Sushant Singh Rajput suicide: Insiders and outsiders weigh in on the don't-start-if-you-can't-finish-it dictum

Updated: Jun 21, 2020, 07:15 IST | Aastha Atray Banan | Mumbai

After Sushant Singh Rajput's suicide, industry rocked by accusations of toxic cliques. Are the "man girls" of Bollywood responsible?

Sushant Singh Rajput. Pic/ Getty Images
Sushant Singh Rajput. Pic/ Getty Images

In an interview to a senior journalist in the aftermath of actor Sushant Singh Rajput's suicide on June 14, close friend and his first director, Abhishek Kapoor remembers the screening of a film for the media and Bollywood fraternity that's usually held before a movie hits theatres. Kapoor says, typically, no one ever claps or shows public appreciation at the end. He likens Sushant to an actor who would ask, "But, why aren't they clapping?", and one would shrug, "Leave them be; everyone outside [your fans] are clapping."

Validation from peers clearly was important to the young actor, 34, who took his life at his Bandra apartment although success didn't elude him. His last film, Chhichhore, becoming the year's 100-crore club sleeper hit, and Dil Bechara, inspired by John Green's acclaimed book The Fault in our Stars is coming up for a 2020 direct-to-digital release.

And this, despite a dazzling journey to success, that started in a middle class Patna family that couldn't afford a foreign university education for the National Olympiad winner for physics. A few months short of getting a degree from the Delhi College of Engineering, he chose to quit and make his way to Mumbai to be in the movies. Displaying quiet charm in the Ekta Kapoor-backed daily soap, Pavitra Rishta, he was one of the rare televisions stars to make a successful crossover to movies, with Kapoor's Kai Po Che. He did barely 10 films in his seven-year-long career, but it was a variegated selection, including the celebrated biopic of cricket star MS Dhoni, for which he was hailed even by the likes of Amitabh Bachchan.

Although Sushant suffered from clinical depression as affirmed by his counsellor and girlfriend Rhea Chakraborty in her police statement, since his death, news channels have been buzzing with reactions from industry folk, some of whom have put it down to Bollywood's deep-seated politics and toxic attitude towards "outsiders". Giants like Karan Johar, Salman Khan, Sanjay Leela Bhansali and the team behind Yash Raj films—his talent management agency—have been targeted for nurturing toxic cliques that rob deserving talent of good work.

In the 2009 release Luck By Chance, Farhan Aktar's outsider character, Vikram, realises he is "making it" when he is invited to Kareena Kapoor's home for a party. Directed by Zoya Akhtar, who is credited for making movies that reflect a milieu to perfection, we can be forgiven for believing that it depicted the truth—you are truly a star when the core camp accepts you as their own.

A talk show series that Karan Johar has helmed for long has been at the centre of controversy too, with old clips resurfacing, referring to the deceased star in not very glowing terms. In one clip of Koffee with Karan, Alia Bhatt says, "Who Sushant?", when asked to list her favourite young actors in order of preference. In another, when Sonam Kapoor is asked to rate the actors as Hot or Not, Johar names Sushant and Sonam's reaction is, "Huh?". She immediately follows that up with, "I mean I haven't seen his films. So I don't know'." Sushant was not invited on the show as guest in any season.

Kangana Ranaut, who wears the non-filmi-family badge proudly on her chest was her usual blunt self when she attacked the powerful producers and stars of the Hindi film industry, calling them out for nepotism, sharing her own personal experiences of trauma.

But, there are those who say, if you are in the game, you have to play by the rules. An entertainment editor, who didn't wish to be identified for the story, in fact, believes "it's much better now". Groupism is an intrinsic Bollywood trait, and was much more pronounced in the 1980s and '90s. And stars and directors have always been unabashed about working repeatedly with who they like. Amitabh Bachchan, for instance, preferred to work with Manmohan Desai and Prakash Mehra. Some filmmakers would make movies only with Rajesh Khanna. "If you work well together, you continue to work with that team. And it's not just directors and actors. It's also directors and music directors or DOPs," she says, arguing that Johar is an easy target because his personal life is public. "He has grown up here [in the industry]. Are you going to judge him for partying with his friends?" She lists the breaks Johar has given to newcomers, including directors like Shakun Batra, who made Kapoor and Sons, a Dharma production. "It's actually become more professional now—there are no premieres either. In Sushant's case, he was passionate about certain projects like Paani and Chandamama, which got shelved because they seemed unfeasible for economic reasons at that given time. He was broken by that. But to say he wasn't getting movies is incorrect. There are enough stories in fact, about how he was inaccessible to most people at most times."

In a Holi shoot from 2013, emerging stars, Sushant Singh Rajput, Siddharth Malhotra and Varun Dhawan, goof around.  PIC/GETTY IMAGES
In a Holi shoot from 2013, emerging stars, Sushant Singh Rajput, Siddharth Malhotra and Varun Dhawan, goof around. Pic/ Getty Images

Shekhar Kapoor's Paani, a futuristic film set in 2040, that looks at a man from the lower city, where there isn't enough to eat and then nothing to drink, was an ambitious project surrounding water wars. And Sushant had spent months prepping for the role, internalising it. He was equally immersed in the idea behind Chandamama, especially given his personal interest in constellations. He had also visited the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to train to be an astronaut as prep for the role.

Founder of publicity firm Raindrop Media, Rohini Iyer seems to agree. In a series of social media posts, Iyer said, Sushant didn't care for validation. "He didn't give a f*** about fame or your opinions. He didn't care about these people who are busy posting about not being in touch with him. For the record, he didn't care about being in touch. He hated fake friends, phone calls and small talk. He rejected your parties, you didn't shun him. He rejected your lobbies. He didn't need camps, he had his own kingdom. He was an outsider and he never cared about being an insider," she wrote.

Hansal Mehta identifies with how the failure of a project can impact an intelligent mind. The man behind critically acclaimed movies like Aligarh, Shahid and Simran, says in the end, the audience will watch who they want to watch, no matter what group they belong to. Nepotism may lead to a star kid getting a foot in the door, but his or her success depends on merit. What has muddied the waters, he thinks, is the PR machinery and the media. "When paid news items were introduced, it was about promoting a movie. Now, it has become about propping and pulling down. Blind items are often ugly and damaging to a person's psyche." Mehta admits to going through a rough time himself after the release of Simran, which starred Kangana Ranaut. "I felt suicidal, but I kept working, and that kept me going."

A public relations professional this writer spoke to, says as an outsider, it's difficult to even bag an opportunity. "Until Kiara [Advani, actor] did MS Dhoni and Fugly, nobody cared who she was. But, it was after Lust Stories [backed by Karan Johar] that her life changed, how she was perceived took a turn. But, that being said, it's still not like movies are being made for her. She stars in Shershaah next which is being produced by Karan. But, it's a very small role. It's not like she is Alia, where movies are being written for her. Before Lust Stories, she would be seated in say row six at a movie do; now she has made it to row one." She backs the claim that PR and talent agencies are critical to a star's success because they help set the stage for an image leg up. "If I have a consistent rapport and conversation with a journalist about one actor, it's likely that one day, that journalist will do a story on the actor, and just like that, an image is made. And more will follow. But, if someone says a PR professional can wreck careers, I am not sure. Information on blind items for instance, usually come from those in close proximity to the star."

Having worked briefly with Sushant in the past, she calls him ambitious and enthusiastic, except in recent times. "He had become reticent and wasn't available. He would vanish for long periods, change his number.

I know that a prominent director was trying to get in touch with him, and couldn't, because his phone was switched off. In the end, how you handle the fame, and whether you display a strong work ethic also matters."

A talent manager, who has worked with some of the biggest stars in the business says, that for them, both the insider and outsider come with their own set of challenges. "The insiders have to prove themselves worthy of their lineage, while the outsider has to ensure his talent speaks because that's all he has. But, that being said, if tomorrow, say I have to push newcomer Shanaya Kapoor, I know that she already has an image [created by and on social media]. But with an outsider, I would have to work a lot on it." Ask her if people get roles because they know a so-and-so or belong to a certain camp, and she says wryly, "Of course, that happens. But you can only sustain it for two or three projects. You have to remember that this is a business, and if a production house is betting R20 crore on a star, they will push the movie or a certain star so that they get hefty returns on their investment. So yes, the aspirational a star, or someone with an image, is likely to get get stronger backing."

Meera Chopra
Meera Chopra

Actor Meera Chopra is cousin to Priyanka and Parineeti Chopra, and starred opposite Akshaye Khanna in last year's critically acclaimed film Section 375. She said in a note on Twitter, "We are working and living in an industrywhich is cruel, cold and ruthless… I am sorry to say but nobody gives a shit about what you are going through." She told this writer that despite being nominated for her performance as best supporting actress, she found it hard to find an outfit to wear for the award function. "Designers would rather dress Shanaya Kapoor, not me. It can get to you if you let it. It's not about nepotism, because that exists everywhere. The problem is that a core group feels they have ownership of the industry, which we outsiders don't have access to. We keep craving to be part of this family, and that's a very lonely process. They will call you on your birthday and text if your movie does well, but that's it. And this roast culture has now taken over, and people don't realise that it hurts. Till you get really famous, you are not going to be a part of this coterie, and you have to condition yourself to rise above it."

But acceptance doesn't come easily when you know only the best have access to membership of the exclusive club. Ranvir Shorey says when he came to Mumbai 20 years ago, he realised that entry to the powerful club rests on who you know. "But I will also say that not everyone in the business is like that, so you have to find what fits you. I decided to ignore people who were ignoring me." Ask him if he cares about the parties he wasn't invited for and he scoffs, "I have thrown better parties than them. It's sad that you work hard and passionately but don't get what's due to you. I have had to cull my aspirations, because I knew that I wasn't going to get a mainstream film, or an award. I wanted the adulation but was snubbed. The membership to the powerful club should be open to anyone who performs well. We have to change the system."

His thoughts are echoed by actor Gulshan Devaiah, who likens the cliques to cartels. "They exist everywhere, from casting to production to distribution to marketing. Some wield power in a benevolent way, some are not so nice," says the Kannada actor, known for his work in Afsos and Ghost Stories. In an earlier interview to this paper, he had admitted that he was finding it hard to break into Bollywood. "An A-lister is defined not just by work but who they know. Everyone has licked a** and the cliques have the power to offer them acceptance. Some know how to play the game well, some try but fail, some like Irrfan [Khan], refuse to play it. What Sushant did, has forced me to think about my journey. I have tried to shake the right hand, and kiss the right a**, and trust me, it doesn't taste good. But Ranvir is right. It means he can make a different choice when he is in a bad place."

Devaiah says he knows of talent that's left the industry because they couldn't handle the unsaid rules. "It's a hustle to get a job, to get an award. It's difficult to even survive, leave alone thrive. And it's worse for women. What we can do is accept it, protect ourselves and build a support system."

A publicist who works with prominent actors says social acceptance is as critical as landing big projects. "Even a style award held by a publication has a guarded guest list. Even if someone's movie has made it to Cannes, it doesn't mean they will be invited. Once, an indie actor, who had informed an award show organiser that she would be late to arrive, was delayed by another 15 minutes. The magazine cancelled her award. That wouldn't have happened if she was a star kid."

Well known actor and once an industry kid, Raveena Tandon said in a telling tweet: Mean girl gang of the industry. Camps do exist. Made fun of, removed from films by heroes, their girlfriends, journo chamchas and their career destroying fake media stories. Sometimes careers are destroyed. You struggle to keep afloat. Some survive. Some don't.#oldwoundsrevisited."

Sushant Singh Rajput hugs director Vikas Bahl outside a Bandra restaurant as he leaves with former partner Ankita Lokhande, after the success party for Piku hosted by Deepika Padukone. PIC/GETTY IMAGES
Sushant Singh Rajput hugs director Vikas Bahl outside a Bandra restaurant as he leaves with former partner Ankita Lokhande, after the success party for Piku hosted by Deepika Padukone. Pic/ Getty Images 

And so, evidently, it's not just outsiders but anyone who's not having a good run. Vivek Oberoi, it seemed, fell off the Bollywood map after his public fracas with Salman Khan over Aishwarya Rai, despite being called one of Bollywood's most promising raw talents following his successful partnership with Ram Gopal Varma. In a note, Oberoi wrote after Sushant's death, he said, "I've been through my own journey of pain, it can be very dark and lonely." Aamir Khan's nephew Imran Khan, who was launched in Bollywood with much fanfare, has been out of work for a while. A filmy connection doesn't always come to the rescue. Adhyayan Suman, Shekhar Suman's son, says that when you are down and out, even your depression story is not taken seriously. "When I came out a few years ago about my mental health struggle, I was called frustrated and a loser. You have to be famous for your depression also to matter," says Suman, who acted in Raaz and Jashnn before he turned his attention a career in music. "I have been struggling [to build a career] for nine years, I am the example of nepotism not working. I don't understand why I never got movies—my roles in my movies got rave reviews. For one movie that did really well, the PR was told that she had to make sure my name didn't come up in promotions and was asked to discuss the big star instead. I once met a top director in LA, and asked for a meeting once he was back in Bombay. He gave me his number, and then for a whole year, never picked up my call."

The outsider who made it big, the RJ who transitioned beautifully to movies, Ayushmann Khurrana confirms in his book Cracking the Code, that breaking in is far from easy when he recounts the time he met Karan Johar, who gave him his office landline number. "I was extremely excited and thought to myself, 'ab toh life set hai. Ab mujhe koi rock nahi sakta. Ab toh introducing Ayusmann Khurrana hai by Dharma Productions.' The next day I dialled the number Karan had given me. They said Karan wasn't in office. The day after that, I called again and they said he was busy. And finally my bubble burst when, the subsequent day, they told me bluntly, "We only work with stars, and can't work with you," he writes in the book.

An actor who has been part of the industry for three decades, says that the witch-hunt against Johar and Co. is uncalled for. "Either play the game or don't. Uday Chopra [brother to Yash Raj scion and producer Aditya Chopra] couldn't get his career to take off and is now in LA. Can YRF change that? Could they have made him a star? The kind of trolling he experiences is horrifying. It happens to everyone and everywhere. You have to fight."

The cliques broke down

Karan SRK

Karan Johar values old-time friends and likes to hang out with people he grew up around and knows for long. This includes Shweta Bachchan, Twinkle Khanna, Kareena Kapoor Khan-all industry kids—and good friend Shah Rukh Khan's wife Gauri. Director Mahesh Bhatt's daughter Alia Bhatt, who he launched in Bollywood (she calls him a second father), and her beau, Ranbir Kapoor (scion of Bollywood's first family, the Kapoors) are also in the club.

Swar

It also includes new entrants of the industry like Deepika Padukone and husband Ranveer Singh, director Ayan Mukerji, who is Ranbir's bestie. Newcomers like Vicky Kaushal and Kiara Advani are under KJo's wing,

Sonaam Kapoor

Sonam Kapoor has a classy and intellectual bunch of friends that form a fairly large sorority, including fashion designer Masaba Gupta (daughter to actor Neena Gupta), designer Shehla Khan, her sister Rhea, and heiress to the Leela hotels empire Samyukta Nair. Indie actor Swara Bhaskar is a good friend outside of the privileged kids gang.

Sallu Kat

Salman Khan has his favourites and doesn't make any attempt to hide who they are. Jacqueline Fernandez, Sonakshi Sinha, once rumoured girlfriend Katrina Kaif, director Abbas Ali Zafar, filmmaker Sajid Nadiadwala, are part of his coterie.

Karina

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