‘There are groups, gangs that exist. You can call it favouritism, nepotism or what you will,” producer Pritish Nandy said of the intense ‘cornering’ culture of Bollywood
One year after Sushant Singh Rajput’s death tore off Bollywood’s tinsel veneer to reveal an industry riven with schisms, what has changed? Not much, say industry insiders. The powerful Hindi film industry, peopled by the rich and famous and also those desperate for a foothold on the showbiz ladder, continues to operate on the mantras of favouritism and camps, they maintain.
The industry was and still is a fiercely guarded space, reluctant to let outsiders in and a place of cut-throat competition for new talent, said those who depend on Bollywood for a living, some speaking out and several others requesting anonymity.
On 14 June last year, Rajput, the quintessential outsider who found stardom with films such as MS Dhoni: The Untold Story and Chhichhore, was found hanging in Bandra home.
The 34-year-old’s death put the spotlight on mental health issues but also cast a cloud over the entire glamour industry with issues such as nepotism, insider-outsider and bullying opened up for intense debate. “I am not sure if there are too many changes that have happened. There are groups, gangs that exist. You can call it favouritism, nepotism or what you will,” producer Pritish Nandy told PTI.
A year after the death of the Patna-born Rajput, one of the few who successfully transitioned from television to the big screen, the nepotism debate has again gained momentum after the exit of Kartik Aaryan from Karan Johar’s Dostana 2, followed by reports that the actor was no longer part of Shah Rukh Khan’s upcoming production Freddie either.
Reports of Aaryan being dropped from Aanand L Rai’s production also cropped up online but there was no confirmation. Though the Gwalior-born actor, also an ”outsider”, has not yet addressed the speculation, director Anubhav Sinha recently said the campaign against Aaryan seems “concerted” and “unfair”. There is a need for a mental health expert on film sets, said Garima Wahal, one of the writers on Rajput’s 2017 film Raabta. “Hopefully someday we will see that happening and we would have to thank Sushant for it, who was a fragile intelligent mind. It shouldn’t have happened to him,” she said. Nandy, producer of the International Emmy-nominated show Four More Shots Please!, said the actor’s death was heavily politicised and never got the real attention it deserved.
“Sushant’s death, unfortunate as it may have been, is one more example of a talented young man scrambling for his space in the sunlight,” he said. Drawing attention to a spate of suicides of character artistes and television stars in recent months, Nandy asked, “How many television stars have suffered from Covid and are dying because they are jobless and are in deep distress. There are no safeguards. It is dangerous. Some of the biggest producers have died penniless… To stay in the limelight and to survive is as difficult as to get into the limelight.”
As speculation swirled and terms such as “druggies” and “scum” were used to describe Bollywood in a bruising debate that played out on social and other media, various agencies were brought in to investigate Rajput’s death. These included Mumbai Police, Enforcement Directorate (ED), Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB). The raging hydra-headed controversy over Rajput”s death also dragged in top bosses such as Karan Johar, Aditya Chopra and Salman Khan. Mainstream stars Deepika Padukone, Sara Ali Khan and Shraddha Kapoor were questioned by the NCB in a drugs case linked to the late actor. Actor Rhea Chakraborty, Rajput’s former girlfriend, was accused of abetting his suicide and misappropriating his funds by his family. Put through the media wringer, she was declared responsible for his death by several news channels. She, along with her brother Showik Chakraborty, are currently out on bail.
The investigation into Rajput’s death continues. Wahal and her colleague Siddharth Singh, who co-wrote Raabta with her, said people in the industry go on playing games and pulling each other down.
“We did hope that after Sushant went people would be better but we were surprised to see no change in a lot of people,” Wahal said. Even though Rajput’s death sparked intense soul searching on the functioning of Bollywood, it has not led to any constructive change, Singh added. “It is a difficult industry to work in. There is favouritism and there are camps,” he said.
A leading publicist, requesting anonymity, said nepotism and the culture of “cornering people” is Bollywood’s harsh reality. “Star kids do get an easy route in terms of access. However, there are some star kids, who aren’t around because they are not talented,” the publicist told PTI.
There is, however, a thin silver lining.
“The good part is we still have outsiders who have become insiders purely on the basis of talent,” the publicist added. Rajput’s death was “a rude shock” for actor Gulshan Devaiah and made him realise the entertainment industry doesn’t necessarily work on the basis of merit. “It made me look inwards and try and decide what I am cool with and what I am not in terms of the whole hustle,” Devaiah told PTI. “I keep repeating to myself that in the arts merit cannot exist because it is a very subjective and personal opinion. We feel we deserve more and better,” Devaiah, who was seen in Shaitan and Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota, said.
According to Sahil Vaid, Rajput’s co-star in his swansong Dil Bechara, the discussion around the alleged wrongs done to the late actor is too little, too late. “After his demise, a gamut of things happened, which I don’t understand. They were trying to stain his legacy by saying he was this, he was that. But what’s the point now? He is not there to defend himself. Why didn’t you say stuff when he was around? It is quite unfair,” an anguished Vaid told PTI. Social media expert Rohit Kerkar, managing director at marketing agency Digital Strings, said the issue of mental health needs to be a priority, and Rajput’s case, for however brief a period, brought attention to it.
“Mental health is a very big issue and a lot of people are unaware of it. There were genuine conversations over mental health and Sushant Singh Rajput was one of the plugs who was attached to it.
“His case helped to gain momentum to mental health conversation, which is a good thing,” Kerkar told PTI.