The sad and untimely demise of a young rising star Sushant Singh Rajput has created an uproar among Bollywood fans. The actor was found hanging in his apartment on 14th June 2020, seven days after the actor’s live-in partner Rhea Chakraborty left the apartment. This bereavement of a so-called ‘happy-go-lucky successful man’ shocked the nation. While speculations about his death were doing the rounds, the mainstream media came up with new stories and fuelled the fire.
Patriarchal beliefs of society often hold a woman accountable for a man’s suffering, following which, out of all other dominant notions that could have led to Rajput’s suicide, Rhea’s role caught the audience’s eyes. Over the course, we saw the death of journalism and a frightening side of humanity, especially where a gendered and class-based mentality of the media takes over.
The media turned into vultures on a witch hunt, vilifying and torturing Rhea’s family to a breaking point. Human rights have been taken away and privacy breached. The media played a jury and executioner, wherein the practice of demonising woman swiftly took hold over the internet and soon, the agenda shifted from #justiceforssr to #hang/kill/raperhea.
In the first instance, the police reported that Sushant Singh Rajput was suffering from bipolar disorder. Without any evidence, the media blamed nepotism in Bollywood as the reason for his depression and demise. But this did not last long, and the internet exploded with comments blaming Rhea for the actor’s depression. The ritual of blaming a woman for a man’s fate is not new. Rhea was questioned for not being able to take proper care of him, exploiting him, and then leaving him. Never was Rhea, who is also a model-turned-actress, considered a victim of nepotism in this debate, nor was her hard work and struggle praised.
Instead, the media and public trolled her as a “prostitute” and “gold digger”. The actress received rape and murder threats on Instagram and other social media platforms. Such claims were validated to an extent where Rhea had to turn off commenting on her Instagram and Facebook page to prevent harassment. Rhea pleaded for safety, but again, the media’s narrative of demonising women prevailed, and no one raised a voice.
The blame game turned a turn for the worse when SSR’s father filed an FIR, accusing Rhea of witchcraft, money laundering and cheating. The infamous Indian fallacious contention “Dayan mere bete ko kha gayi (the witch engulfed my son)” got prominence and Rhea was called a “witch” and “vishkanya (poison girl)”.
A few weeks later, Rhea released a video statement, saying that she refrains from reacting to any horrible comments on electronic media on the advice of her lawyer and that she would get justice. The video went viral and her clothing, way of speaking, and line “Satyameva Jayate (Truth shall prevail)” was horribly dissected, and she was ridiculed as a “drama queen”.
Any anti-Rhea narratives were glorified, and her actions were called out for magnanimous to prove that she cared for Sushant. Every time she attempted to put her voice out to public through various news channels or social media, she was questioned and wronged for portraying herself as a sorrowful woman to get some soulful attention and “playing the victim card”.
While the blame game continued, another section of Sushant’s fans started questioning his death as a case of suicide. Numerous images started flooded on social media, claiming it to be a deliberate and well-planned murder. Once again, without any evidence, Rhea was cursed for being the one who influenced or even conducted the murder. Her visit to the morgue where Rajput’s body was kept was rendered ‘suspicious’ and her statement “Sorry babu (sorry dear)” construed as evoking a sense of conspiracy and murder implicated in the late actor’s death.
The case worsened when the drug angle came in. The social media lynch mob was at its worse and the anti-Rhea agenda became a sensational story for news channels to ponder over and compete for TRPs. The fan culture turned toxic, humiliating and violating extreme borders. Rhea’s private WhatsApp chats were made public and news channels worked as 24-hour surveillance cameras at her family. Their lifestyle, education and property became a matter of public discussion, and they were eventually named as a “family of crooks”.
The enforced rhetoric of class and gender has become prominent in this case. Rhea has been alleged to have a lavish lifestyle, while Sushant spending Rs 70 lakhs (approximately $95,000) on a trip with his male friends and co-star Sara Ali khan (considered as the epitome of royalty), was not catechised. But him spending on a trip to Europe with the ‘not so successful’ and ‘middle class’ Rhea and her brother Souvik was slammed. SSR’s relation with Sara-Ali Khan was called “childlike”, “innocent”, “totally in love”, “inseparable”, but with Rhea, it was called “strained” and “disturbed”.
The misogynist and classist media questioned Rhea’s authenticity and interviews, calling her statements “baseless” and “useless”. It seems as if she is being victimised by evidence-free conjectures in the media just to distract from the real issues of Covid-19, the India-China border stand-off, total failure of the government in handling the lockdown, and the collapse of the Indian economy. Anti-feminine narratives are serving the media’s and public’s needs and becoming a way to settle personal scores and satisfy others’ eges through external validation. Rhea is being bullied, harassed and wronged, and made a scapegoat.
A tone-deaf attitude persists throughout the fraternity against the injustice faced by Sushant Singh Rajput. Selective voices and biased narratives are trivialising mental health and fuelling the media and public’s vilification of Rhea. This is consequently serving the social needs of the patriarchal society, leading to increasing misogyny and complete violation of human rights.
Media trials in the absence of any evidence cannot be justified. Is shaming a woman the only escape for media and society, and the only way to gain TRPs and satisfy egos? Especially in a mediated era, when the media plays an important role in shaping people’s notion, such vilification and misogynistic expressions can cause an intense negative impact on society. This needs to be controlled.