It’s been exactly three months since the actor Sushant Singh Rajput died by suicide. In the timeline of bereavement, that is not long, barely enough time for the shock to settle for those who actually lost him. Closest among these people was his partner, Rhea Chakraborty, also an actor. Chakraborty is currently incarcerated, reportedly in a cell without a bed or a fan. Officially, she was arrested by the Narcotics Control Bureau on the charge of purchasing recreational drugs for the deceased. Unofficially, the arrest follows a crescendo of character assassinations against her. The unofficial charges, fanned by TV channels and social media, include murder, embezzlement, sorcery, infidelity and domestic abuse.
Chakraborty arrived at the NCB office wearing a black T-shirt with these words: “Roses are red, violets are blue, let’s smash patriarchy, me and you.” It’s tempting to assume that she carefully selected this outfit that day, knowing that paparazzi – who’d been hounding her, without regard for pandemic-related social distancing, let alone her right to personal space – would be watching her every move. Or maybe she was exhausted or frightened, and didn’t give much thought to what she threw on. Either way, the rhyme made an impact. That she owns that T-shirt at all shows cognizance about what’s happening to her, and why.
That it’s other women, some of whom knew Rajput well (including relatives and a former partner), who lead the charges is a whole set of case studies on toxicity and guilt. That people at large seems to have accepted this narrative, though, is entirely about how comfortable India is with vilifying women.
It’s a mistake to hold Rhea Chakraborty up as some sort of feminist icon of the moment. By now, we should know better about cycles of pedestalisation and dethroning, which ultimately don’t move things forward collectively and also unfairly place too much on individuals’ shoulders. Chakraborty is not in a position of power. She is not where Natalie Portman was when she walked the red carpet in a cape embroidered with the names of women directors who weren’t nominated for Oscars. She is not where Princess Diana was when she strode stylishly into divorce, in a number considered so risqué it was dubbed “the revenge dress”, immediately after her spouse admitted to infidelity in a televised interview.
She is, literally, in a dire situation. If we complicate victim-hero binaries, we’ll see that yes, Chakraborty is a symbol of how this is not a safe country for women. But she is also just one person, whom multiple institutions have scapegoated. “Justice” for Rajput – better phrased as peace with his demise – will require seeing the same: he was also just one person, who found the weight of the world too heavy to bear. Forcing his partner to bear this now, in a time of grief no less, will not bring him back. Fixating on either of them when thousands of farmers and dozens of students – and untold numbers of people, trapped within aspects of patriarchy, including unequal marriage, gender discrimination, toxic masculinity and various stigmas – have also died by suicide, due to systemic inadequacies, brings justice for no one at all.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on September 15th 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.