Right-wing policing of grief in wake of Sushant Singh Rajput’s death

Pritha Bhattacharya

On 14 June, actor Sushant Singh Rajput died by suicide, an incident that naturally left many people within and outside the film industry shocked and unsettled. Sushant, like many of his contemporaries, was not just an actor but a celebrity whose life online was frequently used as a social resource through which his audience made sense of their reality. Sushant was part of India’s first batch of wildly popular actors whose unprecedented fame cannot fully be explained without acknowledging the role played by social media in propelling such popularity in life as well as in death.

A simple guy at heart making it big in Bollywood by sheer hard work; a story told multiple times through his down-to-earth Instagram handle and now by his countless fans who mourn his sudden passing. As the news of his death started spreading, a congregation of bereaved fans, friends, colleagues, and well-wishers gathered on twitter to mourn the actor’s death. Hundreds of Twitter users claimed that Sushant’s passing felt personal like they had lost someone they knew and were close to. Interestingly, however, this unique form of mediatized grieving that for some time created a sense of collectivity soon dissipated as discussions surrounding his death became increasingly polarized. In this process, the act of grieving itself came to be heavily policed. While this in itself is not an uncommon occurrence, how the terms of rightful grieving were articulated by right-wing news platforms and social media needs further scrutiny.

Fans and colleagues alleged that Sushant was being bullied by the likes of major Bollywood producer Karan Johar, infamous for unfairly casting star kids over ‘outsiders’, who attempted to boycott him because he felt insecure by his success and talent. Famous Bollywood actress Kangana Ranaut too contributed to this discussion via videos where she presented reasons why she thinks those at the helm of the film industry bullied Sushant to death. Ranaut’s core message was that people who do not belong to traditional film families find it exceptionally hard to survive in Bollywood and Sushant as an ‘outsider’ was no different. She likened such bullying to the emotional and psychological lynching of an actor, attributing such instances of harassment as reasons for Sushant’s death.

Ranaut’s statements quickly gained traction amongst a section of netizens, with hashtags such as #BlockedByBollywood, #BoycottBollywood, and #JusticeForSushant trending on Twitter in the following weeks as an attempt to bring attention to their allegations. Any industry member who tweeted a message of condolence or regret without demanding justice for Sushant and condemning nepotism was hounded and promptly censured. Even those who were at some point ‘outsiders’ themselves were not spared.

There is so far no concrete evidence whether these allegations hold merit but multiple popular personalities have lent their face to this online movement demanding justice for the late actor. Apart from Kangana Ranaut, actors such as Vivek Oberoi, Rupa Ganguly, Shekhar Suman, and Payal Rohatgi are some key figures leading this movement. All of these actors have also previously vociferously extended their support for the Hindu nationalist party BJP’s blatantly Islamophobic and casteist legislations like the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). A few of them have also condoned punitive action against students and activists who are critical of the present political regime. Their participation in the online movement demanding justice for Sushant, therefore, is a concerning but curious development.

On 16 June 2020, news anchor Arnab Goswami, owner of right-wing news channel The Republic, organized a panel on his primetime show to call out “the nepotistic, dynastic, Pakistani importing cabals of Bollywood led by one kingpin producer,” who orchestrated Sushant’s alleged murder. The description Goswami provided of the primary person allegedly responsible for Sushant’s death is Karan Johar, accused of not only nepotism but also of casting famous Pakistani actor Fawad Khan over an Indian, an incident that led to a huge uproar amongst ultra-nationalist groups in 2016. Branded an anti-national, Johar eventually issued a public statement apologizing for his actions and editing out most scenes with Khan from his film Ae Dil Hai Mushkil. The public apology was not enough to bring him back into the good books of self-fashioned nationalists like Goswami, suggesting any contact with Pakistan is enough to revoke someone’s status as an Indian permanently.

In the past few years, Bollywood has been accused of being Hindu-phobic by the champions of the Hindu Rashtra. Films such as PK (2014) and OMG – Oh My God! (2012) were slammed online for allegedly mocking Hinduism and more recently an FIR was lodged against the Anushka Sharma-produced Netflix series Paatal Lok (2020) for disrespecting Hindu sentiments. Kangana Ranaut too called out industry members for allegedly promoting a ‘jihadist agenda’ under the cloak of secularism while referring to Bollywood’s silence on the issue of Kashmiri Pandits in Jammu & Kashmir. The impulse to reject Bollywood as a Hindu-phobic and therefore an anti-national industry has existed for some time despite the industry’s many attempts to resist such an image.

Another right-wing digital news platform OpIndia, infamous for spreading fake news, chose to publish its first news report on Sushant’s death by commenting on how Pakistani actors grieving the death of the late actor were allegedly criticized by their fellow countrymen for mourning the death of a ‘kafir’. A clear attempt by the news platform at establishing who can and cannot rightfully grieve the actor’s death as well as instigate negative feelings towards Muslims.

Interestingly, while journalists like Arnab Goswami have vowed to bring Bollywood to its knees to do right by Sushant, they were quick to dismiss the suicide of student leader and Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula, as a decision emanating from his personal sense of loneliness as opposed to caste-based institutional harassment at the hands of Hyderabad University. Many members of the University faculty and students came forward to testify how Rohith was harassed by the University officials who were in cahoots with the central government and accused Rohith of being an anti-national for raising his voice against the Brahmanical state machinery. It, therefore, comes as no surprise that despite caste and nepotism being the two sides of the same coin in India, as per the right-wing Hindu majoritarian worldview, caste-based oppression does not exist. What exists is meritorious Hindu boys and girls being wronged by ‘Pakistan-loving, nepotistic, seculars’ whose pain can be felt by the middle class, upper-caste Indians.

While it is up to investigative agencies to ascertain what circumstances led to Sushant’s death, it remains important to be aware of the dubious track record of right-wing social media and news channels currently propelling much of the discussions surrounding the actor’s demise. Many of these platforms have been complicit in defining the criteria of who can grieve the loss of the late actor based on their nationalistic credentials defined by trolls, a worrisome trend that demands to be critiqued.

Pritha Bhattacharya is a post-graduate in Women’s Studies and a writer based in Mumbai.