The recent suicide of Sushant Singh Rajput, a successful and young movie star, has stirred up the nation. After all, how could someone who seemingly had it all want to end it all? Social media, TV channels, WhatsApp forwards and articles are bursting with theories. The fact is, we don’t know what happened.
There probably are multiple factors. It is not wise to blame someone or make any speculations at all on a specific situation. Neither is it appropriate to blame anyone or judge the path a person chose to take. That is not the attempt of this piece at all. However, the incident has started a debate on the culture inside Bollywood and its impact on mental health issues. These issues can come up not just in Bollywood, but any hyper-competitive industry.
I have had a decade-plus experience working in this wonderful yet somewhat flawed industry. Here are some observations as well as tips on how to cope in any hyper-competitive environment:
There is no Bollywood CEO and everyone is scrambling to just survive. Many believe there is a Bollywood company and working in it is like working for Unilever. It’s not. There are just some powerful people with more clout, at a certain point in time. This comes from their ability to pull capital and talent to put a film project together. Track record builds clout. But clout is fickle — hits increase it, flops can make it vanish. It’s scary for everyone. To merely survive is to win.
It’s fundamentally an insecure profession — stars fade, directors lose touch, good looks don’t remain forever, audience tastes are fickle, plenty want to join and take your place.
To minimise insecurity, people form cliques or camps. Actors, directors and producers come together, to ensure some future work security. The so called ‘parties’ are usually a camp hanging out together. The insecurity is still there. It just feels a bit safer. It’s like earthworms clumping together in a ball to look stronger. People have done well while being in camps or outside them. To each their own.
If you are successful (deliver a hit), the industry will surround you with love and adulation at levels you can’t imagine. If you fail (have a flop), you will become untouchable.
The highs of success are so intense, people have compared them to hard drugs. However, the pain of a flop and the isolation that comes is intense too.
These wild swings of success and failure can take a huge toll on mental health. Apart from your innate work and talent, you need enormous amounts of mental strength. You don’t just need a six-pack body, you need a six-pack mind. If you are already ailing, or have a history of mental issues, it can become a dangerous cocktail.
As an individual, it comes down to how you perceive yourself. If you truly believe in yourself, you don’t need party invites or non-stop calls from certain sets of people. One should also realise that nobody gets perfect cards in life. Life is unfair — but it will be unfairly good to you sometimes, or unfairly bad. Same with Bollywood. One has to be happy with themselves and their journey, however spectacular or simple it was.
No matter how strong you are mentally, if you go all-in into the Bollywood pond, you are at massive risk. This also applies to all non-Bollywood workaholics working in hyper-competitive industries out there. Learn to diversify your life. You may love your work, but make sure you are not just about your work alone. Your health, family, hobbies, old friends may lack the glamour and beauty of Bollywood. However, they can be extremely comforting and create a lot more happiness in your life.
The best advice I ever got on how to navigate Bollywood came from the reticent A R Rahman, who I have had the honour of meeting once in my life. When I told him Bollywood was scaring me, he said “Bollywood is like a beautiful pond. However, it has crocodiles in it. Hence, it’s OK to stand in a corner and take a bath. Do not fully swim in it. One foot in, one foot out, always.”
He may have said it in passing, but I have treated the maestro’s advice as some sort of mantra in navigating the film industry. It isn’t easy. The glow and shine of Bollywood can be so intense, everything else can seem far less worthwhile. Precisely for mental health reasons, I decided to never to put my eggs in one basket, even if the basket was the shiniest. I do other things and I am thankful the crocodiles didn’t get to me. I’d encourage all others who are trying for hyper-competitive professions to be aware of the real mental health issues that come with it. Pay attention to them and diversify your life. No glamorous party or job success is above your inner happiness.