There is a horror to suicide that even the most objective of headlines cannot altogether eliminate. In the case of Sushant Singh Rajput, we have, sadly, done little to soften that horror. We have, instead, only amplified it. Pictures of Rajput's corpse became a WhatsApp forward. While news media made him the week's scoop, one they milked with frightful puns and dangerous speculation, social media reduced him to a hashtag. On Twitter, grief competed with gossip, and on Instagram, every other film insider had posted that one picture they had taken with Rajput. The smile he reserved for the camera seemed natural, but soon enough, those uploading these photos were being accused of sly posturing.
Divided into groups or what seasoned film reporters like to call "camps", the Hindi film industry, for all its creative energy, doesn't seem very different from corporate cabals, or for that matter, a school playground. There are the bullies, the cool cliques and the awkward misfits. Rajput, one now thinks, had made some kind of peace with these pecking orders. He once told an interviewer, "When you're successful as an outsider, you're discussed but in a very hushed tone. That's about it." Found hanging, Rajput's body is now being thought of as an indictment of nepotism, but suicide cannot just be a statement. Besides, it's maybe important to note that no matter how puzzling, it is never a whodunit.
A simple search for Rajput on Twitter will now throw up several theories about why the 34-year-old actor decided to take his life last Sunday. Even when persuasive, these tweets are usually casualties of their own certainty. With their veracity now impossible to verify, these hypotheses only exaggerate the opaqueness of suicide. The act itself precludes neat answers. Rajput chose to pass away quietly. The least we can do is hush our bickering and curiosity, while mourning with a quiet that matches his.
Within hours of Rajput's death having become news, producer Mukesh Bhatt appeared on a television news channel and said that he had known for some time that Rajput was "troubled". When he had met him two years ago, Bhatt said he found Rajput's eyes were "glazed" and speech "confusing". Rajput reminded him of Parveen Babi, he said, "who was schizophrenic, you know." Bhatt then said he had told his brother Mahesh Bhatt, "This boy is going the Parveen Babi way." Even though we'll never know if Mukesh Bhatt was retrofitting his pity, we can assume that despite knowing the tragic circumstances of Babi's death, he'd done little to comfort Rajput, who, he felt, was similarly disturbed.
Mental illness is certainly not the only factor that drives suicide rates, but with knowledge of Rajput's depression now having become public, his mental health has become the stuff of not just discussion but also debate. Should his family and friends have intervened? Should his colleagues have done more to help? Should he have not gone off his medication? These questions do little more than exaggerate the grief of those he once held dear. Those feeling suicidal don't always leave trails of telling indicators.
Predictably, in the days after Rajput's suicide, many who felt their mental health was in peak shape took to social media and offered a listening ear to those struggling with despair. They clearly didn't want to miss any ominous signs. Their empathy led to a paradox. Depression is often so stifling, damp and dark that it makes articulation difficult. An articulation of the depression itself is near impossible. Unless one has levity and fraternity to offer, an artificial counselling session can well go horribly wrong.
Contrary to popular belief that the suicidal are selfish, the records of mental health practitioners show that many depressives start harbouring suicidal thoughts when they come to believe their inability to respond and engage fully has made them burdensome to others. Those offering advice and patience must also see that the relief they wish to offer can at times be an unmeant catalyst. Psychologist and writer Kay Redfield Jameson once put it pithily: "Empathy is important, but competence is essential."
Celebrity suicides can be contagious, too. In the months after Marilyn Monroe's death, the suicide rate in the US shot up by 12 percent. After Robin Williams took his life, that rate again saw a spike of 10 percent. Not just does the omnipresence of a star make them familiar, they are also defined by our idea of plenty. When an actor like Sushant Singh Rajput dies by suicide, those suffering suicidal depression might come to feel that no amount of material success will ever make them happy. The publicity that accompanies these deaths further exaggerates desolation and despair.
It seems strange that in its hunger to unravel the mystery that is Rajput's suicide, the media seems to have forgotten that India accounts for over a third of the world's annual female suicides and nearly a fourth of all male suicides. Rather than picking up the crumbs of stray evidence from his social media accounts, we would perhaps do better by allowing Rajput our silence. Rather than add to the clamour (which this piece also inadvertently does), we'd be empathetic by ensuring we had a trusted therapist's details or a helpline number to give someone who might need both, professional care and our heartfelt concern. Rajput took the decision he did in the midst of a pandemic. With death and mortality on all our minds, we should be celebrating him and his cinema. The life and mind we so badly seem to want to deconstruct he has now violently claimed as private. However grim, we must bear it.
If you or someone you know needs help, mail [email protected] or dial 9152987821 (Monday-Saturday, 8am to 10pm) to reach iCall, a psychosocial helpline set up by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences.