Even as Indian cinema celebrates its centenary year, fate continues to deal a cruel hand to some aspiring stars trying to make it in the industry. Upcoming Bollywood actress Jiah Khan’s death, from an apparent suicide late on Monday night in Mumbai, has cast a dark cloud over the country’s biggest and most prolific industry. Khan, a New York-born actress, who made her debut in 2007’s Nishabd alongside the country’s biggest star, Amitabh Bachchan, was only 25.
In an industry known to kowtow to film clans fiercely protected by a handful of families and their cliques, Khan’s entry to Bollywood was as impressive as it was controversial. In Nishabd she played a young girl obsessed with a man old enough to be her father, played by Bachchan. She followed it the next year with an appearance in Ghajini, starring Aamir Khan. Her last film, the hit comedy Housefull, was released in 2010.
Khan, also popularly known as Nafisa, was believed to have been depressed for a while, and was set to make her comeback soon.
Bachchan was one of the first celebrities to react to news of her death.
“WHAT ...!!! Jiah Khan ??? what has happened ? is this correct ? unbelievable !!!” he tweeted early on Tuesday morning.
Nishabd director Ram Gopal Varma also followed with a series of tweets, perhaps hinting at the reasons for Khan’s apparent suicide.
“Shocked and choked to hear about Jiah. Just can’t believe that someone as young and so full of life is just dead. Never ever seen a debutant actress with more spunk and more spirit than Jiah when I was directing her in Nishabd,” Varma said.
“No matter what her problem was, I just so wish she applied her on-screen philosophy of Nishabd to her own life which is to ‘take lite’ (sic). The whole unit of Nishabd was literally in love with Jiah. I don’t know the reason that led to this but Jiah was very depressed about her career and scared for her future. In spite of being highly appreciated in Nishabd and being a part of hugely successful Ghajini and Housefull, she had no work for the last 3 years.”
Aspiring Bollywood actress Meera Chopra, speaking to tabloid! on Tuesday, says the film industry can be a brutal place.
“I completely understand why she did it,” said Chopra, a cousin of Bollywood star Priyanka. “Every girl who is trying to be independent and trying to make it here goes through highs and lows … if you want to make it here, you need to be strong. Remember, Jiah acted with superstars like Amitabh Bachchan and Aamir Khan in her first two films. All her films were super-hits. So when things don’t work out, you just don’t get it. It can be so cruel,” said Chopra.
Actress Sonam Kapoor added on Twitter: “Terrible tragedy. Very, very shocking and disturbing news. Nobody should be in so much pain and a state of such hopelessness. I hope her soul finds some respite in death.”
As investigations begin, Khan’s death in an apparent suicide is not the first to hit Mumbai’s entertainment industry.
In 2010, top model-turned-actress Viveka Babaji was found hanged from a ceiling fan in her apartment. Police ruled out foul play, saying Babji, 37, was depressed following an argument with her boyfriend Gautam Vohra. In the last entry of her diary, found by her dead body, Babaji had written: “You killed me, Gautam Vohra.”
Six years before Babaji’s death, model and actress Nafisa Joseph, was found hanged in her flat a few weeks before her wedding. Joseph, a former Miss India, was allegedly heartbroken after she found out her fiancé was still married to another woman. She was only 26.
In 2005, Parveen Babi, often referred to as one of the most beautiful actresses to have appeared in Indian cinema, was found dead in her home after neighbours complained she hadn’t come out to collect her newspapers and milk from her doorstep. Babi, who changed the face of the archetypal Bollywood heroine with her glamourous ensembles and risqué roles in the 70s and 80s, was alleged to have starved herself to death. She struggled with diabetes and at 55, was believed to have been very lonely and mostly kept to herself. Police said she had been dead for at least 72 hours before her body was found.
But perhaps Bollywood’s most high-profile death was that of actress Divya Bharti who, in 1993, allegedly fell from her five-storey apartment around midnight. Bharti, who had married film producer Sajid Nadiadwala a year earlier, was only 19 at the time and a rising actress whose soaring popularity spanned the south Indian film industry and Bollywood. Despite speculations about reasons for her death, which included suicide, murder and even the involvement of the mafia, Bharti’s death remains a mystery. Mumbai Police closed their investigation in 1998 having failed to find any conclusive evidence.
— With inputs by Manjusha Radhakrishnan, Senior Reporter