Bollywood's legacy as a 'mean girls' club
Manjusha Radhakrishnan, Chief Reporter
The question is not if nepotism rules Bollywood, the question remains how deep the rot runs.
Actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s lasting legacy — apart from his memorable films — was his ability to train the spotlight on the toxic working culture of Bollywood and how merit has a tenuous role to play when it comes to casting talents in a film. The much-derided N-word has been bandied about in Bollywood for the last few years. But has any real good come out of all those heated debates?
Ever since Kangana Ranaut hailed top movie mogul Karan Johar as the ‘flag-bearer of nepotism’ in his own chat show in 2017, the top movie producer — who takes pride in sculpting and shaping the careers of Bollywood star kids like Ananya Panday, Alia Bhatt and Varun Dhawan — has become coarsely defensive about his way of working. He even colluded with actors Saif Ali Khan and his discovery Varun Dhawan at the IIFA awards night the same year to stage a satirical skit called ‘Nepotism Rocks’.
It backfired spectacularly and triggered a battle of open letters with each player defending their narrative on nepotism. Cut to 2020, nothing has changed as Bollywood becomes to be this factory of churning out sanitised, sculpted and underwhelming talents in the guise of introducing ‘star-kids’ with fanfare. Johar’s ‘Student Of The Year 2’ starring Ananya Panday and outsider Tara Sutaria is one such example. Sutaria’s character was clearly underwritten in a mediocre film that gave Panday — an insider — more heft and space to display her skills, however limited and slim.
Ever since Rajput’s suicide two weeks ago, our conversations with a cross-section of established actors, aspiring actors, directors and producers all seem to believe that movies and stars may come and go, but nepotism is here to stay in Bollywood.
Majority didn’t shy away from comparing the dazzling world of musicals to a ‘cult’ where certain sacrifices will have to be made or a mean-girls club on steroids.
Los Angeles-based director of Indian origin Namrata Singh Gujral, who was in talks with Rajput for her science fantasy film, claims that Bollywood is like a high school filled with mean girls and boys who bully and taunt for a living.
“My brush with a Bollywood actor and making a Bollywood film ‘Five Weddings’ was an absolute nightmare. Bollywood is not a club, it’s a hostile clique where popular girls and boys get together and alienate the ‘others’,” said Gujral in an interview with Gulf News. She even spoke about the time when she was snubbed by a popular Bollywood actress, who’s married to a top producer, at a film festival in Melbourne and how being nasty is their thing.
“Bollywood has this incredible ability to demoralise you and make you doubt yourself and your self-worth. Fortunately, I was feisty and Bollywood couldn’t break me,” said Gujral.
It’s an eerily similar narrative with actors who weren’t born into an acting dynasty.
Self-made actor Arjan Bajwa, who played the antagonist in Akshay Kumar-starrer ‘Rustom’, the adorable boyfriend of Priyanka Chopra Jonas in director Madhur Bhandarkar’s ‘Fashion’ and Shahid Kapoor’s brother in ‘Kabir Singh’, doesn’t mince words either. He has done 22 films in Hindi and other South Indian languages.
“I am not going to be politically correct here. Nepotism exists and it exists in a strong way. Your survival here doesn’t depend on your merit or talents. It has everything to do with the name attached to you or the brand image. I have been a part of five blockbusters so far, but an outsider has to prove himself to the film industry and not just your viewers,” said Bajwa. Even getting nominated for an industry award is reserved for insiders, claims Bajwa.
“Bollywood runs like a mom-and-pop shop … Star kids are launched with great fanfare even if they can act or not. They are launched in a leading space over and over again, but an outsider has to prove himself over and over again. It’s troublesome and sad,” said Bajwa. The actor also revealed that outsiders even find it difficult to get represented by a talent agency who prefer star kids to outsiders. (“I even asked a big star to put in a word, but they didn’t relent).
“Nepotism exists at every level … In my experience merit and talents is placed last while you are being cast in a role. I have been rejected and replaced by star kids many times. I would have signed contracts and read scripts only to realise that I was interchanged for another influential star kid,” said Bajwa.
Even established actors — with no family backing — have it tough in Bollywood. In February 2019, award-winning actress Taapsee Pannu who has starred in critically-acclaimed blockbusters like ‘Thappad’ and ‘Pink’ — lashed out at the makers of ‘Pati Patna Aur Woh’ for replacing her with another actress Bhumi Pednekar at the last minute. As she lashed out, her thoughts were sobering.
“It [Unprofessionalism] will stay like that. This is the rule of the game and I can’t be cribbing about it every day. Today I have the power to call it out and I did. Thankfully, I am in a position where I have enough work. If I would have been in a position where I didn’t have enough work, they would have said I am doing it to get attention,” said Pannu in an interview with Indian Express.
According to an industry insider who wished to remain anonymous, calling out the powerful forces in Bollywood can have a lasting impact on your career. Being feisty and righteous may be an admirable trait among lead heroes, but it isn’t a welcome trait in Bollywood ruled by hostile clans and cliques. Everything is planned to the last detail in Bollywood known for its actors who are famously tardy when it comes to press conferences.
For example, Saif Ali Khan and Amrita Singh’s daughter Sara Ali Khan was promoted heavily over her co-star Sushant Singh Rajput during her debut feature ‘Kedarnath’. Interviews with Khan were arranged with great precision and press-material that concentrated on Khan’s images were sent and Rajput — the established hero who was an outsider — was sidelined covertly. Perhaps, it was an oversight from the film’s over-enthusiastic PR team, but there was no denying that a privileged insider like Khan was given more play than Rajput.
So what’s the way forward? Even if Bollywood refuses to change its lethal way of functioning, the audiences can take a call to support movies featuring talented outsiders. And the next time we vicariously check out Saif Ali Khan and Kareena Kapoor’s bonny child Taimur Ali Khan’s pictures of him going to his nursery, choose to look away. He’s barely five and needn’t be treated like a rockstar with no album under his designer belt.
Let the buck stop with us and maybe Bollywood might get inspired to do better.
A Bollywood filmmaker on handling rejections
Manjusha Radhakrishnan, Chief Reporter
Ram Kamal Mukherjee, who worked with actors including Hema Malini, Esha Deol, Celina Jaitly and Lillette Dubey for films ‘Cakewalk’ and ‘Season’s Greetings’ shares his journey as an outsider and how he is trying to crack the Bollywood code:
“My struggle never ended. And I guess, it would never end. Not at least till the time I intend to work. You need to be Abhimanyu to survive the chakravyu. It’s a war, and everyone is playing their own game. I realised that 20 years ago when I shifted my base from Kolkata to Mumbai. It takes time to be a part of a group in Bollywood, just as you would take time to know your fellow passengers if you suddenly board a train without a reserved seat.
“So when I decided to move on from journalism to film making, I realised that it wasn’t a ‘Cakewalk’. Financiers would ask me to get a big star, a cross-section of stars who pretended to be my best friend until then disappeared overnight. Maybe they didn’t want to associate with me anymore. So when I used to meet them with scripts (initially I wanted to produce films) they would ask me to route it through their managers. Fair enough. But after making me wait for three to six months (rigorous follow ups later) they would turn down the offer. Same happened with the Bollywood studios, they would meet and ask me to get an A-list actor on board first. They didn’t care much about the content.
“So for me, it was a catch-22 situation. My struggle continued till I met few people who claimed to have enough finances to make a feature film. I trusted them and we rolled our dream project. I was working as creative producer. Just before the shoot, the investors backed out citing demonetisation as a reason. The project fell off the hook like a house of cards. I decided to go back to writing and write two books titled ‘Long Island Iced Tea’ and Hema Malini authorised biography ‘Beyond The Dreamgirl’. Following those projects, people began started taking me seriously again. This time around, they looked at me as individual identity. My friend and genuinely good soul Deepika Padukone agreed to launch the book and amidst massive fanfare the book was launched. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi wrote the foreword and that caught attention of my detractors.
“‘Oh! he survived?’ they smirked.
“The next big leap was when I decided to direct my first film ‘Cakewalk’ with Esha Deol. Of course, I didn’t have the money to make a film. But I had the will and honesty. I went from one office to another to convince people to give me a chance. From Bandra to Aram Nagar, I knocked on almost all doors (including some established production houses who treated me coffee and showed me the door).
“Finally, Aritra Das, Shailendra Kumar and Dinesh Gupta joined hands and invested in my vision. I promised them that I will return their investment and also give them profit. I didn’t have any approval from studios or any platform even then. I took that risk and made my first short film ‘Cakewalk’. I missed the deadline, but they waited with patience.
“I started knocking doors, once again. Everyone discouraged me saying? “YouTube pe dal do, itni mehengi short film kaun kharidega?” [Why don’t you release ‘Cakewalk’ on YouTube? Who will buy such an expensive short film?]
“I didn’t have the courage to tell my producers that I might not be able to return their investments. I didn’t want to break their faith. That’s when I met Raj Nayak from Viacom18 and he watched the film. He agreed to release the film on his channel. Gradually, I could see the silver lining at the end of the tunnel.
“Eventually ‘Cakewalk’ broke all possible records that a short film could even imagine. From its first look launch in London to is grand premiere in Mumbai and a music launch in Dubai, my short film ‘Cakewalk’ won 17 international awards to becoming India’s first short film to be premiered on satellite television. We broke and shattered all myths and my success gave hope to other makers to pursue their dreams.
“We didn’t make any money. In fact after paying our dues and debts we were in the minus. But economics didn’t didn’t take away our determination. We wanted to fight the battle.
“We started our second film ‘Season’s Greetings’ with Celina Jaitly Haag and Lillette Dubey, immediately after ‘Cakewalk’. This time the struggle became tougher. People laughed at us saying that why did we make another expensive short film? Festival directors would reject our films and studios would refuse to meet us, but we didn’t give up.
“There were days when I skipped meals to save money for the next day. My savings dried up and my wife mortgaged her jewellery to run the house. Investors were breathing down our neck to refund their money. Finally it was Tarun Katiyal and Jay Pandya from the streaming platform Zee5 who trusted in our vision and acquired the film.
“I am grateful to acting legends like Amitabh Bachchan for supporting our short film. Truth be told, I did reach out to many actors from Bollywood to support my independent cinema. I requested them to watch and tweet, while some were extremely gracious, others sneaked out with some excuse or the other. The so-called young brigade who are writing on social media about reach out to independent cinema are precisely the ones who didn’t respond to texts, calls or emails. As a journalist, I have always stood by their films and endeavours, but they have not even bothered to wished me. Some even replied saying, ‘Sorry, I have to check with my social media manager if I have a window in my timeline to accommodate your tweet’.
“They are the same set of people who would ask me to support and tweet when their films released. They still do. And I still oblige.
“But by the grace of God, and support from media and few industry well wishers, I managed to sail through the tough times. I want to make good cinema and I want to be a part of this system. I am standing with open arms like Shah Rukh Khan == hoping for a jadoo ki jhappi [alluding to a dialogue from actor Sanjay Dutt’s life-affirming blockbuster ‘Munna Bhai MBBS] — from this industry. I know I will survive.”
Bollywood camps 101: Breaking down the film industry
Manjusha Radhakrishnan, Chief Reporter
Bollywood is famously clannish and various camps rule the industry. Here are the major cliques that exist in Bollywood. As one famous self-made star revealed in hushed tones: ‘You can’t be a part of a camp, the camp must want you first.’. While his declaration might sound more like a slogan for a cult gathering, here’s a look at some of the famous groups in Bollywood …
Salman Khan camp:
Fondly called the ‘bhai’ [bro] of Bollywood, he runs a tight ship. Check out his pet projects like ‘Ready’ and you will see that his films are littered with supporting actors who are also his close friends and confidantes. His brothers Sohail and Arbaaz along with actors including Katrina Kaif, Jacqueline Fernandez, Zareen Khan and Daisy Shah. Directors like Sajid Nadiadwala also has sworn allegiance to this Khan. Being a part of his camp includes staycations at his farmhouse in Panvel, biryani brunches and being invited to his festive gatherings.
Shah Rukh Khan camp:
Actor-director Farhan Akhtar, director Farah Khan, Hrithik Roshan and Deepika Padukone are a part of his inner circle.
Karan Johar and Yash Raj Films clique:
If you are discovered by Yash Raj Films, headed by the famously reclusive director-producer Aditya Chopra, then your career in Bollywood is almost set. Actors Ranveer Singh, Anushka Sharma and Vaani Kapoor are Chopra’s prized discoveries. Chopra’s close buddy Karan Johar also runs a formidable camp and the members co-incide. Actors like Alia Bhatt and Varun Dhawan have sworn allegiance to Johar after he launched them in his dazzling movies. As long as you don’t rub them the wrong way, all’s good.
Director Mahesh Bhatt and his sibling Mukesh Bhatt run the show here. Pooja Bhatt, Emraan Hashmi and director Mohit Suri are also a part of this gang.
Akshay Kumar camp:
This self-made actor has a loyal following of actors and directors. Director Sajid Nadiadwala who’s also pals with Salman Khan, are a part of his gang.
Ekta Kapoor camp:
Just like the movie moguls and superstars, top TV producer — who has given hundreds of talents from small-towns like Prachi Desai and Ankita Lokhande a platform to showcase their talents — likes to keep her cards and people close. Even Sushant Singh Rajput was formerly a part of her gang before he moved to the world of films.
Kangana Ranaut camp:
She’s an army in herself, but her sister Rangoli Chandel is her biggest cheerleader. Ranaut isn’t a fan of Karan Johar or Khans and she makes her displeasure known at every single turn. After Sushant Singh Rajput’s death, she called out all those dark forces in Bollywood who tried to destroy Rajput’s career. She’s outspoken and isn’t scared to take ‘big daddies of Bollywood’.
Insider take: Raveena Tandon denies ‘outsiders’ exist in Bollywood
Manjusha Radhakrishnan, Chief Reporter
National Award-winning Indian actress Raveena Tandon, who began her career in Bollywood when she was 16, believes living in the public eye and being famous comes with its share of emotional baggage.
“When I first came into this line of work, I was barely 16 and it used to hurt a lot when yellow journalism, gossip tabloids or magazines used to write made-up, fake stories about me … There were times when I used to cry myself to sleep,” said Tandon in an interview with Gulf News.
The daughter of director Ravi Tandon, who ruled Bollywood in 1990s and early 2000, claims it was her family who helped her stay afloat. She was blessed to have friends and family who rallied around her during those dark phases and pulling her away from self-doubt and insecurity.
“You go through this phase where you think to yourself that you are not like this, but why do they paint you as this person that you are not? You do question it … My parents have been my rock and they have been rock solid behind me during those time. That stabilised me to a point,” said Tandon.
The perils of being rich, famous and popular in Bollywood is now the talking point among movie-mad Indians who are grappling with the suicide of actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s suicide. The actor, 34, reportedly hung himself from his ceiling in his Mumbai residence. Theories about his struggle with mental depression and the alienation he felt as an industry outsider is being picked apart. The debate about nepotism overriding merit has also been re-ignited with several stars asking for boycott of popular producers, directors and stars who trade work for those who are in their inner circle.
On the surface, Tandon — who was born into a movie family and is now married to a movie distributer, is that quintessential privileged insider. But even though she grew up in a family that were immersed in the world of movies, the insiders aren’t insulated from the pressures of being a star.
“The pressures are definitely high for us. And that’s not exclusive to our film industry alone. It’s the world that we live in today. Any high profile, glamorous job comes with its share of scrutiny, limelight and every action of yours is analysed. Every single action of yours is picked upon and people have all kinds of assumptions and deductions to make about what you said or did,” said Tandon.
The actress, who has starred in blockbusters such as the action thriller ‘Mohra’ and the family drama ‘Laadla’ along with critically acclaimed, women-empowering films like ‘Maatr’ and ‘Shool’, has internalised that intense degree of scrutiny.
“You just have to be brave enough to ignore all that noise or learn to bounce it off you. There are many sensitive people who take that intense scrutiny to heart … You have learn to believe in yourself and learn to have faith in yourself. If you know hat you have not done any harm, you can have a good night sleep with a clear conscience … Initially, it hurts lot though,” said Tandon.
In theory, Tandon — by accident of birth — comes across as someone who is equipped and armed with more resources than an aspiring acting hopeful from a small-town in India who is trying to carve a path in Bollywood. That outsider has no connections to fall back upon or strings to pull when the going gets tough.
So what’s Tandon’s take on the simmering Insider vs Outsider debate that’s brewing in Bollywood right now.
The so-called insiders are usually daughters of famous actors, producers and directors, while outsiders are those who have no industry connection and can’t cash in on their dad or relative’s popularity.
“There is nothing like insider and outsider in Bollywood. I was born into this industry, but I did not let my own father launch me because I wanted to do something on my own. I wanted to stand up on my own merit and be on my own feet. I didn’t want any to push me towards success,” said Tandon. The actress claims she was ‘discovered’ by somebody outsider her circle and thrust into the world of modelling before she made her debut as an actress.
“Initially I didn’t even want to join the movies. My father didn’t call up people he knew or recommended me for projects. I was discovered in movies through a few ads I did and later people came to know that my father is a director. I consider myself completely self-made,” said Tandon.
Although she is proud of her achievements in her career, there’s no denying that ‘bullying’ exists in Bollywood and beyond.
“Every profession has its share of dirty politics … It could be airlines, the modelling world or your own media office. Bullying, ragging and harassment doesn’t happen only in classrooms and high schools … it happens everywhere. The only difference is that it is written about, sensationalised a great deal when it happens in our industry because it makes for a good, fun copy to read.”
While she is aware of the underbelly in any profession, her sole philosophy is that you just need to learn to ‘fight your own battles’.
“You just can’t give up,” said Tandon. While the industry has bestowed her with fame, money and success, she is frightful pragmatic about her place in the food chain. She believes Bollywood is a world where dreams of aspiring talents come alive. Did she pay a steep price for being a part of Bollywood, that is now getting the rap for being petty and hostile to outsiders?
“There’s no price as such that I paid for being in the limelight. I love my film industry and it has given me my all. It has given me my fame, my life, my name and a standing in society. I love that my industry also gives opportunities for people. People come from nowhere and become world famous. Bollywood is a profession where dreams come true … It gives you too much or too less depending on your talent, hard work and sincerity … I have only received a lot from this industry.”
Sushant Singh: A Bollywood outsider who paid the price of fame
Bindu Rai, Entertainment Editor
Sushant Singh Rajput’s public image was that of a man living the high life, while staying true to his roots. Despite the bright lights of showbiz disillusioning even the most innocent soul, there was an almost boyish appeal to the late actor that endeared him to his army of fans from the moment he stepped up to the screen as the lovable Manav Deshmukh in ‘Pavitra Rishta’.
His impish charm and traditional middle-class values made half of India fall in love with him a little, celebrating his victories and weeping over his heartaches when the show beamed into the homes of urban devotees and village dwellers between 2009 and 2011, before he quit the gig for something bigger.
An entry into Bollywood was almost a given for this talented powerhouse, who was discovered by casting director Mukesh Chabbra in a coffee shop and was instrumental in getting Rajput his first big break in ‘Kai Po Che!’ (2013).
The irony that Chabbra will also present Rajput in his final Bollywood swansong ‘Dil Bechara’ is not lost on anyone.
For his family and friends in Patna, Bihar, Rajput’s growing fame was a true blue rags-to-riches success story in an industry where star kids are ‘launched’ while ‘outsiders’ spend years knocking on the doors of producers and casting directors before slipping a foot into that world.
Rajput was often touted as the next Shah Rukh Khan, or perhaps an Ayushmann Khurrana, both of whom started their careers on television and struggled their way up the ladder of success to find fame and fortune in the big bad world of Bollywood.
Studying to be an engineer and following in the footsteps of his father, Rajput’s dream took him well beyond the parameters that Patna offered him. Following his mother’s death in 2002, one that many say he never truly recovered from, the family — including his father and four sisters — moved to Delhi where Rajput enrolled in engineering college. However, he dropped out to pursue his passion for acting.
In his early interviews, the actor often confessed the road to stardom was not an easy one for him but he looked back upon his struggles as an inevitable journey to get him just that bit closer to his final goal — breaking into Bollywood. “I was already a superstar in my mind,” the actor told Man’s World in an interview once.
Entering the entertainment industry came with its share of odd jobs — Rajput joined ace choreographer Shiamak Davar’s troupe and even grooved as a back-up dancer to Hrithik Roshan in ‘Dhoom 2’. Acting was the next big thing for Rajput and the actor soon enrolled into Nadira Babbar’s Ekjute theatre group before breaking into television with ‘Kis Desh Mein Hai Meraa Dil’. Small-screen stardom was still a while away before television Tsarina Ekta Kapoor plucked him out of obscurity and made him a star overnight when she cast him in ‘Pavitra Rishta’.
His natural flair for dancing also landed Rajput as a star performer on several reality shows, including ‘Zara Nachke Dikha’ season 2 in 2010, followed by the fourth season of ‘Jhalak Dikhhla Jaa’. In October 2011, Rajput decided to quit ‘Pavitra Rishta’ to study filmmaking, only to be discovered by Chabbra.
Some may call it fate, while others may single out Lady Luck, but for Rajput, the call of Bollywood was a golden opportunity that few would pass up. Yet, his journey wouldn’t be without some hurdles.
In 2010, a certain Ranveer Singh had arrived on the scene and had just tasted success with ‘Band Baaja Baaraat’, along with bagging a deal with Yash Raj Films, while Varun Dhawan was waiting in the wings to be launched by Bollywood filmmaker Karan Johar in ‘Student of the Year’ in two short years. For Rajput to find his footing without the backing of a large production house or a godfather would require a cracking script.
He would find that in Abhishek Kapoor’s ‘Kai Po Che!’ (2013), based on novelist Chetan Bhagat’s book, ‘The 3 Mistakes of My Life’. The film proved to be a critical and commercial success and Rajput emerged as its breakout star with an earnestness that few could match.
Suddenly Bollywood was writing his own Cinderella story, with Rajput’s career trajectory following that of Shah Rukh Khan — he caught the attention of production powerhouse Yash Raj Films. It is said a three-film deal was soon drawn up and Rajput’s innocent charm was launched under their banner with ‘Shuddh Desi Romance’.
Bollywood critic Taran Adarsh described Rajput’s performance, saying: “After leaving a tremendous impression in his first Hindi outing, Sushant Singh Rajput... brings a lot of freshness with his unpretentious and spontaneous act.”
Filmmaker Rajkumar Hirani soon snapped him up for a cameo in his 2014 hit ‘PK’, a role that reportedly many rejected as it involved playing a Pakistani.
Many supposedly chided Rajput as well on playing the role, but in an interview with film critic Anupama Chopra, the actor clearly stated that no role was big or small to him and he wasn’t going to miss out on an opportunity to work with Hirani or the film’s lead stars, Aamir Khan and Anushka Sharma.
A year later Dibakar Banerjee’s mystery thriller ‘Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!’ earned Rajput critical praise, despite the film not performing well at the box office. It was also around this time that the first murmurings began to erupt that all was not well between Rajput and Yash Raj Films. It wasn’t long before the duo went their separate ways, with both calling it an amicable parting.
Few know the real story behind the fallout, but there were murmurings that Rajput was finding himself playing second fiddle to Singh and Arjun Kapoor, with the late actor losing out ‘Befikre’ to the former star. However, this was a story that Rajput himself denied during a 2017 interview with HT Cafe.
“I was never offered ‘Befikre’. But had I been offered, I wouldn’t have done it,” Rajput said in the interview. “If the same production house is offering me a niche film like ‘Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!’, I would do it because Dibakar Banerjee [director] has a different interpretation of the old classic; and I would do a ‘Paani’ where Shekhar Kapur will be raising a very important and immediate issue.”
He further added, “If ‘Befikre’ was representing the new-age youth of India and romance as what it was claiming, it would have been great irrespective of the box-office numbers. But unfortunately, it didn’t do that and hence I would not be interested.”
‘Paani’ also remained a sore point with Rajput, with filmmaker Kapur admitting in a recent Instagram Live with actor Manoj Bajpayee that the late actor was heart-broken when the film was shelved by the same production house.
“He would lose all weight and come back as a skinny man in one week. For three months, he prepared to get into the character. I kind of fell in love with him. He gives so much, which director wouldn’t want to work with him?” Kapur said of Rajput. “When the film shut down, he cried and even I cried along with him.”
The following year, Rajput would soon taste success again in perhaps the biggest film of his short-lived career as Neeraj Pandey’s biographical sports film ‘M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story’ hit the marquee with the actor essaying the role of cricketer Mahendra Singh Dhoni.
Former Indian wicketkeeper Kiran More, who trained Rajput for the role, told Outlook India that the actor immersed himself into training for Dhoni’s character, even sustaining a hairline fracture in his rib cage, fractured fingers and sustaining body blows.
“I told him that he was the second person, after Dhoni, who I had seen play the best helicopter shot. He got excited. It took one-and-a-half months to master the helicopter shot. Once he got the shot right, he would play about 100 helicopter shots daily to master it,” More said in the interview.
The training bore fruit when the film released, going on to become a critical and commercial success and earning Rajput his first nomination for the Filmfare Award for Best Actor in 2017; he lost to Aamir Khan for ‘Dangal’.
Despite the film entering Bollywood’s prestigious Rs1 billion (Dh48.62 million) film club, success was yet fleeting for Rajput. One would expect him to the be the toast of tinsel town, but what the actor received were mentions in barely-concealed blind items in gossip magazines that talked of an alleged drinking problem and mood swings.
In the midst of it all, Rajput maintained a dignified silence, refusing some may say, to get his hands dirty in the mud-slinging.
Sadly, it would only be after his death that former co-star and one-time rumoured girlfriend Kriti Sanon would call out such blind items in an emotional outburst on Twitter.
The actor’s career trajectory would take him through two unsuccessful ventures, with ‘Raabta’ and ‘Kedarnath’, the latter being star kid Sara Ali Khan’s launch vehicle as well. The bias against Rajput would be visible with the latter, with several media outlets complaining on social media that during the disaster film’s promotion, there were never offered interviews with the lead star, only just the debutant.
Following Rajput’s death, ‘Kedarnath’ director Abhishek Kapoor called the situation distressing. “It’s not really visible, but there was a systematic dismantling of a fragile mind,” the director said of Rajput on the web show ‘Enquiry’. “I kept telling Sushant, you’re already a star, don’t expect others to validate that for you. It’s really unfortunate, he kept seeking a validation he could not get.”
Kapoor further said: “…I remember when ‘Kedarnath’ was coming out, the media had just slammed it. I don’t know what happened, he could see that he was not getting the kind of love because everything was centred around Sara [Ali Khan] that time. He was just kind of lost.”
In 2019, Rajput had three releases, namely Abhishek Chaubey’s ‘Sonchiriya’, Nitesh Tiwari’s ‘Chhichhore’ and the Netflix release, ‘Drive’. While the last film drew harsh criticism from one and all, the actor was lauded for his role as a dacoit in ‘Sonchiriya’ and a desperate father trying to convince his son why suicide was not the answer in ‘Chhichhore’.
Bajpayee spoke fondly of Rajput during the shoot of the former film in the Instagram Live with Kapur. “He touched my feet, told me, ‘Sir, I am also from Bihar’. He talked about his village and the fact that we were shooting at the location of ‘Bandit Queen’. He used to prepare for scenes to get it perfect each time. Also on the sets, I spotted two books on Quantum Physics by his side. He used to carry a telescope with him, and like a child he used to flaunt it to people, asking them to join him in gazing at the galaxy.”
A few weeks ahead of the release of ‘Drive’ and days after ‘Chhichhore’ was deemed a box office success, Rajput took to his social media to share his 50-wish bucket with his legion of fans, talking of his aspirations to take himself to dizzying heights, not just with his career, but by honing his own skills to go beyond the glittering lights of showbiz.
Spare a cursory glance over this list and you piece together the story of a man who had a thirst for knowledge and the desire to share his teachings with the world. How else does one describe a bucket list that pens down objectives to master the Morse code, visit the Hadron Collider in CERN, Switzerland, enrol in flying lessons and finding time to embrace his inner child at the ‘happiest place on Earth’, namely Disneyland?
This was Rajput less than 10 months ago, with his future mapped out before him in a list that painted the picture of a man with a positive outlook on life. A Karan Johar-backed film was weeks away from releasing, while the remake of ‘The Fault in Our Stars’ was several months from being rolled out to the masses.
In his personal life, a romance with rumoured girlfriend Rhea Chakraborty seemed to be heading in the right direction, with the actor’s own father K.K Singh confirming with entertainment portal Bollywood Tadka that his son had spoken to him about it and was looking at setting a date for February or March of 2021, hopefully months after the coronavirus pandemic and the release of his upcoming film ‘Dil Bechara’.
As stories of a hopeful young man continue to emerge from Rajput’s family and friends, it is perhaps difficult for many to piece together the puzzle of the actor’s suicide on June 14 in Mumbai. While the Mumbai Police, which is investigating the death, has confirmed the actor died by suicide, many are still attempting to unravel the mystery that led the 34-year-old down a path of depression and the decision to end his life.
Four successful films in a seven-year career have turned lesser actors into overnight stars, yet few of those are industry outsiders. Rajput, somehow, could never truly earn the stardom he so desperately craved, according to his friends and industry insiders.
“It takes double the talent, energy and hard work for an outsider to convince the audience and the industry that he or she is as safe a box-office bet as a mediocre, unmotivated and entitled establishment elite,” Banerjee told PTI in the wake of Rajput’s death. “This leads to deep anger and frustration. Those who can let this slide survive. Those who can’t — those who hurt a little more or are vulnerable and impressionable — they are at risk.”
As calls of a CBI probe into his death have yet to be answered, Rajput’s last year was reportedly not without personal struggles. Validation was yet a distant dream in Bollywood, while his personal life involved a string of broken relationships — first with TV and film star Ankita Lokhande, followed by rumoured affairs with Sanon and Chakraborty.
Fans of the late actor continue with their online tirade that it was inevitably Bollywood and its nepotistic ways that laid the foundation for his suicide. While industry insiders are choosing to be more tactful, celebrities such as Kangana Ranaut are open about the Bollywood camps that make no room for outsiders over second-generation actors such as Sonam Kapoor and Ananya Panday.
A star remembered
As ‘Dil Bechara’, Rajput’s final ode to Bollywood, heads for a digital release on July 24, nuggets of his intelligence continue to leave behind a lasting legacy.
His love for a life beyond the stars, a Rs5.5 million telescope at his home in Mumbai that invited guests to admire Saturn’s rings, his little plot on the surface of the moon that he purchased a few years ago and his ability to discuss anything from astrophysics to Jean-Paul Sartre’s philosophical teachings, Rajput’s legacy is much more than mere moviemaking to his family and friends.
In a post from April, Rajput wrote he was learning coding because he loves computer gaming and “wanted to learn the language behind it”.
For some in Bollywood, Rajput may have remained an enigma, but to his loved ones, he was nothing but a dreamer with his head in the stars, who unfortunately paid too high a price for fame.
The ‘suicide contagion’ dissected
Sharmila Dhal, Assistant Editor
From a psychiatrist’s point of view, the tendency to ape actions, including unfortunate instances of suicide, by well-known personalities is a function of various factors.
Dr Mohamed Yousaf, specialist psychiatrist at Aster Clinic, Al Muteena, said, “Certain studies have shown that some vulnerable people with a strong emotional connect with a hero/heroine/politician identify with the person who killed himself/herself and see the same way of death as a solution to their problems. They do this without understanding the reality of its future consequences.”
He said, “Psychologists call this phenomenon suicide contagion. Mindless media coverage also seems to have a gripping impact on those who actually think of suicide and just needs a slight push to decide on it.”
He said the sudden demise of Bollywood actor Sushanth Singh Rajput was saddening and disturbing.
“He took his own life. His was a young life that was snuffed out so quickly, a big shock that left a vacuum forever in the lives of his family, fans and those who loved him in the film fraternity,” he said.
But the problem, according to him, was compounded by the developments that took place in the wake of the incident.
“As usual, before anyone could cope up with his loss, his death had already sparked hot debates in the media and social media circles about the mental pressures placed on Bollywood celebrities. This time, the debates focused on nepotism, cronyism, newcomers, old timers, sexism, fallen celebrities, depression, and a whole host of other mental stigma,“ he said, adding, “If only people could discard prejudices and give some time for the departed soul to rest in peace.”
Dr Yousaf said it’s just a matter of time that public memory about the incident fades and Bollywood is celebrated again. “Of course, we can’t reject the industry for just one suicide. Human beings are exceptionally sympathetic to their own unhappiness and misery and completely indifferent to any kind of misery outside their family circles. We worry while mentioning about it first, a drop of compassion the second time and it becomes a casual story from the next time on. Then we move on to the next gossip. This cycle continues.”
He views this “flawed reaction” as very innate to human beings. “It’s common too. We come up with tweets, arguments and notes about how “failed” the person is. We speculate the cause of it with unverified details. We even don’t hesitate to harass the person’s family members and loved ones in their time of grief,” he noted.
'Victory over agony'
Dr Yousaf said the celeb world doesn’t show any kindness towards weakness. “Especially when it comes to the reaction it invites. It reminds me of Sulli and Goo Hara of the famous South Korean K-pop girl music band, who took their own lives. It was later revealed that they ended their lives as a result of partner violence, incessant misogynist trolls, cyber bullying and depression. While depression is a reality, the stigma attached to it in our world is just hideous. The sarcastic chuckles and whispers can be harassing for the one who is fighting a lonely battle and makes it impossible to deal with positively.”
He said, “It’s really indicative of serious mental issues that are deeply embedded in the minds of people who feel lonely and struggle to deal with it on their own, making it easier for shunned and victimised men and women to end their lives to gain victory over their agony.”
Addressing the issue
The psychiatrist said, “It comes down to just one person – yourself. Nobody is going to save you from your self-inflicted disgrace. You have to fight this battle on your own. Society can support you. For that, we need a strong school and community-level counselling system, helpline numbers, regulate the influence of media and social media, spend more time with siblings and parents, use the service of counsellors, psychologists and even close friends to help overcome that momentary loss of sanity. There are plenty of social devices to support you. You just need to reach out. At least until there’s an app to automatically detect your mental state and alert the nearest help.”
Parting shot: Seven learnings about Bollywood’s underbelly
Manjusha Radhakrishnan, Chief Reporter
Who is Pankaj Purohit?
Director Pankaj Purohit grew up throughout India. His curiosity to explore stories beyond just his native country propelled Pankaj to pursue his study of screenwriting and the cinematic arts in Los Angeles. As a writing student he was mentored by Gregory Allen Howard, writer of ‘Remember the Titans’ and ‘Ali’.
While Purohit continued his directing studies at UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles), he interned with independent production companies all over Los Angeles and worked as a production assistant on many films. Pankaj works in LA and India and recently filmed the documentary ‘Belly of the Tantra’ and produced ‘Sudden Cry’. He is currently working on several projects including a full length feature film based in UK. Here’s what I learnt about my brush with Bollywood and how several attempts were made to destroy him. Here are seven things he gleaned from his tryst with Bollywood power brokers:
1. Being manipulated is one of the biggest unsaid rules, often unknown to outsiders. They drill the narrative that your old avatar won’t work and you would need a new, depraved avatar to win that game. You are oblivious to the effect it does upon you psychologically and emotionally. Mind you — Bollywood is not an industry, it’s a cult. Also, in a cult you participate in a reverent ceremonial worship, bow down involving a God. And cults have sacrifices.
2. First step, the psychological assessment begins. They size up your potential and what kinds of strategies must be applied upon to attack, thus begins the process of psychological indoctrination that include distorting your mental and emotional make up. These applied strategies are tried and tested and most small town girls/ boys cannot fathom most of it. And, since they have never been exposed to this, they gradually submit and become part of this nexus which are into drugs, manipulation, prostitution and lynching.
Your soul is raided in such a way that you exist for their objectives. Only when you become a slave to their narrative you succeed. This is the way to get to the top here and if you choose to be a daredevil, they can always eliminate you. With this constant psychological experimentation, the life force is sucked out of you. It kills you in the process. Fear of being attacked physically is also a key component especially for men. It’s like living in a war zone everyday.
3. Phrases such as “Don’t say that about Bollywood” is intentionally ingrained in your mind and it invokes fear. A veteran actor, attempted to bring my morale down by saying, “the world is not fair” and “compromises have to be made”. The people that push their narrative, either are on the payroll or expecting a big break. This narrative is ingrained in your mind, “they are very big people and if you don’t follow what they tell you, they can hurt you” is the message that is clearly visible among the outsiders. During another meeting, one of the prominent actors, who was jealous of my talent said — “you are not Shekhar Kapur.” When you are an outsider, you’re treated like an outsider. This type of psychological mechanism through insinuation, innuendo, cleverly arranging circumstances and direct insults is out of control here.
4. A clear cut narrative has been established by this cult for the outsider girls and boys - that you have no agency over your body. Constantly listening to that crushes your human spirit and I was not going to submit to that. I was here to make art, not to pimp. In one instance, I was meeting a producer — at the end of the meeting, he looks at my female assistant and during our handshake weirdly rubs my hand and says — “your picture could be made anytime, why are you struggling?” Actresses have shared with me the incidents where they were offered envelopes full of money without significant reasons. Idioms for women like “kaddu katega to sab me batega” is rampant in Bollywood.
5. In another incident, I met with a producer-director who comes from Varanasi, covertly belongs to this cult, claims that he is a messiah but all he wishes to do is steal other director’s projects. I didn’t succumb to his demands and I was not ready to let go my project. After that he started to spread rumours and tried to sabotage my career. His intention was to steal my project. He told me, “Nobody will make this film in Mumbai but me.”
6. This psychological breakdown is done so systematically that it’s incredible. You feel broken and shattered. You start to doubt your self-worth and it totally destroys your potential. Gossips about your background and your poverty is normal. People getting beaten at their parties and offices have been a common occurrence. With peer-pressure built upon you, you are outraged and terrified for your own existence. You tend to become self-destructive. You are completely broken at this point. And when you still don’t give up, the film mafia sheltered by authorities, underworld connections and politicians start a gruesome battle against you. You are forced to fight a losing battle.
7. After being systemically laughed, mocked, neglected, gaslighted, manipulated and sidelined, all platforms including film festivals were ordered to not exhibit my films. My films were completely blocked, including their release. By not giving coverage, and bad reviews, media and critics on their pay roll have sabotaged me and many other artists. I was determined, strong minded and opened up my own company. I continue to make my own art. And I am currently working on a feature film based in UK.