The news on our screens is utterly broken, but what about us? India in 2020 is a country in pain — millions have lost their jobs and livelihoods in these last five months; the economic crisis has shrunk not just salaries, but the horizons of the once-aspiring Indian; the pandemic has claimed thousands of lives; and the virus rages on, a daily ticker of our mortality.
Is it to turn away from this distress that many of us watch rapt, with fury and without mercy, the spectacle of television warriors hunting in a pack for “answers” to the death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput? A sense of vicarious victimhood has certainly licensed the single-minded hounding of actor Rhea Chakraborty, now anointed Public Enemy No.1 — though Sushant, by many accounts, did not see himself as a victim nor his girlfriend as an enemy.
This is not the first (nor will it be the last) media trial to run on the fuel of salaciousness, sexism and conspiracy theories. But the breakdown of reason and propriety, the glut of rage that only finds a release in the logic of retribution, tells us something about our emotional health. It suggests that we assent to an infantilisation of our minds in return for the drug of denial, the avoidance of hard questions. Every few days, the 24×7 coverage of the suicide has thrown up a new enemy that seems to recognise our old wounds — the “nepotism” of Hindi film industry’s elite, the unfairness of a world in which Sushant’s idealism could not survive, before finally settling on the girlfriend, that original troublemaker in the Indian family’s paradise. It is a narrative with uncanny parallels to contemporary Indian politics, which has allowed the BJP and RSS to harvest a million resentments against ancien regimes and dead Muslim invaders to win power on the promise of a new age.
It is human to respond to injustice with anger, but why is rage, abuse and a visceral rejection of another point of view now a reflex reaction for most of us? What does this surfeit of televised anger feed on? Where does it lead us? By whetting our appetite for vengeance (in the name of justice), where does it leave our morality?
Some answers might lie in the career of Kangana Ranaut. A fresh-faced actor from a small town in Himachal Pradesh, Kangana faced her share of cruel public mockery for her accent, her dress and choices in her early years in Bollywood. She transformed into a woman who played by her own rules, who gave it back to the cosy club on their own sleek couch. Those who dismiss her as an “uneducated starlet” do not realise that Kangana’s street cred comes from an insider’s knowledge of the grubby secrets of tinsel town, as well as a personal sense of injury — shared by millions of others given the many inequalities in India — that she has amplified through social media.
But righteous rage, without being leavened by empathy or humility, does not bring forth new tomorrows. It replicates old hierarchies in the name of a revolution. It replaces old victims with new. The revolution that the ruling BJP has choreographed continues to weaponise differences and disenchantments. In the name of dislodging the elite, it has birthed an unprecedented attack on civil liberties, students and intellectuals, some of whom have been languishing without trial in jail for two years.
Kangana has used Sushant’s death to wage a nasty, scorched-earth, innuendo-rich battle from TV pulpits that ended up in a vicious witch-hunt of Chakraborty. Can she not see in this shameful spectacle an echo from her past? In 2016, another young actor’s family had accused his ex of black magic, feeding him menstrual blood and of being a closet pisachin. The victim of that tabloid inquisition? Kangana.
But it isn’t just the connections between the two actors, both outsiders in an extremely competitive industry, both easily devalued by a value system historically suspicious of women performers, that we are missing. The playbook of news channels and organised algorithms, working in tandem, has pushed us towards a more profound denial of our basic emotional realities.
It has peddled the myth of the Indian family as a place of unquestioned rectitude, whose prime products (the sons) must be defended against the scheming girlfriend — much as it places a democratic government beyond questions by defending it against the bogey of “anti-nationals”.
By accepting such a crude reality, we reject what we know in our bones — that the family is a place of contest, power-play as well as love; that the state’s unchecked power swallows up our freedoms. That young men can grow up to resent their families, that lovers offer each other a shelter from their parents’ incomprehension; that Indian families find it hard to accept that their boys can grow up to be vulnerable men. It delegitimises the experience of generations of young men and women, who, like Sushant, Kangana and Rhea, have stepped out of conventions to make a life that bears a stamp of their own individual journeys and desires. It allows the family — an institution that is rarely called to reform its casteism and patriarchal impulses — to slam the door on difficult, befuddling conversations on mental health, which ails the young in India in epidemic proportions. It is this fundamental denial of our complex emotional lives and the crumbling economic reality that traps us in inarticulate rage, that forecloses all avenues of resolution.
A society that lives in denial of its trauma and anger will turn on itself, as we have turned on Rhea Chakraborty and her family with the ferocity of an unhinged mob. Whether or not she is guilty of something more grievous than possession of a few grams of marijuana is for an investigation to find out, but the demonisation of even her most humane responses — why did she say sorry to Sushant’s body? why was she taking him to psychiatrists? — is the sign of a collective moral failure.
Both profit-hungry algorithms and totalitarian ideologies benefit from such a failure of moral imagination, that primes us daily into a murderous rage, that keeps us in permanent need of our daily fix of televised vengeance, that fashions us into a mob in search of an enemy — and holds us in thrall of flawed heroes and false gods.
This article first appeared in the print edition on September 11 under the title “Don’t look back in anger.” firstname.lastname@example.org.