Before this circus around Sushant Singh Rajput’s death began and everything pointed to an open and shut case of suicide, there were many rueful opinions on his wasted talent. Here was a good-looking, almost engineer who made a mark in the famously insular world of Bollywood. If he had decided his life wasn’t worth living, what hope was there for us, far less accomplished mortals? People, especially those who’ve never been in the throes of passionate disillusion tend to disbelieve trauma in the absence of gruesome tragedy; which is rather like being shocked that the world should condescend to suffer from Covid-19 because of so insignificant a creature as the microscopic coronavirus. However, life is not a balance sheet where assets and debits may be squared off, magically providing the grist to live.
Misery is usually invisible. The functioning depressives deal with inner turmoil through their work like the artist Edvard Munch. In 1892 Munch painted Despair, a moody canvas of vivid red skies and swirls of blue, of a solitary figure looking out at sea. It’s upto the spectator to work out the dual symbolisms of melancholia and contemplation. Others like Anthony Bourdain stuck to a rigorous work schedule in the months leading up to his suicide. According to http://www.statista.com over 1,30,000 Indians have died by suicide every year since 2010. (Of course, anyone watching India’s news channels may be forgiven for believing only one person has died recently.) Point being no one really knows what’s going on in anybody’s head. People most certainly don’t have to be acting like unhinged lunatics to be nursing sweet dreams of death.
If there’s anything the last few weeks have revealed, other than the cringe-inducing banality of India’s TV news media, it’s how little we understand existential dread. For outsiders, cities can be desperately alienating. SSR’s death (self-inflicted or not) provides a glimpse into the social forces that drive isolation. This is a generation hooked on social media and engulfed by FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out). But an Instagram filter masks a complicated lie; and makes it seem everyone else is absolutely ecstatic! Indeed, Saturday night with friends is a welcome diversion but it doesn’t protect anyone from the void for long. No one is leading a fantasy life, least of all those consumed with living up to the pressures of mainstream culture and middle-class convention.
It doesn’t help that our mythologies conclude with the triumph of good over evil and our movies with happily-ever-afters. I can’t think of a single Hindi film besides 3 Idiots that references urban suicide in a meaningful way because every producer knows it’s bound to be a resounding flop. Psychological ambiguity is an affront to Indian values. The messaging is anyone straying from the (only) path to a good life — studying hard, finding professional success and creating a family — is doomed to failure. But beneath all this smug certainty, people are struggling hard with conformity. So for some, it’s shattering to discover (after valiantly achieving bourgeois perfection) that they’re too emotionally complex to survive this straitjacketed existence. A suicide becomes a final reclamation of selfhood, after a sad and short life of stressful striving.
No doubt though, happiness remains a maddening challenge even for those with sound mental health. There’s no magic pill to repair relationships or eliminate worries about EMIs. We discover too late that the redemption narrative of karma so confidently espoused by our virtuous ancestors rarely comes to our rescue. Which is why we do the young a grave disservice by not emphasising enough that loneliness is a fundamental part of the human experience. It would make it easier to accept that sometimes plans, personal and professional, must change. The chances of calamities may exist every moment but so does the possibility of new and unforeseen joys.
The writer is director, Hutkay Films. Her column appears every fortnight