Shetty, who wasn't awake to receive it.

In an industry where one's worth is determined by one's star credentials, Rajput preferred to be a gazer of real stars, his MEADE 600 telescope being one of his most prized possessions. He took the 200 kg-plus instrument with him to Dholpur, Rajasthan, and made his Sonchiriya co-actors Bajpayee and Bhumi Pednekar stargaze with him. He also bought a piece of land on the far side of the moon.


In a Different League

Rajput didn't want to be an actor to begin with. He contemplated being an astronaut, pilot or engineer. "I was confused, so I thought let's be an actor, and be everything," he said in a video of a tour of his house. An upside down sign on one wall read, "I don't do normal." For the most part, he stuck to it. Industry protocol demands that after the success of a film, an actor celebrates with interviews to the press. Not Rajput. After Chhichhore raked in nearly Rs 150 crore at the box office, he, inexplicably, skipped the routine. "I was shocked," said an industry professional, who did not want to be named. "This is not the Sushant we knew." Some would say he was inaccessible, but he always engaged with his fans, like at the India Today Mind Rocks Youth Summit, or on social media where he would follow his followers.

It was on social media that Rajput let on that his interests went far beyond films. It showed a man curious about the world beyond his own planet. He was a voracious reader, especially of philosophy, astronomy and science fiction, and, as a celebrity, he preferred to light a spark in the minds of his fans than just sell them celluloid dreams.

2019 had been busy for Rajput. It began with the release of Sonchiriya, an ensemble dacoit drama. Coming off the success of Kedarnath, Rajput was its biggest star. But the western failed to find an audience. Disappointed, Rajput deleted all posts from his Instagram profile a few weeks after its release in February.

Before the shoot of Kedarnath began, its director Abhishek Kapoor sensed Rajput was troubled with the backlash his last release, Raabta, had received. Calling him an "artist" with a "fragile mind" on the web show Enquiry hosted by Shoma Chaudhury, Kapoor feels that Rajput sought validation which "comes from recognition from award ceremonies, which are terrible, and social media, which is madness". The actor wasn't the kind to suppress his real self to fit in. "If you are not like us, then you can't be with us. There is that feeling for actors," said Kapoor. "Don't discredit the outsider [and] not celebrate him because that celebration is oxygen for him. Learn to appreciate individuality."


Swift Highs, Lonely Lows

"Acting is easy, being an actor is tough, demanding and terribly lonely," says Devaiah. "It can break you into a million pieces. You may have done the best job, but it doesn't matter if nobody watches the film." This, though, wasn't true of Rajput's last theatrical release, Chhichhore, which did well at the box office. His next was a straight-to-digital, much-disparaged heist film, Drive, produced by Karan Johar, now being targeted for ignoring Rajput in favour of star progeny. Meanwhile, Dil Bechara, Rajput's collaboration with casting director-friend Mukesh Chhabra, was marred by controversy after the filmmaker was accused of sexual harassment, though he was cleared first by the internal complaints committee of his company and then the Federation of Western India Cine Employees. The film was slated for a release in May.

Six months ago, Rajput had sought help for depression, a fact that came to light only after his death. His family was not aware of his vulnerabilities. "He was always self-dependent since he left Patna," says Neeraj Kumar Bablu, Rajput's cousin and a Bharatiya Janata Party MLA in Bihar. "He never sought help, didn't share his problems with others. If we had any idea, we wouldn't have had to see this day." The isolation from the lockdown, feels Bablu, aggra-vated his woes. But some from within the industry claim to have known. "I knew the pain you were going through. I knew the stories of the people that let you down so bad that you would weep on my shoulder," wrote filmmaker Shekhar Kapur, who had developed a project with Rajput that its producers, Yash Raj Films, shelved. It would see him quit the studio and its talent management wing. Rajput's hairstylist during the Dhoni biopic, Sapna Bhavnani, said he "was going through very tough times", adding that "no one in the industry stood up for him, nor lend a helping hand".

'
What ailed Sushant Singh Rajput' is a question everyone is asking, but for which there is no clear answer at present. The Bandra Police is investigating the death and has interviewed his family, house staff and close friends, including actress Rhea Chakraborty. The professional rivalry angle is also being probed. With a string of hits to his name, Rajput was familiar with success. "But success shouldn't be the barometer for measuring mental health," says actress Gul Panag, adding that it doesn't help that "people assume achievers have no problems". The trouble, she feels, lies in the lack of empathy for those who reach out, seeking an ear. "At some level, we all are complicit because if someone is low and trying to open a door to conversation, we either nod along indifferently, busy chasing our own tails, or we say, 'stop whining and ranting and deal with it because everybody has challenges'."


The Fault in Our Stars

Mumbai-based psychiatrist, Avinash De Sousa, who has patients from the entertainment industry, says many find "permanent, meaningful relationships" missing in their lives. "They wonder, 'are they going to be with me when I am down? Or will they come, have a good time at my house, and go?'" Even though actress Deepika Padukone has opened up about her battle with depression, the stigma around mental health persists, Desousa feels. "There is a myth that by seeking help, one is saying I can't manage my own affairs," he says. "You just want some direction and are going for advice."

It's perhaps why some celebrity clients of Dr Zirak Marker, a psychiatrist and consultant at Mpower, a mental health organisation, choose to wait in their cars until his last visitor has left the building so as to not be seen. Stress and high burnout leading to anxiety and depression are common among entertainment industry professionals, he adds.

Apart from sleeping and eating disorders, Marker says there are also identity-related issues. "You put up a social facade, a kind of a psychological mask meant for the public, but you have a different persona," the doctor says. "There is a diffusion that happens."

STAR SHINE Sushant Singh Rajput dances to Chhichhore track ‘Fikar Not’ with his fans at the India Today Mind Rocks Youth Summit in 2019

Among the grouses that Marker has noticed among his clients is the "inauthenticity of their peers". It results in a constant change of circle of people. Rajput was known to switch managers and publicists frequently. "When things are hunky-dory, there are 10 people pandering to you, but the minute your popularity starts dipping or if there are rumours being spread about you, the same people vanish," he says. Constant scrutiny from the media or on social media can also build anxiety, for which cigarette, alcohol or drug abuse become coping mechanisms, adds Marker.

Rajput left behind no note. Only a devastated father and four sisters, a Labrador named Fudge, many heartbroken friends and millions of fans. On June 17, three days after he took his life, the family fulfilled one of his promises and started a website named after one of his favourite hashtags: #selfmusing. One of Rajput's many thoughts under it included-"I am just 'you' away from glory."

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