As the world grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, there’s another silent killer that has dominated the headlines this year: suicides among celebrities in India.
On December 9, the Tamil entertainment industry woke up to the news of 29-year-old host and actress Chitra’s death in a hotel in Chennai. Her death marks the latest statistic in the spate of suicides among actors from the film and television world.
According to initial reports, Chitra — who was known for her vivacious and exuberant posts on social media — was found hanging from her hotel fan ceiling. Her sudden death at 29 has pulled the focus sharply back on the importance of mental health among stars who seem to lead insular and isolated lives and aren’t coping too well in a year marked by pandemic-induced lockdown and substantial loss of work due to the halt in film shootings.
Bollywood stars weigh in on the price of fame
Actress and presenter Chitra’s death comes at a time when Indian movie fans are still seeking closure from the alleged suicide of Sushant Singh Rajput in June, one of Bollywood’s most beloved stars. In the last few months alone, actors including Asif Basra have committed suicide.
It’s high time in our Asian culture that we start to treat depression like the physiological illness that it actually is.
“I personally believe that the cause of these suicides is the indifference towards mental health … belittling one’s feelings as ‘you will get past it’. Depression can be a tough illness to understand, especially for those who have never experienced it themselves,” said actress Celina Jaitly in an interview with Gulf News. The ‘Seasons Greetings’ actress, who lived in Dubai with her children and husband before moving to Austria, has been vocal about her battle with post-partum depression and has urged everyone not to take mental health lightly.
“Many people misunderstand the difference between clinical depression and feeling sad or blue. It’s high time in our Asian culture that we start to treat depression like the physiological illness that it actually is,” she added.
Bollywood actor Madhavan, who was in Dubai in September for work, believes that the dazzling film fraternity known for its song-dance musicals and escapist cinema has been downplaying the negative impact unleashed by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Even for somebody like me who has been blessed with the best in life, it was not easy to have liquidity for six to seven months to run our life.
“We are not letting out as much as we have been impacted because there are a lot of people who are ending their lives because of this and it makes me sad to say it but it’s a serious concern how people with daily wages are able to manage,” said Madhavan during that interview in September.
The actor disarmingly spoke about how difficult it was for talents like him to cope and how it wasn’t easy to come to make peace with the abrupt change in things, following the Covid-19 outbreak. Film shootings were halted earlier this year to stem the spread of the virus in India and the film fraternity bled money in millions, as theatres shut and producers scrambled to find outlets to release their ready films.
“Even for somebody like me who has been blessed with the best in life, it was not easy to have liquidity for six to seven months to run our life. Your payments just stop one day and it was extremely abrupt. This was not like when somebody says you are not going to feel well and that you are going to be in the hospital for your broken legs and that you cannot shoot,” added Madhavan in the same interview. The uncertainty of it all can push many over the edge.
Public figures can struggle with rejection
Dubai-based psychiatrist Dr Sweta Shah also cautioned public figures about how rejection and loss of work triggered by the pandemic is likely to be tough on those who are not internally strong or equipped with coping mechanisms.
2020 has seen a spike in celebrity suicides ranging from high profile stars such as Sushant Singh Rajput to character actors such as Asif Basra, who was found dead in Goa. On December 9, Tamil actress Chitra was found hanging from her ceiling fan and the initial investigations are indicating towards another suicide.
“Rejection, failure and abuse doesn’t happen to us civilians on a daily basis. We aren’t judged by one or two failures in our life and constantly reminded of it. But the same yardstick isn’t applied to the public figures … An actor needs to have higher rejection threshold and better coping skills and stress management skills,” said Shah, specialist psychiatrist in Unicare and JTS Medical Centre in an interview with Gulf News, soon after Rajput’s death.
Rajput, who was found dead at his home on June 14 hanging from his ceiling, has triggered debates on the importance of mental health and how the actor was sidelined by industry bigwigs.
“Your self-esteem and confidence are shaken if you have no one backing you. If 60 per cent of the Hindi film industry doesn’t accept or acknowledge your worth, it counts as emotional bullying … And that’s where your resilience and temperament matter,” added Shah. The World Health Organisation estimates that close to 800,000 people die from suicide each year.
While the statistic is staggering, actor and comedian Danish Sait claims that the pandemic has taught them their minds can be the most vulnerable.
“You can be physically strong, but if you aren’t mentally strong then nothing matters. You must respect what your mind is feeling … Everybody in the world taught us how to feel when you get a job, but not many taught us how to cope and when you don’t lose a job. Just like you have a doctor to treat your nose and ears or fever, you need to go to a specialist if you are feeling low and unwell in the mind. Feeling low and feeling depressed is real” said Sait over the phone. He has openly talked about his battle with depression and taking medications.
Former Dubai-based comedian Nitin Mirani had also expressed that there was a stigma attached to people suffering from depression, especially men.
“Depression is real. Feeling listless is real. Going back to the past relentlessly is real. But seeking help is real and therapy is the biggest small step one needs to take. Emotions don’t have a gender and they exist because it’s an outlet … Let’s remove the stigma around depression and mental health,” said Mirani.
Celebrity deaths that have shocked fans in 2020
Mere days before 2020 was celebrated, the Indian film and television industry was reeling with the sudden death of actor Kushal Punjabi. Having starred in Farhan Akhtar’s ‘Lakshya’, Karan Johar’s ‘Kaal’, and UTV’s ‘Dhan Dhana Dhan Goal’, Punjabi’s death on December 26 saw a muted New Year for many of his fans and friends.
According to the police report, the actor died by suicide aged 42. It was claimed he was suffering from depression. A suicide note reportedly left his belongings to his parents and his son.
Close friend and fellow actor Karanvir Bohra posted a touching tribute for the actor, saying: “Ur demise has shocked the hell out of me. I’m still in denial @itsme_kushalpunjabi. I know you are in a happier place, but this is unfathomable. The way you lead your life really inspired me in more ways than one....but what was I to know. Your zest for dancing, fitness, off-road biking, fatherhood and above all that, that smiling face of yours, your happy-go-lucky nature your warmth all that was so genuine. You will always be rememberd as a guy who lived a full life.”
Caroline Flack, British television presenter and host of reality TV show ‘Love Island’, died at age 40 on February 15.
A family lawyer confirmed Flack had killed herself and was found in her London apartment.
Flack hosted ‘Love Island’ from its launch in 2015, but quit the show after she was charged with assaulting her boyfriend, Lewis Burton. She haddenied the charge and was scheduled to stand trial from March of this year.
Sushant Singh Rajput
Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput was found dead hanging from the ceiling fan at his home in Bandra, Mumbai on June 14 this year. Multiple agencies including the Central Bureau Of Investigation and Narcotics Control Bureau are now probing his death, but the official postmortem reports have concluded that Rajput died of asphyxia due to hanging.
His sudden death re-ignited debates on the importance of mental health and how celebrities find it difficult to cope under the spotlight. His millions of fans are still struggling to cope with the 34-year-old actor’s death and are demanding a conclusive end to the investigation. Rajput was an award-winning actor who had an impish charm about him and has acted in several blockbusters including ‘Kai Po Che’ and ‘Chhicchore’.
On June 8, news emerged that Sushant Singh Rajput’s former manager Disha Salian died after reportedly jumping off or accidentally falling from the 14th floor residence of her fiancée in Malad. Salian’s death was followed by Rajput’s death five days later. Just like Rajput’s death, her tragedy is also shrouded in mystery.
Indian actor Asif Basra, known internationally for his role in ‘Outsourced’, was found dead in Dharamsala in Northern India. He was 53. The police have ruled it as a case of suicide. Basra has acted in films including ‘Black Friday’, ‘Jab We Met’ and ‘Parzania’.
Tamil actress, host and VJ Chitra was found dead in a hotel room in Chennai on December 9.The Pandian Stories star was 29 and is suspected to have died by suicide. Investigations are still on. According to a report on The News Minute, Chitra checked into her hotel at 1am after a shoot. An avid social media user, she shared pictures of herself in a sari on her Instagram page few hours before her death.
Television actor Sameer Sharma, 44, who gained popularity after starring in ‘Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi’, was also found dead at his Mumbai residence on August 5. According to the police report, the actor died by hanging, with the death ruled a suicide.
Social media posts by the late actor hinted that the actor was perhaps battling depression. On July 20, the actor had shared on Facebook a short film he made. Titled ‘The Cut’, the effort has been described by the actor as: “A film about the psychological effects of the isolation due to the lockdown on a person living alone.”
Many similar poems written in Hindi and English, with pain and heartbreak as themes, can be found in his social media accounts.
Indian television actress Preksha Mehta’s death was ruled a suicide by hanging on May 26, with police finding a note she had left behind. The ‘Crime Patrol’ actress, 25, was found in her home in Indore, where she was spending time with her family during the COVID-19 lockdown.
According to news reports, it is believed she was suffering from depression caused by of loss of work during the outbreak. In a suicide note she left behind, it is alleged that her career and failed relationships were behind the cause.
Shortly following the death of Kushal Punjabi, Indian TV actress Sejal Sharma was found dead at her Mumbai residence on January 24. The ‘Dil Toh Happy Hai’ actress was reportedly under a lot of stress following the ill health of her parents. A suicide note was also reportedly discovered at the time, which pointed at the hard life.
Meera Deosthale, who stars in the Colors TV’s ‘Vidya’ shared a post in memory of Sharma, posting: “Sejal, May your soul rest in peace. My friend decided to end her life today and I am Shocked to know that a person who was always smiling and happy was suffering through depression. I wish u would have reached out to anyone and we could have helped u… sending u love and prayers”.
Even as Bollywood was reeling from the death of Sushant Singh Rajput, news broke that TV actor Susheel Gowda had reportedly died by suicide in his home town Mandya. Best known for his role in the show, ‘Anthapura’, according to police reports, he was found dead by hanging. Gowda was 32.
Gowda joined the Kannada television serials in 2015 and acted in a few Kannada films.