Hanging by a thread
I didn't know Asif Basra well, but he was part of our larger theatre fraternity. He was a true actor, destined to follow a journey fraught with uncertainty - a safe profession sacrificed at the altar of a steadfast passion
Suicide is painless
It brings on many changes
I can take or leave it if I please
That game of life is hard to play
I'm gonna lose it anyway
The losing card I'll someday lay
— Theme from MASH (Manic Street Preachers)
I didn't know Asif Basra well, but he was part of our larger theatre fraternity. He was a true actor, destined to follow a journey fraught with uncertainty—a safe profession sacrificed at the altar of a steadfast passion.
The early part of Asif's career was nestled between the '80s Bollywood and the tail end of the parallel cinema movement—either way, the roles couldn't have been particularly invigorating or lucrative. It's only the modern OTT platforms that have allowed the "real" actor an opportunity for fulfilment and financial security—Asif himself was fortunate, in the latter part of his career, to get meaty roles—Pataal Lok and Hostages allowed for those intense eyes of his to sear through the screen.
So, to hear about his death by hanging, last week, filled me with much dismay and reflection, the obvious question being why? He'd done all the hard work, won the respect of his peers and the producers, and the platforms were beckoning him—so what could have prompted this extreme step?
The last eight months have been challenging.
Asif's death has a familiar but frightening echo to it. The pandemic has been devastating to the acting community—lockdown blues, lack of work, the looming shadows of insecurity and the loneliness.
Actors live in their heads, but think with their hearts—vanity and vulnerability, are two sides of the same coin. Creative people tend to define themselves by their work, actors more so—their mobile phones as they wait for casting companies to call, can alternately become their murder weapon or meal ticket. Plus, producers have their camps, so getting work is a massive lottery.
Through COVID-19, many actors made some hard choices—rents had to be paid as roles dried up, actors went back to their hometowns, as hope evaporated. Asif went to Himachal Pradesh. Whether he was just happier there, I don't know. Mumbai can be a cruel, relentless city.
We've tried to find a reason for Asif's suicide, as we did for Sushant Singh Rajput's—a one size fits all. Our collective voices now lower and we nod our heads sagely and proclaim, "He was probably depressed". Depression being the new buzzword for actor problems.
I wish it were possible to be present at that twilight zone moment—when the mind goes blank or is deeply befuddled. And I wish to be present, perhaps invisibly so, not to talk the person down or take them down, but to understand, ask the question, rhetorical or reply worthy—why are you taking your own life? "Are you truly done? Or do you feel you can't go on anymore?" The actor is trained to express by holding back, hiding emotions or expressing them becomes second nature—you put on your brave face, your make-up, as you prepare to take on the camera and the cannibals.
It is impossible to know what the 53-year-old Asif was thinking as he took that huge final step.
Did the light bulb go off? Or did the lights go out? Was suicide the ultimate calm, or the climax to the ultimate chaos? And for him, filled with his own real or imagined demons, was this final peace?
Rahul daCunha is an adman, theatre director/playwright, photographer and traveller. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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