Updated: August 31, 2020 1:01:20 am
Written by Nishtha Lamba
Sushant Singh Rajput’s death has struck a chord in millions of hearts. Itwas sudden, shocking, and confusing. This visceral collective grief can partially be explained by Parasocial theory, which describes how an audience develops a one-sided intimate relationship with celebrities and feels deeply affected by their actions. Research has shown that attachment to celebrities’ on-screen persona affects us in almost all developmental stages, especially young adulthood.
People build their own ideas of identity and even intimacy through this one-way relationship. With social media, we now further develop a sense of familiarity and proximity with our “stars”. This concoction of on-screen reel persona and off-screen real personality creates a sense of “interaction”, culminating sometimes in a strong bond.
There is more, much more, to be said here though. Parasocial theory may explain the public’s attachment with Sushant Singh’s on-screen and off-screen persona. However, it doesn’t explain the story of our collective grief. He was 10 films old, relatively new to the industry, and did not have a massive following on social media. Instead, his Instagram account gained 5 million followers after he passed away. Compared to other actors of his time, his stardom was a blur. In fact, a lot of people emotionally connected with his personal life, dreams, and, achievements after his death. Therefore, this level of anger, sadness, and grief needs more unravelling.
The cause of death — suicide — is of course salient. It is a natural human tendency to rationalise death, to affirm that nothing else could have been done to avoid it. In fact, it is difficult to process death as a “choice”, even though it never is. Research has shown that there is almost never a single reason for this act, and it leaves people, especially family and close friends, with a series of unanswered questions. It is also common for people to speculate murder, as it is difficult to accept a self-inflicted death.
Second, people connect with celebrities primarily on two levels: Aspiration and relatability. While aspiration helps in constructing a loftier notion of what our lives could be, relatability makes that dream seem realistic. These are distinguished by the feelings of “wow, life can be like this” versus “it could be me”. But sometimes these two ideas can combine and produce a heightened emotion —where relatability meets aspiration. Rajput was deeply relatable to a large populace; in Sonchiriya director Abhishek Chaubey’s words: “there was something very desi about him, perhaps because of his heritage as he did not come from Bandra and Juhu”. His physical mannerisms and the way he spoke English, two big markers of class in India, were “regular”, even though he was significantly more intelligent than the average Bollywood bloke. Despite this regularity, he dared to dream and importantly follow it by repeatedly knocking on heaven’s door. This close he was to the fruition of relatable aspiration, that it has been difficult to see it all crash.
Another related source of collective anger and guilt seems to emerge from how we treat “misfits” in our society. We are so busy fitting everyone in the same box that perhaps subconsciously, we isolate people who are unique, and potentially vulnerable. In relation to Bollywood, Abhishek Kapoor, who directed Sushant twice, has lamented how Sushant was not allowed to be his own person. The current ecosystem, he explains, does not provide space for exercising individuality. Sushant was different – a star gazing, Einstein quoting, method actor from Patna emerging from TV serials, who wanted to make it big in the mainstream, but the message was sent: “You’ve got to be like us or you can’t stick around.” Research has shown that people who feel socially excluded or bullied are more likely to either harm others or harm themselves. These factors have created a deep-seated anger and guilt of not being able to save a maverick, a true artist.
Fourth and perhaps the most discussed is how Sushant’s death has reignited the nepotism debate. This episode is lingering on in people’s minds because it is now being associated with the growing undercurrent of resentment against the privileged in our society. With a growing divide between the rich and the poor, there is a frustration against people who either “get it easy” or “don’t face consequences”. Such anger, of course, increases when the common man faces constant roadblocks in his/her own growth. This angst was seen in politics when Narendra Modi invoked “naamdaar” versus “kaamdaar” to differentiate himself from Rahul Gandhi; in business when Vijay Mallya seemed to have escaped after alleged money laundering, and in entertainment, with “outsiders” like Kangana Ranaut and now Sushant Singh becoming the face of a struggle for dignity from “insiders”. Nepotism is not new, but such a reaction against it has not been seen before. This debate again feeds into the public’s anger towards Sushant being potentially rejected and isolated.
While it is not possible to fact-check all these narratives, the explanation for the uproar after Rajput’s death goes beyond the standard parasocial theory. It has caught fire because of several unanswered questions. Personal reasons for his deteriorating mental health will remain unknown, but unravelling these narratives provides insights into people’s reaction to his sudden demise. This quote from an interview he gave in 2015 provides a glimpse into the mind of a “fragile artist”, “everybody is in a hurry to decode you in a certain way, and then they expect you to adhere to their definition. How can they possibly do that when you yourself are finding it hard to discover yourself?”
Nishtha Lamba is a mental health researcher, currently a senior lecturer at Middlesex University, and holds a PhD in Psychology from University of Cambridge.