Sushant Singh Rajput and the Tragedy of Repetition

Rather than responding to the unfortunate demise of Sushant Singh Rajput by discarding the very model of Bollywood, people still want to hold their sense of reality together by explaining its failures in terms that leave their fantasy of Bollywood intact. That the star Khandaans of Bollywood actors are mean nepotistic sadists can be felt as a betrayal or a ‘violation’ of a dream of social mobility but not as an evidence for a faulty structure whose very exploitative basis goes unquestioned.

Why should an actor be earning in billions and another scrambling for work, while all those who make a film possible, rendered invisible labour? This source of profit in exploitation is concealed by the idea of ‘net worth’ or economic valuation of artistic performance. If one wants no one from ‘outside’ the industry to be mistreated, then it is important to not only question the deep nexus of Khandaans of Bollywood but also question the basis that the Khandaans conceal – the fundamentally unequal structure which no amount of equal acceptance or ‘meritocracy’ or egalitarian levelling can overcome.

The nexus of film studios, big production houses, mafia and the State is normalised as an inconvenient truth which makes difficult to start the conversation on the production, distribution, circulation and consumption of cinema besides its form, aesthetics and style. The sad case of Sushant is not aberrant but a reflection of a pervasive logic, in which routinely work is squeezed out of the hands of actors for big stars, independent production houses for corporate backed big producers, and all the value is weighed at the scale of the ‘box office,’ which neither concerns for audience and nor talent.

We have come to accept a world in which cinema is pure visual consumption. The flamboyant lifestyles of actors – their mansions, being paid crores for a mere stage appearance – can comfortably sit and be reconciled with their ideologically shape-shifting charities, ‘progressive’ political views and opinions. But these feudal relations of bullying and harassment are inscribed in the logic of the system. In which, mental health crisis can be placed on the continuum along with financial insecurity, precarity of work, denial of access if they ever manage to crossover the gates of gated caste empires. Some against the opulence of others, who are bound to derive satisfaction, pleasure and enjoyment from the shared ideological fantasy of glamour.

Off and on people express concern, if not revulsion, toward the entertainment industry’s practices, from the “casting couch” culture, ‘nepotism,’ ‘spineless propaganda,’ but these are euphemisms to conceal structural antagonisms of labour and capital.

Corruption and malleability are not the only things to be considered here, but its this ‘excess of crime stories’ which dominates and determines the slant of reporting.

It is this ugly reality of capitalism that is understood to be the impossible limit to transcend and so the ‘least’ that one can do is be ‘kind,’ ‘lend a ear’ and reassure each other about the harshness of the world, by celebrating the naked display of wealth and splendor and in partaking in it, in wanting a slice of the same oppressive pie. In appearing to offer comfort you make reality conform to the same unequal fantasy of splendor!

Admirers of Shahrukh Khan greeting him on his birthday.

We offer reason to inequality and castigate the individual as responsible for their place even when we understand the universality of mental health crisis. We understand it is widespread and recognise it says something beyond itself yet the principles of trade remain sacrosanct.

The glistening dream of social upward mobility that Bollywood presents in terms of exceptional success stories conceals the realities of its exploitative roots. It is not enough to make an exception of Sushant but to identity the recurring patterns of humiliation along every step along the way to having your ‘Big Bollywood Break!’ Where struggle without ‘Industry Godfathers,’ is itself valorized and considered inspiring for swimming against the tide, for triumphing against the muzzling industry’s pressure, passion and politics.

If cinema is important, if fantasy is necessary and if visual expression is pleasurable, then Bollywood is not indispensable for the sake of all their fulfilment. In fact, precisely because all of it needs to be preserved, that the profit-making industry of Bollywood must wither.

The renunciation or the lack of an Industry Godfather is no special condition but reflects the ordinary truth of unequal access and a presumed exclusion of a majority of people who remain ‘outside’ the pool of a handful of families who have claimed cinema as their business, as their birth right and preserve. This is not just true for Bollywood but for most of the caste-class society, which is structured and built upon alienation of labour.

So, in an industry where exclusion is the rule, the access into it is mediated by the self-styled biggies who congratulate themselves for giving people their rite of passage into the industry by ‘Launching them!’ Until you have qualified into this space by their benevolent expropriation of your labour – which binds you to them in debt-relation, which ensures to preserve while subverting the rule that you remain a nobody even when you are conceded ‘some’ space out of a seemingly gestural act of ‘kindness’ by the patriarchs of Bollywood.

Let the bubbled egos of Bollywood bursts into smithereens at the confrontation with the open secrets of ‘their industry’ to which the insiders show an indomitable respect as passionately as they can to perform and exhibit their loyalties. Let them unify around a hysteria of fraternal feeling towards their glass industry while suturing a defensive narrative against the apparent ‘wrath’ that their narcissistic universe has to face because of its hyper ‘visibility.’

You will never see them reacting as passionately against the lay-offs of their ‘make-up dadas’ for whom they reserve a special but tokenistic mention in their interviews. Rather it is precisely their exclusion that guarantees the stars their exclusive stardom. Patronage, sponsorship and protection from scrutiny maintains a fractured unity and fraternal obligation towards the industry rests on equally flimsy grounds as their own career – which thrives on cultures of boycott, shunning, gate-keeping, exclusion.

Let Sushant’s tragic demise also be a reminder of how Bollywood is no exception but a glaring manifestation of the inequalities sustained in the rest of the society, in which the political ruling class is deeply intertwined. Let his death not go in vain to simply shun Bollywood as ‘evil,’ but recognize the fault-lines along the edifice upon which this evil stands. Let Bollywood, as their films, be a case study to examine the conditions of the rest of the society.

Avantika Tewari
Avantika Tewari

Avantika is a Delhi-based research scholar.

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