Do Words Have The Power To Kill?
“Maybe your words don’t have the power to kill somebody, but they certainly have the power to chip away at a spirit that is trying hard to stay alive”.
Apurva Asrani, film editor and writer, describes what outsiders have to go through to enter and survive in the Hindi film industry.
I am among the few from the film industry that continues to question why Sushant Singh Rajput was bullied in the period leading to his death. Some of my friends have come to the conclusion that Sushant was depressed, couldn’t handle the stress that came with the movie industry, and, therefore, took his own life.
Firstly, I don’t know how they have diagnosed Sushant’s condition whilst sitting on Twitter. How do we know what kind of depression Sushant suffered from? We have no records of his mental health history. What we do have are about 30 blind pieces in the public domain, all that carried some appalling, destructive ideas about him. Why are we so afraid to allow a discussion on this?
In 2017, I had a very public fallout with director Hansal Mehta on Simran, a movie I had written and was editing. Unbeknownst to me, the film’s lead actress, Kangana Ranaut, was promised to be credited as the film’s co-writer, but I was only informed of this after I had cut the film. Needless to say I felt betrayed. I fought a long and tiring battle to ensure that I was not discredited. And though the title finally did appear correctly, the experience exhausted me. I was heartbroken that a lot of my industry folk chose to remain silent.
I had fought the system, not just to ensure that I didn’t get bullied, but also to set a precedent for writers to stand up for their rights. I was naive to think that truth simply sets you free. It does eventually, but you have to go through so much muck, slander and opposition, and if you survive it, then maybe, it can set you free.
All sorts of nonsense was written about me. One piece claimed that I didn’t edit Satya, my first film that I also won a major editing award for. Another claimed that I didn’t co-write Shahid, a film I jointly won a screenwriting award for. My name as co-writer was suddenly dropped from Shahid’s IMDB page (its still remains taken off). One portal, Spot Boye! tried to claim that even Aligarh, my most personal work, was stolen from another writer. This journalist called my writing collaborator, Ishani Banerji, and tried to get her to talk against me. When she refused, they carried a headline that seemed like she had implied that I shortchanged her. I was really upset.
I used to stay awake all night, putting together proof to dispel their lies. I was fighting a lone battle against journalists from leading tabloids, who wrote all kinds of unsubstantiated shit about me.I started to become depressed.
Fortunately, some producers did reach out to me and offered me work. One of them was Zoya Akhtar, who breathed hope into me by giving me Made In Heaven to edit. Also, Manoj Bajpayee, the lead actor of both Satya and Aligarh, stood by me. He publicly endorsed my work on both those seminal films when it mattered the most.
Yet, the stress was too much, and I woke up one morning to realise that half my face was paralysed. I couldn’t shut one eye, my speech was impaired and I looked like a freak. I learned that I had a nervous condition called Bells Palsy and it came with severe vertigo and vomiting. I was too sick to edit the climax episodes of MIH, and someone replaced me to finish the series. It was a very painful period. I cried myself to sleep on most nights, and stopped getting out of the house. I felt humiliated, let down by my ilk, and was absolutely shattered.
If Manoj Bajpayee hadn’t stood by me, and if I didn’t have the kind of familial support around me, I might have given up the fight and opted to take my own life. I was lucky. Not all are.
My fight for Sushant is not born out of vendetta for anyone. I am speaking up because I identify with him. I understand what he may have gone through when a campaign was run to destroy his career and his credibility. I see him as a non-conformist, like me. Maybe, he too, couldn’t stand the parties, the fake hugs and the air kisses. Maybe he too couldn’t stand bowing down to some overrated filmmakers and actors who treat people like commodities.
I didn’t know Sushant personally, but I know this of so many young actors who come to Bombay with dreams in their eyes; from simple, middle class families, with quintessential Indian values, they enter this dazzling, cut-glass, Gucci-clad world of ‘A’ listers. Their rights of passage almost always involve having to sleep with men in positions of power. Read model and actor Himanshu Malik’s brilliant and brave account of the industry through the eyes of an outsider.
In my 20s (I had cut Satya before I turned 19), directors called me to hotels for narrations. Once, as I waited in the lobby for a director, I got a message that the meeting has moved to his room. There, the director was alone, in his bath gown, displaying an unsavoury view of his privates. I ran.
Then once, I got invited to a journalist's birthday party, only to discover that besides his boyfriend, I was the only guest invited. Like vultures they circled me, till I beat a hasty retreat. Once, I was befriended by a journalist, and we grew to become friends. But when he started landing up at home with baked dishes and flowers, I began to suspect that I was the object of his affection. I told him honestly that I was in love with someone else. That was it. He cut off from me, ignored me if we met, and never, I repeat, never, mentioned me in his reviews —even if the film and my work was highly acclaimed. And then, there was that magazine editor...anyway you get the point.
It is a pretty tricky situation. You need to be nice to them, make sure you don’t offend them, and they interpret it as you being easy. There really is no winning this one.
Then the articles began. Some claimed that I was an untalented, one-hit wonder. Some pieces claimed that I had left the country to live with my lover. Of course, none of them carried a byline, and many described me in detail, without taking my name, so there was no one I could confront. I found that when they wrote pieces or made TV specials to remember an anniversary of one of my films (for which I had won a Filmfare award), they would forget to interview or even mention me. This treatment went on for years, and I couldn’t say anything about it, because how do you ‘out’ yourself, ‘out’ the predators and prove that this is what really happened?
In the #MeToo movement, there is a very powerful slogan that says ‘believe the woman’. Try saying ‘believe the man’, and people will laugh. And if this happens to an editor and a writer, what must handsome male actors go through on an everyday basis?
Sushant had a series of cowardly blind items written about him that could have broken even the toughest of spirits. He was called a skirt chaser, unprofessional, some claimed that his films were duds, one even named him in a #Metoo accusation and called him a rapist. Sushant had to post screenshots of his chat with the alleged victim to prove that he was innocent. Can you imagine what he must have gone through in the nights and days leading to this death? This middle class boy from Patna, a few years in maximum city, working hard to realise his dreams; but he had to expend all that energy, relentlessly fighting this dirty, unfounded slander.
Also remember, here, if you don’t pander to the whims of the powerful, you are a troublemaker. If you speak up against unfair practices, you are a troublemaker. Watch Sushant in so many of those film promotion videos, he is pretty much ignored by the fraternity. I wish he had spoken up. But he may have taken the advice of ‘well wishers’ who easily dispense advice like, ‘don’t talk, let your success do the talking’.
So the boy marched on. In spite of not having the support of his peers, he gave his all to a film called Chichore. The film was made by the director of the successful Dangal and the expectations were high. But surprisingly, it opened to average reviews, and the general buzz on the film was poor. It was only after Sushant’s death, that I learned that the film had been a hit, and had grossed over Rs 200 crores.
Now, when an ‘A list’ actor’s film just about breaks even, the occasion is celebrated by splashing the actor all over the press. New associations spring up. Big films are signed. Other stars photograph with you. I saw hardly any of this in Sushant’s case. And this begged the question: was he denied his hard-earned success by his peers? Was the stupendous performance of his film underplayed? Could this disappointment, that nothing he did would ever make it right, be the final straw for him?
Who Do We Blame?
I tweeted to name the people/publications behind the sustained blind items against Sushant. I also named popular journalist Rajeev Masand in my tweets, because most of the blind items about Sushant doing the rounds, some of them incredibly mean, were written by him in his Open Magazine column. But by no means do I intend for him, or any portal to be singled out. There is a bigger system at play, with so many different kinds of characters functioning oppressively since time immemorial. How, then, can one person be held responsible for Sushant’s death? But to accept this system as the norm, and to shut people up from calling out the wrong doers, that is unacceptable too.
I am not surprised to see that I am being ostracised by many of my industry peers for taking on this fight and naming names. Besides Manoj Bajpayee (thank god for him), not one industry person has reached out (so far), even privately, to say that they are with me. Soon, someone will try to discredit me with some slander on a portal or a tabloid. But that doesn't scare me, I’ve seen these games played before.
Was Sushant An Unstable Person?
Right now, the few that are responding to my tweets are chiding me for having a hidden agenda. Some are saying that I am derailing the conversation on Sushant's mental health.
It shocks me, that people who didn’t really know Sushant, didn’t know his mental health status, want to close this conversation by labelling him as an ‘unstable person’. An actress I kind of respect, said to me on Twitter, that she was sure it was depression that killed Sushant. She added that depression is something you are born with and it cannot be caused by external situations. I told her that this is absolutely untrue.
While there are clinical and hereditary factors that could cause certain types of mental illnesses, anyone can become depressed without pre existing conditions. It is also a fact that environmental factors can play an important part in the onset of depression. Here is an excerpt from a reliable source, with the link:
"Are people born with a mental illness?
No. A vulnerability to some mental illnesses, such as bipolar mood disorder, can run in families. But other people develop mental illness with no family history.
Many factors contribute to the onset of a mental illness. These include stress, bereavement, relationship breakdown, physical and sexual abuse, unemployment, social isolation, and major physical illness or disability. Our understanding of the causes of mental illness is growing".
Depression can be triggered by bullying too. A large number of LGBTQI people suffer from depression because they have been bullied or abused. I can tell you for a fact that I have no family history of depression, but I still underwent six months of severe depression after the Simran episode. It is very likely, looking at the blind items, at the lack of camaraderie with Sushant at film events, at the jokes on talk shows made at his expense, that he felt bullied. Why is there such a reluctance to even have this conversation?
I contacted a few publications to carry this article, but either they didn’t respond, or they seemed in no hurry to take this forward. This is one of the reasons I decided to resurrect my blog after seven long years. I feel determined to continue this fight, because I can sense that the public isn’t giving this one up. Sushant was one of us. His death has affected people in the depth of their hearts. This isn't like some trending hashtag that will disappear on a Twitter timeline. It is an important fight, not only for justice for Sushant, but to ensure that no innocent talent gets snuffed out by an abusive and unfeeling system again.
Going forward, I'm not one to ask for heads to roll. That won’t solve the problem or bring back the departed. I just hope that some of my journalist friends will examine how they write about a celebrity or a film in the future. I know of several film scribes who take pride in proper research, in getting their facts right, and in writing with responsibility and balance. I hope it is them, and not the blind item experts, that will be emulated in the future.
I also want to request the authors of blind items to write with caution. A mere story on your page is actually a real, beating heart, living a real life somewhere. Please remember that just like you are sensitive about what is said about you, so is the object of your piece. In fact, they maybe far more vulnerable, because they are actually putting themselves out there.
Maybe your words don’t have the power to kill somebody, but they certainly have the power to chip away at a spirit that is trying hard to stay alive.
(This piece was first published on Apurva Asrani's blog and can be read here)
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