Our cinema coverage is so omnipresent — even more so in this digital age — that the movies matter beyond their ability to entertain us. Millions of people battle dyslexia, but the condition remains known only to the immediate family, maybe a neighbour or two. But when Aamir Khan makes a moving drama about it, it becomes a national talking point. Articles are written about it. Doctors opine on it. And even if we don't come home right away and write out a cheque to the Dyslexia Association of India, we at least know there is such a thing and this is how it manifests itself and this is what you should do. Deepika Padukone's depression isn't any more special than the depression experienced by the woman who lives next door, but because Deepika Padukone gets written about (and the woman who lives next door doesn't), a larger chunk of the population is able to put a face to the condition. Okay, maybe it's really a thing…
And now, there's this terrible news about Sushant Singh Rajput. As of this writing, the reason behind the suicide remains unknown. (No note has been found.) But the dominant narrative on social media and everywhere else is that it's due to mental health issues. Suicide helplines have been shared widely, and producer Mukesh Bhatt apparently saw this coming. On a television panel, he said that he'd had meetings with the actor, and while discussing Sadak 2, he noticed a "glazed look" that took him to a past he knew all too well. He said he told his brother, Mahesh Bhatt, that "this boy is going the Parveen Babi way". None of this is "proof", of course — but this is what everyone supposes has caused this tragedy.
The shock and the #goneTooSoon aspect apart — Sushant was just 34, and he had a whole career to look forward to — what's heartbreaking is that he was so filled with dreams just a few years ago. In an Instagram post, he shared with his fans the things on his wishlist, which ranged from "Send 100 kids to NASA'S workshop" to "Play football with Ronaldo" to "Build the biggest library in India" to "Dive to real Dwarka and investigate under water" to "Dance with Madhuri Dixit" to "Own a part of the moon". This was in August 2018. He wanted to do more than what one can possibly stuff into a lifetime. It's June 2020, and these dreams are now dust.
By now, it's no news that "celebrity" is not a normal condition. Ask Marilyn Monroe, who also died young. She said, "Hollywood is a place where they'll pay you a thousand dollars for a kiss and fifty cents for your soul." Soul? What soul! Actor aspirants will probably laugh. They go through their own set of issues — maybe even selling their souls — while trying for that one-in-a-million shot of simply becoming a star. They think that once they become that star, it's all going to be worth it. And then, some of them discover that another thing Marilyn Monroe said is true. "I'd like to be happy, but who's happy? I think trying to be happy is almost as difficult as trying to be a good actress. You have to work at both of them."
Here's Sushant, in 2017, when asked by hindustantimes.com how actors maintain their mental health: "Who says actors are maintaining their mental health? That's a wrong belief. The most important thing that an actor could do to protect himself from all these things (pressures, demands, paparazzi culture, etc.) is just to know why a person is doing what he is doing. No matter what you do, and what you like, be it money, fame or competition — just make sure you know your reasons." Some of us may scoff, even while recognising that a star is going through his or her issues. Well, you get paid a bomb, don't you? You can afford the priciest therapist, can't you? If nothing else, you can go online for a few hours and make yourself happier with retail therapy that will cost more than my annual salary, no?
Probably yes. But the flip side is that we don't live in those terrible goldfish bowls. Being that goldfish was bad enough and invasive enough in the old days, when Fellini's La Dolce Vita, in 1960, gave the world the word "paparazzi". And now, with the full glare of social media and the full venom of its acid stings, it's worse. Of course, with any profession that's out there in the open, you have to be prepared for all this: Don't enter the kitchen if you can't stand the heat, et cetera. You could be a CA or an IT professional, and your bad days will get covered by a team. Or even if you fail and are fired, very few people will get to know about it. But in the movies, even if you are an extra in Dunkirk and even if it's just the first trailer and even if you are in the third row of soldiers from the front of the frame, one misjudged expression can haunt you for the rest of your life. Sample Twitter responses: "Dunkirk extra looking positively delighted about prospect of being bombed by Nazis". "worst extra fail ever". #YouHadOneJob.
This kind of scrutiny — this kind of meme-ing, trolling — has the power to shatter your internal balance, and your mental makeup is key to a long and sustained (even if not exactly happy) career. Some people are able to shrug it off. (They're the lucky ones.) Some people don't talk about it, of course. At least, they don't talk about it to the press. They slap on a happy-face emoji and give interviews and do the whole "it was a pleasure working with my co-star" and "you know, after that dance scene, I came home and slipped on a banana peel" — and the viewers laugh and swallow it all and click on the next thing on YouTube.
Other actors try to open up about it. But mental health is the kind of thing that's hard to make people understand and be sympathetic to. We have a tendency to say "Don't overthink things" and "Don't other people face this, so just deal with it" and "Just keep your mind occupied and try not to think about this" and "Don't worry, it will all become okay". Physical suffering, we can see. You break your ankle, and all you need is an Instagram picture with your foot in a cast to get a million red hearts and a million #GetWellSoon messages. But a broken mind is harder to put across, especially when, in 2019, you had one film the critics adored (Sonchiriya) and one film the audiences couldn't get enough of (Chhichhore). Tell someone you're sad, and you're probably likely to receive an "Oh, please!" Sushant Singh Rajput's death is a reminder that the accident of stardom isn't an armour against the very normal things you and I go through.
He seems to have been a nice chap. In 2018, when Nagaland was affected by floods and landslides, he visited the state and donated Rs 1.25 crore. The same year, he donated a similar amount to Kerala, which had been devastated by floods. He also seems to have been a sensitive chap. I remember an interview where he mocked critics because they didn't see films like the typical viewer. He mimicked someone looking at the screen and looking down at a notebook, jotting down points, and looking up at the screen again and then looking down again. Now, I wonder if it was just mockery or a stung individual lashing out.
Even with his short innings, Sushant Singh Rajput has left us with enough of a legacy to mourn the loss of what could have been, Drive notwithstanding. I loved him in Kai Po Che, but his greatest achievement was MS Dhoni – The Untold Story. It's not easy to play a legendary real-life figure who's still in the public eye while retaining your actorly essence. Sushant was stupendously effective, walking the tightrope between outright mimicry and sympathetic interpretation. Talking about working on the film, to reuters.com, he said, "I realized I was constantly swinging between the past and the future — this is what I did and I should be glad about, or what I should be doing. Maybe not the past so much, but yeah, I was really thinking about my future. This film changed me a lot. You realize that you are not looking around you — you are somewhere else and the future is intangible, you can't control it." Truer words…