2020 has been a hellish year of reckoning for mostly everybody but none of us can even begin to imagine the trauma Rhea Chakraborty and her family have been subjected to. After being vilified as a gold-digging, drug peddling and murdering femme fatale post the death of her ex-boyfriend Sushant Singh Rajput, she spent four weeks in Mumbai’s Byculla Jail. You can’t open a phone, a newspaper or the TV without seeing her face but ironically, Rhea’s voice in this dreadful saga has been entirely drowned out.
A forensic team at AIIMS has submitted a detailed report confirming SSR died by suicide. It’s too little, too late. Three-fourths of India believes the depressingly misogynist narrative fed to them by 24/7 news and social media — of the ambitious seductress taking advantage of her more famous partner. It is a myth that adults have better coping skills than teenagers — the kind of hounding Rhea has endured can break anyone. We tend to forget there’s a living, breathing, person (with real feelings) behind a name on a television screen. Who, if she wants to have any kind of normal life ahead, is faced with the daunting task of wrestling control of her recent history.
Some years ago Monica Lewinsky, probably the first victim of Internet trolling, delivered a deeply moving TED talk on her ordeal of public shaming. She spoke of watching her friends marry and move forward while she struggled to find employment, being never “quite right” because of her tainted past. In retrospect, Lewinsky was a woman wronged who has borne the brunt of being a lurid punchline for two decades, and whose life will always be defined by one relationship. Similarly for Rhea, who is yet to establish her identity professionally, it’s that much harder to escape the shadow of a first (notorious) depiction. One can’t help but wonder if this bizarre episode is somehow tied up with the wave of intolerant judgmental-ism awash in India, today. When a moral crusade reaches mob level intensity, God help the outlier there. In an earlier time, unconfirmed gossip has got women stoned to death. Maybe Rhea should be grateful she was merely incarcerated.
It must be noted that in popular culture, the notion prevails that the greater a woman’s beauty, the bigger the disaster bound to follow. It explains why female Bond villains are always drop-dead gorgeous. As Rhea has experienced, a woman in a career that trades in beauty, is especially vulnerable to scathing attack. A few scattered examples through the ages lend credence to this half-baked theory. Draupadi, who suffered the height of public humiliation during the vastraharana, sparked the Great Battle of Kurukshetra and there’s Helen of Troy whose face is said to have launched a thousand ships. Cross an unexplained death with rumour, “that wide sprinkling of conjecture wherein no man knows the exact truth”, as Thomas Hardy said in the 1800s, and it can ruin women deemed to have crossed the imaginary (moral) line of their era.
Perhaps in time, Rhea will discover the healing power of owning our stories, no matter how checkered they may be. And, philosophically accepting that ultimately, public perception is beyond any individual’s sway. An instinctive reaction for anyone who’s taken the hammering she has would be to drop out of sight but that’s precisely what she shouldn’t do. Google may have her down as the did-she-didn’t-she starlet but the same digital tools used to intimidate her can also enable her to reinvent her life. Maybe we’ll see a Netflix documentary on this mockery of an investigation or a fresh Ted talk on surviving bullying. Or a tell-all book on Rajput’s last days. For anyone who might question why she should benefit from a suicide, I ask, why should she not?
The writer is director, Hutkay Films. Her column appears every fortnight
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