There was once a time when we would find the most unusual camaraderie with strangers in the dark auditoriums of single-screen cinema halls and multiplex theatres. I remember, during the first day's first show of Avengers: Endgame, a teenage girl had handed me a tissue as I cried rivers on Ironman's death. I have found that kind of unusual kinship with many other cinema-goers over the years, be it the irate lady, in the seat next to me, muttering profanity at the inaneness of a potboiler that I was hating too, or the stranger who had the gall to interrupt a canoodling couple. I had enjoyed those little encounters at the movies before coronavirus arrived, and all the theatres were temporarily shut down.
Like most cinema lovers, I miss watching films on the big screen nowadays. But, there was an amplified sense of 'something missing' as I watched Dil Bechara, Sushant Singh Rajput's last film, at home on Disney+ Hotstar. It irked me that I couldn't look over my shoulder and find a stranger, who like me, would be trying hard to fight back tears, or witness the feeling of collective loss that most of us are struggling with, in the wake of Rajput's tragic and untimely death. Amid the news of thousands of deaths due to the pandemic, the loss of a brilliant and bright actor like Rajput had shaken many of us up very badly. Therefore, it wasn't a surprise that in these dark times Dil Bechara proved to be a great unifier.
Even though we were all isolated in the cacoons of our homes, we were not alone in watching his film. According to a Hindustan Times report, Disney+Hotstar registered a record-breaking viewership, with as many as 95 million viewers watching the film within the first 24 hours. Reports also claimed that filmmaker Hansal Mehta couldn't access Hotstar and thought that the OTT platform had 'crashed'. Twitter was obviously flooded with comments and the film instantly got an IMDB rating of 10/10. Despite the banality of Dil Bechara's script, the entire country watched the film in rapt attention, hooked on to it's every dialogue about life and death, and cherished Rajput's character Manny's every smile. Rajput, however, was never just Manny in the eyes of the audience, he was the young and talented actor, who left us too soon.
In what felt like the most surreal scene in Dil Bechara, after Manny passes away, his friends gather to pay tribute to him by watching a film in which he had played the lead role. It reminded me of us, the audience, who were doing the exact thing in real life as we watched a film of Rajput after he was gone. It was a lovely example of cinema imitating life. Unfortunately for us, only Bollywood films come with such neatly tied ends, and while Manny's friends got the perfect closure by watching the little film that he had made before dying, Dil Bechara doesn't offer that closure in terms of Rajput's death.
Currently, the actor's death is being investigated by the Mumbai police, and there has been a rising demand for a CBI probe. Although the initial reports claimed that the actor died by suicide, the police are still investigating and interrogating many Bollywood biggies in connection to the case. His girlfriend, Rhea Chakroborty, who was interrogated by the Mumbai police in connection to Rajput's death, and currently has an FIR against her filed by Rajput's family in Patna with charges such as abetment of suicide, has complained of facing online abuse.
In the meantime, Bollywood is divided more than ever, as mudslinging matches, and tone-deaf debates play out in the public sphere, without a shred of nuance. Reports claiming that Rajput was pushed to take his own life after he was alienated from the film industry have been doing rounds for a while. Director Anubhav Sinha has declared that he wants to resign from 'Bollywood' because of all the nepotism talk and outsider-insider debate and filmmakers like Sudhir Mishra and Hansal Mehta have joined in, in his support. Actress Kangana Ranaut, who has aggressively been talking about the 'movie mafia' and how they drove Sushant to death has been summoned by the Mumbai police while a bilateral war-of-words between her and actresses Taapsee Pannu and Swara Bhaskar is currently ongoing after Ranaut called them 'B grade' actresses in a television interview.
Apart from Ranaut, however, there had been several other voices from the industry, who had spoken out about nepotism after Rajput's death. Manoj Bajpayee, and Ranveer Shorey, both of whom had acted with Rajput in Sonchiriya said that Bollywood doesn't give talented actors their due. Shorey went further to say that only a few powerful men control the top of the power pyramid of Bollywood.
However, what the 'powerful men' don't realize is that the rumbles about nepotism have not only threatened to destabilize their established power structure but also changed their film audiences forever.
Many years ago, when Ranbir Kapoor and Sonam Kapoor were being launched in Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Saawariya, they had proudly talked about their family legacies and the relationship that their families had shared as a part of the film industry in a featurette made on the film. When Kareena Kapoor and Abhishek Bachchan had debuted in Refugee, the biggest news in the media was how Amitabh Bachchan's son and Raj Kapoor's granddaughter are being launched together. Back in the day, actors' offsprings were unquestionably the rightful heirs to carry on their legacies and be the next big things in Bollywood. Unsurprisingly, apart from a few oddballs, most actually did become the next big things. But, that has not been the case since the day Ranaut uttered the word 'nepotism' in Koffee With Karan. Since then, newcomers from Bollywood families like Sara Ali Khan, and Janhvi Kapoor had to field questions on nepotism even before their first film release, and were occasionally trolls for being 'product of nepotism'. However, that doesn't mean that they did not receive instant stardom, and their faces didn't land on magazine covers, and they did not receive hefty endorsement deals on a platter. As Taapsee Pannu rightly pointed out in one of her recent interviews, Taimur Ali Khan receives more adoration from the public and media, than perhaps she does. If star kids thrive, then it is as much the favouritism of the industry, as it is of the audience who watches them, and the media which gives them constant mileage.
However, that changed instantly after Rajput's death, as the movie viewing audience, switched from being passive bystanders of such high-octane debates on nepotism to actually fighting against it. Within a day of Sushant Singh Rajput's death, several lakhs of Indians signed a petition at Change.org boycotting big Bollywood names like Karan Johar, YRF films, and Salman Khan, who were allegedly instrumental in alienating Rajput. A petition to register cases against them and a few others were also filed but it was later dismissed by Bihar court. Despite the looming threat of coronavirus, a march was organized by the actor's fans, two days after his death, to protest against discrimination and nepotism in Bollywood.
The fall from the pedestal on which the audience often place them was also instant for many Bollywood bigwigs, as Karan Johar faced the kangaroo courts of social media, and Alia Bhatt lost lakhs of followers on Instagram overnight. From utter complacence towards nepotism in Bollywood for years to a complete denouncement of star kids, the audience seems to have taken a 180-degree turn post-Rajput's death as reports of alleged favouritism, systemic bullying, and the petty politics of production house became public knowledge. Unfortunately, this audience revolt too is as devoid of nuance, and any intelligent discourse as are most Bollywood films. Many actresses such as Bhatt, Sonam Kapoor, and Sara Ali Khan have been compelled to disable comments on their Instagram after receiving abusive messages and rape threats from the public.
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But, this uproar isn't dying down anytime soon. Apparently, an app called the Nepometer, which measures the nepotism quotient of a film has also been launched by Rajput's family to offer better yardstick to the public to measure a film. According to a report in Hindustan Times, the Nepometer shows that Alia Bhatt's Sadak 2 is 98 percent nepotistic. The film was rated on the app on the basis of 5 categories: Producer, lead artists, supporting artists, Director and Writer.
However, now the audience doesn't seem to need it, as netizens had already called for the boycott of the film on the grounds of nepotism. Rajput may have only left behind 12 films for the audience, but his death has completely changed the way Bollywood audience sees the movie industry.