Young actor’s death reveals Bollywood’s mental health crisis

Sushant Singh Rajput’s death by suicide draws attention to a fragility beneath the industry’s glamorous veneer.

Sushant Singh Rajput
Rajput's death brought focus on mental health, an area often stigmatised or misunderstood in India [File: Joe Penney/Reuters]

Mumbai, India  The recent death by suicide of popular Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput has brought to the forefront the pressures faced by those who work in Mumbai’s film industry. The 34-year-old was found dead in his home on June 14.

From celebrities to the professionals behind the scenes, the incident has drawn attention to the fragility that lies beneath the glamorous veneer of the industry. In particular, it has brought focus on the topic of mental health – an area that is often stigmatised or misunderstood in India.

“The very idea of depression or anxiety is treated as a foreign concept, we don’t have a vocabulary for such things in India,” says Nikhil Taneja, CEO of Yuvaa, a youth media organisation.

“That’s why many parents treat them as fads or excuses, which leads to stigma and absence of family support for young people seeking help.”

Recently, there have been attempts to counter such stigma, including by top actress Deepika Padukone, who shared her own experience of living with depression.

Despite such efforts, says Taneja: “We are in the midst of a mental health crisis.”

Within the film industry, well-known actors and directors face a different set of pressures, including being unable to reach out for help, says psychiatrist Dr Dayal Mirchandani.

Often, his celebrity clients would ask him if he could come to their homes for sessions. “There is a pressure to keep up appearances, coupled with very little stability. You could be in a good position one day and then be nowhere the next,” he says.

Bollywood actors also face a ticking clock, with a relatively short window to achieve success, which makes it an intensely competitive industry. The wide reach of social media has added to the feeling of living under constant scrutiny, says Amit Behl, film and TV actor. “It’s like always being on high alert.”

Amit Behl, CINTAA [Taran N Khan/Al Jazeera]
Actor Amit Behl feels social media has put actors under constant scrutiny [Taran N Khan/Al Jazeera]

‘No work, no pay’

Since India imposed a strict lockdown on March 25 (partially lifted earlier this month) to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, film shoots were stopped and releases delayed.

This resulted in an increased feeling of “collective anxiety”, says clinical psychologist Sonali Gupta. “In an industry that is already so unpredictable, it is difficult to have no template for the future.”

Even for those who work behind the camera, the last few months have been a time of increased vulnerability.

Like many members of film crews, Fakhruddin Ali, who has been a gaffer since 1990, earns a daily wage. “If there is no work, there is no pay,” he says.

Ali has managed to make ends meet with his savings and by renting out a property he owns. But many others have left Mumbai for their hometowns or villages.

“Some waited till recently, but as there seems to be no chance of work soon, they gave up and left,” he says.

You could be in a good position one day and then be nowhere the next.

by Dr Dayal Mirchandani, Psychiatrist

Ravi Shetty, who works as a camera attendant for a production company, is yet to receive payment for his last job in mid-March. “My employers should have paid me a salary for the last two months, but it is like I am a freelancer.”

So far, he has borrowed small sums from friends and has chosen to stay in Mumbai, where he feels his family is safer from illness.

From within the industry, there have been efforts to support those facing hardship, says BN Tiwari, president of the Federation of Western India Cine Employees (FWICE).

The group raised funds from actors, directors, producers and other donors, and provided cash and rations to those in need, he says.

Unlike their counterparts abroad, Indian unions like CINTAA (Cine & TV Artistes’ Association) are not cash-rich, says Behl, who is the association’s senior joint secretary.

Sharmila Pooja [Taran N Khan/Al Jazeera]
Makeup artist Sharmila Pooja says staying home during the pandemic is draining [Taran N Khan/Al Jazeera] 

“We can’t run a 24/7 hotline for our members, but we have initiatives like counselling and webinars for depression,” he says. “The pandemic hit many balls out of court, but we are trying to reach out to our members and sharing contacts of psychologists and NGOs on our social media.”

Recently, the state government in Maharashtra – where Mumbai is located – allowed shoots to resume under a set of stringent guidelines that include having fewer people on the crew.

While the move is positive, said Sharmila Pooja, a makeup artist, “It will be a long time before things go back to normal.”

Besides the financial hardships, she says, staying home is draining in other ways. “People need to work, not just for money but also to have a purpose in life.”

‘Don’t go back to that place’

For aspiring actors such as Kuldeep Kushwaha, the lockdown has exacerbated a life already marked by uncertainty.

Kushwaha heard the news of Rajput’s death at his parents’ house in the town of Chhatarpur in Madhya Pradesh, where he has been since the beginning of the lockdown. “My mother’s immediate response was to say, ‘Beta [son], don’t go back to that place.'”

He was able to reason with her, he said, but admitted to being shocked by the news.

Rony D'Costa [Taran N Khan/Al Jazeera]
Creative producer Rony D’Costa thinks every Bollywood professional should have access to mental health resources [Taran N Khan/Al Jazeera] 

Rony D’Costa, creative producer, echoed the sentiment. “What’s shaken a lot of people is that if someone who was young and successful could take this step, what is going on? On social media like Twitter, there are discussions on how parents are asking their children in Mumbai if everything is OK.”

The actor’s death by suicide at the age of 34 has been accompanied by sensational media coverage as well as speculation around its possible causes, including cliques within the industry.

But experts caution against making easy assumptions about suicide and mental illness. “People may get depressed for various reasons,” says Dr Mirchandani, “and not everyone with depression thinks of suicide.”

For Gupta, the present situation indicates a need to build “structural resilience, and move responsibility away from individuals to creating safe spaces and support within our communities.”

Bollywood itself can contribute to this process, she points out, by creating accurate representations of mental health processes. “It needs to be seen through the longer lens of not just what therapy takes but how long it takes.”

Others point to the need to make such resources accessible to all. “Even to know what this feeling is that they are going through is a luxury that few people can afford,” says D’Costa.

Often, these may be the same people who need urgent support. Measures can include toll-free helplines, or mobile therapy units on film sets, subsidised by professional unions, says Dr Mirchandani.

He also suggests adding a mental health component to training programmes for those seeking to work in the entertainment industry. “That way, even if you don’t need help, you can recognise if one of your co-workers does.”

Where to find help

If you live in India and you or someone you know needs support, this link provides information.

Source: Al Jazeera