“The Avatamsaka Sutra describes enlightenment as an awareness of the ‘interpenetration of space and time.’ wrote actor Sushant Singh Rajput on his Instagram feed on May 26. “One can’t help but wonder if Einstein’s theory of relativity that unifies space and time was just a stroke of genius or also a glimpse of the divine.” He added.
As the tragic news of Rajput’s death on Sunday engulfed the nation, I re-read these philosophical musings of his, on his Insta feed. I assume I am not the only one who visited his Instagram profile after his death and lingered there, longer than usual, wondering what he was thinking when he posted each of his photos, who he was in his private life, and what could have been a trigger for such an extreme step.
Pre-social media, people’s eyes were a window to their souls. Now, it is their Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook accounts. But, in the case of Bollywood stars, or any other celebrity these digital platforms are also a space to communicate a carefully curated self-image to their fans.
If you scroll through Rajput’s feed, for instance, you will find one of those rare humans who had a gift for synthesizing poetry and scientific facts seamlessly and had a keen interest in the movement of celestial bodies. You would see him ‘goofing’ around with his guitar and working out often. In his Twitter feed a list of his 50 beautiful and vibrant dreams are still there – learn to fly a plane, write Morse code, dive in a blue hole, attend another workshop at NASA, explore Andromeda, visit Antarctica...
As his fans come to terms with his untimely demise, it is this digital memory of Rajput on his own social media profile, the one that he so carefully curated himself, that lives on, along with his movies.
Digital Afterlives of celebrities
Digital afterlives are a new reality in the age of social media. Even after a person is gone, their digital footprints on sites like Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, is a constant reminder of who they were, what they liked, where they went, and who they hung out with. But, more importantly, it is also a reminder of who they wanted people to think they were. In cases of deceased celebrities, it is also a unique and precious legacy that fans have access to, for years to come, thanks to social media.
Influencers are forgotten, but true talents like Rajput, Sridevi and Irrfan Khan are not and although their digital lives came to a standstill after their demise, they continue to inspire, and tell their fans what they were like through the beautifully put together picture books on Instagram, or through their thoughts, and daily musings left behind on Twitter.
Return to Irrfan Khan’s Instagram profile, and you will find him echo Rilke’s words “let everything happen to you: beauty and terror” as his shadow on a white wall greets you. Before the release of his last film, Angrezi Medium, he had, via his Twitter feed shared a message with fans which began with the words, “Main aaj aapke saath hoon bhi, aur nahi bhi” which went on to describe, how ‘some unwanted guests’ in his body won’t let him promote his film. Khan had, through his social media posts, shared stories of his long battle with the ‘unwanted guest’ (neuroendocrine tumor), and his fight is truly an inspiration, even after his death. It is a part of his legacy, his digital afterlife, that will continue to ignite strength and courage in those who face similar situations, and it is always there for fans to access.
Scroll through Sridevi’s feed, and you will release that her two daughters – Janhvi and Khushi Kapoor – were the light of her eyes. Her feed is filled with family photos, of posts from family vacations, and lavish weddings. These are memories not just for her family, but for her fans too. The last photo on her Instagram, which was posted two days before her death on 24 February 2018 still has messages pouring in. The last comment is only three hours old.
Each social media platform has provisions to either memorialize or deactivate the account a deceased individual, but mostly, the profiles of Bollywood actors and actresses who recently left us have been kept as it is. In cases of politicians too, each family has handled the social media presence of the dearly departed in their own way.
The twitter profile of late politician, Arun Jaitley, is left the way it was by the family members and his last tweet is a tribute to Tulsidas. In Sushma Swaraj’s case, her account has been memorialized, and the account sometimes retweets her daughter, Bansuri Swaraj’s tweets.
The legacy of the stars
While in India, the idea of digital legacy after the death of an individual is still new, in the United States, it is something people are planning more proactively, especially amid the coronavirus outbreak. There are apps such as Replika, in which AI mimics the voices of your loved ones who have passed away, or GoneNotGone which makes provisions for a person to wish their family and friends on their birthdays, and anniversaries, long after his death.
However, for the Hollywood titans, and other celebrities in the united states, their digital afterlives are as magnanimous as their real ones. There are professionals like legacy consultants, digital embalmers whose job profile entails managing, and protecting the digital legacy of such celebrities after their deaths. It not only includes managing their social media presence but also consists of expanding their legacies as icons.
For instance, according to a Forbes report, Worldwide XR, a company that develops creative solutions for virtual and augmented reality, plans to bring back actors like James Dean to the big screen with CGI and machine learning, and has already amassed rights to represent 400 celebs, athletes, and sports teams.
If you think these talks are the stuff of science fiction, you are wrong. We have already seen Lucasfilm bring back Peter Cushing in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016), as Grand Moff Tarkin, the commander of the Death Star, after his death in 1994, with permission from his estate which manages his digital presence after his death. The resurrection, however, did not go down well with Star Wars fandom, and after Carrie Fisher’s death, an official statement had to be released by Lucasfilm saying that they would do right by their princess (Leia) and there will be no CGI version of her in the last installment of the Star Wars saga, just to appease the fans.
Whether we will ever see a resurrected digitized version of Sridevi, Rishi Kapoor, Irrfan Khan or Sushant Singh Rajput are for their respective families to decide, and depends heavily on Bollywood’s capacity to access CGI. But for now, if you are a fan, and you want to see Sushant Singh Rajput one last time, go back to his Instagram profile, and he will be there in all his vulnerability, glory, and beauty. But, whatever you do, please refrain from seeing and circulating the photos of his dead body. It’s insensitive not just to his family, and his loved ones, but also to his memory.