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Star suicides: Grim reality of Indian cinema

Recent suicide by Telugu actor Uday Kiran points to pain behind the glamour.

Last updated: 03 Feb 2014 04:47
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Tamil actress Viji who killed herself in 2000. Female actors find the going tougher than their male counterparts. [Ananda Vikatan]

Uday Kiran, actor from Telugu cinema of south India, ranks next to Bollywood stalwart Guru Dutt in the pages of Indian film history. Not for a good reason, though.

Kiran, 33, a romantic heartthrob of Telugu cinema was found dead earlier this month. He hanged himself from the ceiling at his posh home in the southern city of Hyderabad.

Guru Dutt is the only other male Indian star who had committed suicide, way back in 1964, due to heartbreak and depression with an overdose of alcohol and pills.

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Female fans of Telugu and Tamil cinema still reminisce about the charm that Uday Kiran exuded on screen. The same could not be said of his real life when Kiran’s engagement with the daughter of an influential star from the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh broke down.

The tabloids had a field day and Kiran got back on the road with a new wife but fewer films. Reports said that shunned by plum offers, the young actor battled depression before taking his life.

Battling depression comes hand in hand with stardom in India.

On January 22, police filed a chargesheet in a Mumbai court naming an upcoming actor of abetting the suicide of starlet Jiah Khan. The 25-year-old Khan was found dead hanging from the ceiling on June 3 last year.

Khan’s mother told reporters her daughter had complained of a boyfriend’s broken promises in a suicide note.

South side troubles

While Bollywood has had its share of stars who have committed suicides, south Indian cinema has the ignominy of leading the way in sheer numbers. Since the late 1970s, nine female actors from the four language-cinemas of south India have killed themselves.

They might have had a happy ending with love on screen, but in reality many leading ladies in south Indian cinema have died heartbroken and of unrequited love.

"The patriarchal indifference to the plight of women in the entertainment world is a formidable reason for collective distress among female actors," says Theodore Baskaran, Tamil film historian.

•  The first widely reported suicide was in 1978 when a small-time Tamil cinema actress Fatafat Jayalakshmi hanged herself from the ceiling over an alleged failed romance.

•  In 1979, Kannada cinema's leading actress Kalpana, described as the "shining star", killed herself over "love failure".

•  In 1980, Shoba, a successful Indian National Award winning actress from Tamil cinema, committed suicide. She could not come to terms with her much-married film-maker lover.

•  In 1993, Divya Bharti, who began her career in a Telugu film, died at 19 by throwing herself from a window of her high-rise apartment in Mumbai.

•  In 1996, south Indian cinema’s own Monroe, Silk Smitha, who had acted in over 400 films, hanged herself from the ceiling. She was 35, with no career, in a loveless relationship.

•  In 2000, Viji, the actress from Tamil cinema who had gone into early retirement, killed herself. She was in her 30s.

•  In 2002, upcoming starlet of Tamil and Telugu cinema Monal killed herself. Her sister, also an actress, told the tabloids her sister died of "boyfriend issues".

•  In 2002, young starlet Pratuysha consumed poison because her parents would not allow her to marry her boyfriend. 

•  In 2005, Malayalam film actor Mayuri hanged herself to death after a failed relationship.

Gender Divide

"Actors are slightly narcissistic and are daring risk-takers," opined Dr Lakshmi Vijayakumar, consultant psychiatrist and founder trustee, SNEHA, a suicide prevention centre in Chennai.

"Actors are distanced from reality, get to the top positions quickly and go through sudden, sharp fluctuations in life," she said.

Silk Smitha killed herself in 1995 [Ananda Vikatan]

While male actors seem to get away with marriage, money and more, female actors always play roles that are subordinate on screen and off it.

Pritham K Chakravarthy, professor of acting, dramaturgy and film history, Hyderabad University, said there is an evident gender divide in perception that comes into play.

"Men can visibly get drunk, take to hard drugs, or have affairs to drown their sorrows; the same liberty is not afforded to women in any field."

In a tradition-bound society like in South India, women actors have a short shelf-life while middle aged male actors get the fresh-off-the boat.

"They come with big dreams. Once unsuccessful they are unable to live with their own frustrated ambitions. They are also sexually used," said Dr Vijayakumar. The man is always desirable despite his age; the female star shines only for a short time.

"As long as you have male stars who want to romance women younger than their daughters on screen, women actors have a very rough deal in this field," Chakravarthy pointed out.

Female actors have a limited bandwidth within which they have to make a lasting impression. Chakravarthy said the blame for such a plight lies with the industry.

From glamour to quick rejection and downfall, things swing back and forth quickly for them

Dr Lakshmi Vijayakumar, consultant psychiatrist

"The industry has no real roles for a woman post-30s, who are intelligent, interesting, and not mere mothers, sisters, teachers, or divorce lawyers."

Young actresses who rise to the top cannot handle too much popularity.

"From glamour to quick rejection and downfall, things swing back and forth quickly for them," observed Dr Vijayakumar.

"The screen is the only recourse for livelihood for female actors. There is no concept of dual careers. Look at actresses Aishwarya Rai, who threw out her degree in architecture or Gauthami her engineering degree to stay actors," Chakravarthy said.

A nosey tabloid press, harsh scrutiny of female stars, conflicting body image and self-worth apart from insecurity of their short career span remains a harsh reality.

The reason for most suicides of female actors is heart break. Inability to find stability in securing a husband, a home and raising a family remains the main reason for female actors committing suicide.

A deadly problem

"In the actors' fraternity and in a bigger context, suicide is indeed a problem that needs to be addressed. It depends on the individuals' sensitivity, strategies and level of coping with stress and work pressure," said Sharath Kumar, Tamil actor and president, South Indian Artists Association.

A few years ago the South Indian Artists’ Association floated the idea of organising a counselling panel to help actors to get out of their tough situations.

"The response was not encouraging. Nobody is willing to speak up or ready to discuss their issues. If people let go of that attitude and come forward, then, we can consider offering help," said Kumar.

Dr Vijayakumar has held counselling and therapy workshops for upcoming and smalltime actors.Yet, the world of celluloid remains a dangerous place for many.

And when all the glitzy lights go out, it is often a dark place these beautiful women head to.

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