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2020 in Review: A Celebrity Death That Shook Bollywood to Its Core

Sushant Singh Rajput

Sushant Singh Rajput

In the year that witnessed one tragedy after another, the alleged suicide of young Bollywood superstar Sushant Singh Rajput felt like the final nail in the coffin.

2020 has been a year of unimaginable pain, suffering and loneliness--a year that has brought one tragedy after another in rapid succession. A year that saw migrants' trauma on display in the streets, youths’ pain in unemployment lines and people die in the hospitals with no proper goodbyes from their loved ones. Needless to say, COVID-19 deeply impacted and stole the lives of thousands.

And then Sushant Singh Rajput died. A way-too-young Bollywood star who had inspired millions around the world, was suddenly gone without warning.

Sushant, an engineering dropout, who had come in Bollywood from a humble middle-class background, was probably at the peak of his acting career when the news of his alleged suicide sent shock waves through the country, as well as the rest of the world. The actor was found dead inside his apartment in Mumbai's Bandra on June 14. He had reportedly hanged himself and the authorities are currently investigating the cause of his death.

For some, his death was a wake-up call to introspect and retrospect amid the pandemic. While for others, it was a trigger that prompted them to come forward and share the traumatic experiences they have had in the industry, leading to polarised debates on favouritism, insider versus outsider, and nepotism like never before.

Perhaps the most stirring and potentially controversial statements came from actress Kangana Ranaut who called Sushant's death "a planned murder" and questioned the role of "Bollywood mafia" in his alleged suicide. Kangana also accused the film industry of writing Sushant off despite several good performances in films like Kai Po Che, MS Dhoni: The Untold Story, Kedarnath, and Chhichhore, and mistreating him for being an outsider. She even pointed out how Sushant would beg his fans to watch his movies as he didn't have any godfather in Bollywood.

The divide within the film industry further sharpened when the likes of Abhay Deol, Abhishek Kapoor, Raveena Tandon, Shekhar Kapur, Abhinav Kashyap, Ranveer Shorey spoke out on the imbalance of power, nepotistic and bullying culture and privilege club in Bollywood and how these practices make it difficult for the real talents with no film connections, to sustain and thrive.

Filmmaker Abhishek Kapoor, who launched Sushant in Bollywood with Kai Po Che and also worked with him in Kedarnath, said that the late actor was "a troubled man" whose fragile mind was "systematically dismantled" by the industry.

"There are so many camps that if you’re not part of a camp, even if you’re in the middle of a room, you will be ignored. It is true, especially for actors," Abhishek told Enquiry.

Abhay Deol, who is the nephew of veteran actor Dharmendra, admitted that Sushant's death pushed him to speak on favouritism and lobbying culture in Bollywood. In a lengthy post on Instagram, Abhay recalled how he was "demoted" to supporting categories for his film Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara during "almost all the award functions" despite being one of the leads in the film while his co-star Hrithik Roshan was nominated for the Best Actor.

On the other hand, Raveena Tandon exposed the dark side of Bollywood by validating the existence of camps and the "mean girl gang" which she said, got her removed from several films.

Abhinav Kashyap, who made his directorial debut with ‘Dabangg’ in 2010, accused Salman Khan and his brothers-- Arbaaz and Sohail-- of sabotaging his career, adding that Sushant's death was just the "tip of the iceberg".

In an interview, Manoj Bajpayee, an outsider himself, said that these infamous practices would only abolish when people in positions of power aggressively work towards making Bollywood a more inclusive place for talented artistes.

"The whole functioning of the industry, nepotism has been in the debate for a few years now. It'll change only if each and every individual who is positioned well, who is established and powerful start making efforts to make it healthy and democratic for all the talented people who are coming in. This whole term 'insider-outsider' should vanish immediately. We will have to work very hard to turn this industry into a fraternity where each and everyone is welcomed," he told PTI.

However, there was a section of young actors who seemed too shaken to make sense of anything. Amol Parashar, in a series of tweets, had shared that many young aspiring actors were inspired by Sushant, who would unknowingly fill them with hope on dull days.

"Young actors are shaken, including me. In a manner and degree that is a little unexpected and unexplained. I can feel it in my bones and flesh, I have seen it in the eyes of the few people I have seen since yesterday, I have heard it in the voices of friends I have spoken to," he had tweeted.

He further said that Sushant's death led many young actors, who were still struggling to make it big in the industry, to contemplate quitting. "A friend I spoke to yesterday, said that as of today, his best case scenario of where he would like to end up is maybe half of where Sushant was today. 'Should I quit?' he added. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since."

Sayani Gupta, too, echoed similar concerns and fears as she reflected on the tragedy. "The last few months have made it even more difficult for kids to come from a middle-class background, work in Mumbai and have a respectable space for themselves," she said, before adding that the young talents will have to fight back and work even harder to make their parents believe that they can have a dignified life even as an actor.

Whereas, actor Gulshan Devaiah believed that the industry should rather take "this opportunity to think than point fingers because there is a lot of anger that is misplaced."

"Sushant's death was such a tragedy and what I'm really doing right now is taking it very personally and looking into my life and reassessing all my moves, all my hustles, and how I'm going to go about my career. I may have to see a very dark day at some point but I want other options, assuming if it was a suicide. I'm very confident that I won't have to choose that option. But, you never know. One just has to be okay with failure and that's what I'm trying to deal with," he added.

Such soul searching will continue in the wake of another high-profile death of a celebrity allegedly by suicide. For the aspiring artistes who have been devastated by it, the hope will be that small steps are finally taken, even if it is on a personal level, to stem this silent epidemic.