The environment in Bollywood is getting toxic as the mystery deepens behind the untimely death of Shushant Singh Rajput.
The 34-year-old movie star was found dead at his home in Mumbai on June 14.
Police stated that he committed suicide because of mental health issues—partly related to nepotism within the film industry.
His family in the state of Bihar, on the other hand, believes that he was forced to end his life after his girlfriend took his money.
Mumbai and Bihar police departments launched parallel inquiries until India’s Central Bureau of Investigation stepped in to solve the case. This has sparked tensions between actors coming from privileged background and those from outside the industry.
As a promising actor, Rajput impressed the audience with his talent, and appeared to have a long career ahead. His death is certainly a big loss to Indian cinema.
As the days passed, those who claim to be Rajput’s admirers started bashing others in Bollywood for creating the circumstances that led to his tragic death.
Kareena Kapoor Khan, a famous Indian diva, was among several who came under attack. A video comparing her with Rajput went viral on Twitter.
It showed Rajput as someone with deep knowledge of astronomy, while Khan was portrayed as a “dumb” actor who did not even know about the mission going to Mars during a media scrum. It were as if the two were associated with space exploration industry and not cinema.
Rajput owned a telescope and has a mechanical engineering background. So he was understandably far more up to date on such issues than Khan, but that does not necessarily reflect on her knowledge of many other important matters related to the real world.
Khan was repeatedly trolled just because she comes from Kapoor clan, which has dominated Bollywood for years, ever since the days of family patriarch Prithvi Raj Kapoor. He was one of the pioneers of Indian cinema.
From her immediate family, her father, Randhir Kapoor, mother Babita, and sister Karisma have already paid their dues in the movie industry.
Incidentally, one of her uncles, Rishi Kapoor, was highly popular in Bollywood. He passed away in April. Rishi’s wife, Neetu Singh, also acted for years, while their son Ranbir Kapoor is an established star.
Her husband Saif Ali Khan, too, is an actor, born to another towering movie celebrity of her times, Sharmila Tagore.
Mudslinging marred 20th year in Bollywood
Kareena Kapoor Khan entered the film industry in 2000 in Refugee.
Just as her followers were celebrating her 20 years in Bollywood, the death of Rajput and the subsequent mudslinging has eclipsed the mood.
Those outraged by the tragedy began questioning her professional integrity and, to some extent, singling her out for making it difficult for actors who lack the privilege of being born in family of stars.
They tried to create a wedge between “self-made” actors from outside the industry and those born and brought up by families who control the industry.
By doing so, they simply lost their objectivity and overlooked the talent of Kapoor Khan and the contributions she has made to the society both through her acting and other acts of civic responsibility and philanthropy.
This is despite the fact that she was prompt in sharing her condolences over the passing away of Rajput. She expressed sadness on Instagram as the news broke out. And yet, her critics remained ruthless.
To be fair, this whole issue certainly calls for a debate and we need to know whether Rajput’s death had anything to do with barriers faced by the actors without much backing in an industry dominated by few families and clans.
Directors and producers who've created such obstacles for outsiders owe an explanation, but unfounded allegations and the selective targeting of individuals such as Kareena Kapoor Khan cannot be justified.
Also, we need to wait for the investigation to reach its logical end. It’s wrong to make premature judgments about the reasons behind Rajput’s suicide.
This is not the first time Kapoor Khan had to bear with so much hate. She was hounded by trolls for marrying a Muslim man and adopting Khan as her last name, and then naming her son after a controversial Muslim historical figure. Then she stood up for a Muslim girl who was raped and murdered by Hindu fanatics in 2018.
One can connect all these dots together to understand that there is a pattern behind the hate campaign against her, which has highly polarized the Indian entertainment industry. The political environment of the country under a right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) regime has also contributed to this.
She married Khan in 2012. Their wedding evoked angry reactions from the supporters of the BJP, which is known for its anti-Muslim bias.
These people accused her husband of luring a Hindu woman to convert her to Islam.
If this were not enough, they attacked the couple on social media when they decided to name their son born in 2016 after Taimur, a Muslim emperor.
According to the Hindu Right, he was a tyrant who tormented Hindus.
Kapoor Khan stands up for child
In 2018, when an eight-year-old Muslim nomad girl Asifa Bano was raped and murdered in Kathua, Kapoor Khan raised her voice for justice, leaving the supporters of BJP angry.
Since those involved were Hindu fundamentalists who wanted to terrorize Muslims by using rape as a weapon, several BJP men came to their rescue. Khan was branded as an apologist for Muslims.
Those maligning her and calling her dumb need to be reminded that it’s the audience who decides the fate of successful stars.
There is no dearth of failed actors who came from Bollywood families, and likewise there is no shortage of successful stars coming from outside Bollywood and making a place for themselves without much support.
If she wasn’t aware of an upcoming mission to Mars, that itself cannot be used as an argument against her or judge her intelligence.
During the COVID-19 lockdown, Kapoor Khan was one of those rare Indian actors who used Instagram to support Black Lives Matter and condemn the brutal killing of George Floyd by U.S. police.
Not only that, she also denounced racism and bigotry within India against Muslims and so called Untouchables.
In addition, she issued a statement against the killing of father and son by the police in Tamil Nadu and made repeated appeals to help migratory workers suffering due to lockdown.
Only recently, she joined #baradarifashionfundrauser to promote responsible fashion and support local artisans. Going a step further, she became part of “One Love”, a UNICEF initiative to help children at the time of pandemic.
She clearly used her privilege for others instead of just posting self-gratifying images of herself and her family.
Kangana Ranaut's supporters react
The recent attacks against her must be read carefully in the light of what she had been subjected to in the past.
One of the leading voices against nepotism is another Bollywood actor Kangana Ranaut, who is known for her right-wing and anti-Muslim rants.
She has called for blackening faces of those promoting Indo-Pak friendship and has repeatedly condemned secularists, branding them as supporters of a “Jihadi agenda”.
It is not surprising to see her supporters coming out openly against Kapoor Khan. So much so, the pro-BJP right wing media outlets shamelessly glorify her and continue to vilify Kapoor Khan and other well-known secularist celebrities.
Interestingly, these groups were also critical of Rajput when he was alive and are now keen to appropriate him.
An article by a film critic Anna MM Vetticad is worth reading to understand this.
Rajput’s first film, Kai Po Che, was based on an anti-Muslim massacre of 2002.
Released in 2013, it revealed an inconvenient truth about the persecution of Muslims in the state of Gujarat, which was then led by the current Indian prime minister Narendra Modi.
The story never sat well with BJP supporters, who were upset a second time when Rajput played a Pakistani Muslim in love with an Indian Hindu woman in PK, which was released in 2014.
Come 2018, they were agitated again when he played as a Muslim porter in love with Hindu woman in Kedarnath.
BJP supporters, who have no love for pluralism, claimed that the movie was promoting “Love Jihad” and encouraged Muslim men to entrap Hindu women in relationships.
Padmaavat stirred controversy
When Rajput once announced that he was going to drop his last name in protest against right-wing groups targeting Padmaavat, a 2018 movie based on the story of a legendary Hindu queen, BJP supporters took that as an insult.
The movie was opposed by a section of Rajputs, an upper caste community of Hindu warriors, who claimed that the script was heavily distorted. They threatened to harm Bollywood star Deepika Padukone, who played the title role.
Kapoor Khan has also faced criticism for her powerful roles in movies depicting difficult subjects.
After all, she played a survivor of a state sponsored anti-Muslim pogrom in Dev (2004) and a Hindu woman who helps a Muslim child separated from her mother in Pakistan in Bajrangi Bhaijaan (2015).
Neither Rajput nor Kapoor Khan fit the agenda of those making an issue out of his death. Their design behind making Bollywood’s environment intolerant and illiberal is in line with the ruling BJP, which wants to transform India into a Hindu theocracy.
Bollywood has a legacy of making some excellent movies worth celebrating by believers of an inclusive society. However, it is not immune to growing threat of religious nationalism under Modi.
Gurpreet Singh is cofounder of Radical Desi magazine and Indians Abroad for Pluralist India. The Georgia Straight publishes opinions like this from the community to encourage constructive debate on important issues.