The Taste with Vir: The legacy of Sushant Singh Rajput
I only met Sushant Singh Rajput once. He was visiting Delhi and we met for a coffee at the Grand Hotel in Delhi. Sushant was charming, welcoming and utterly without guile. Unlike many publicity-conscious stars, he had no agenda other than to chat.
I thought he was bright, thoughtful and relentlessly curious. Our conversation covered everything from his plans to spend a week alone in the desert to look at the stars in the sky to how people coped with criticism.
He talked about Mahendra Singh Dhoni who he had spent time with while preparing to play him in the hit biopic and said he was astonished by Dhoni’s ability to shrug off criticism and focus on the task at hand. He wasn’t like that himself, Sushant said. Things tended to bother him.
Looking back, I struggle to remember what exactly we talked about because the conversation flowed so easily and Sushant was so well-informed and intelligent that we moved effortlessly from subject-to-subject. We didn’t talk about politics, films or journalism. We just chatted and chatted.
When we parted, I was genuinely sorry our time had come to an end. Yes, Sushant was very bright. But he also had an engaging openness about him. He enjoyed meeting different people, he said and exchanging ideas with them.
When I read about his passing, I felt a deep grief even though I hardly knew him. It was sad that a young man, full of intelligence, insights and inquisitiveness had been driven to take his own life by the circumstances he found himself in. Was he, I wondered, perhaps too nice and too straightforward for the world he inhabited?
Obviously, there were devoted fans and people who knew him well who felt a much deeper sense of loss. But what I did not realize, when I read of his passing, was that his death would become something of a watershed moment in the way in which the film industry is perceived.
It is no secret that large sections of the Mumbai film industry are something of an ‘insiders’ club. Some of this is due to dynasty. An actor’s son or a producer’s son usually wants to become an actor. (It is still usually the sons, though daughters are also entering the profession.) In many cases, daddy then launches his son by making a movie for him or by encouraging one of his close associates to do so. That is how it has been for the last 30 years or so.
But today’s Bollywood goes beyond dynasty. It involves all kinds of family connections. The son of a producer knows a star. The star agrees to help him or to make a film with him. A director’s daughter is part of the film crowd. So when people are looking for heroines for new projects, she is the first one to be considered.
It is that clubby element that is the most striking. Basically, everybody knows everybody in Bollywood. They help each other’s sons and daughters. And everything remains within the club. This makes it very difficult (but, to be fair, not impossible) for anyone from outside this charmed circle to make it in Bollywood. And inevitably, people who have no real right to get good roles keep getting cast while those with talent are often frozen out.
There are, of course, those like Sushant, who do break through but sadly, too many of India’s best actors are out on the streets, making the rounds of producer’s offices begging for work because members of the privileged club have already taken the best roles.
This has been true for so long that until recently, we took it for granted. So many of today’s biggest stars (Salman, Aamir, Hrithik, Varun Dhawan, etc.) are industry kids that we no longer think it odd that Bollywood has become a self-sustaining oligarchy which looks after its young.
And yet, it wasn’t always so. The great names of the generations before this one --- Rajesh Khanna, Jeetendra, Amitabh Bachchan, Shatrughan Sinha and so many others --- were all outsiders who made it through sheer hardwork, determination and talent.
Sometime in the 1980s, Bollywood began to change into a family business. I don’t know if it is a coincidence that this transformation coincided with a similar change in Indian politics, which also became family and dynasty-driven. Perhaps India was changing and the film industry only reflected these changes.
But the socio-demographic changes of the 21st Century have (along with the rise of social media) given voice to a new generation that is angered by family privilege and wants access to all top positions --- whether in politics or in Bollywood, for that matter --- to be more egalitarian and merit-based.
You can see this in the case of Indian politics where much of the opposition to the Congress is based on its image as a party of family privilege. A similar wave is now building up as resentment about the cosiness of the clubs that run Bollywood grows. The passing of Sushant Singh Rajput was probably the event that opened the floodgates.
What most people (including myself) cannot understand is why a bright, charismatic and talented actor like Sushant would take his own life. Those around him have suggested that he was driven to it by the sense of being an outsider in a business where nearly everyone else had known each other for many generations.
I have no idea whether this is enough of an explanation for his suicide. As a police investigation is on, we should refrain from speculating till the facts are known. And yes, it is possible that the backlash against the Bollywood establishment may now be too indiscriminate in its choice of targets.
But nobody can deny that there is a backlash. Bollywood is one of India’s great contributions to the world, the basis of our soft power. Within India, the film industry has been, for nearly a century, the dream machine that has kept an entire nation enthralled.
Public perception has it that Bollywood has now been captured by a club of privileged insider kids who will promote their own, make it difficult for others to enter and sneer at those whose backgrounds are not as privileged as theirs.
I feel bad for many of the people who have been unfairly targeted in this upsurge of popular feeling. But I don’t feel at all bad for Bollywood, which deserves everything it is getting. I don’t feel bad for those entitled kids who go through school thinking that nothing else matters because they will be launched as heroes by their families when they turn 21.
Bollywood has to only look at Indian TV which earns much more public affection thanks to its many attempts --- through talent shows --- to reach out to the Indian heartland and give those who deserve it, the right breaks. On Indian Idol or India’s Got Talent, it doesn’t matter who your daddy is. In Bollywood, on the other hand, it nearly always does.
I don’t know how far this wave of public indignation will go. I do know, however, that Bollywood will have to learn to be less arrogant and to treat outsiders fairly.
A ten-year-old column of mine about how the young Chetan Bhagat was diddled out of the credit that was his due for the story of 3 Idiots, went viral on Twitter this week because it reminded people how long this had been going on for.
This is a new India. The old privileges can no longer be taken for granted. If Sushant’s tragic passing can help in breaking down walls and giving Bollywood back to the people, then in death, he will have achieved what so many others could not in life.
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