It’s been over a month since the unfortunate suicide of Sushant Singh Rajput. His death affected me. I knew him and had worked with him. What I did not expect was his death hitting millions of Indians so hard. His demise refuses to leave public imagination.
Social media outpourings on him continue. People seem personally affected by his loss. There is no clear reason yet as to why Sushant took the extreme step. But conspiracy theories are rife. The most enduring one involves some sort of a systemic rejection of the actor by established and traditional Bollywood in favour of nepotism.
Perhaps unfairly, many established stars from film families are being brutally abused and trolled. Some of these stars have had to deactivate their social media accounts, go silent or disable comments. People’s social media posts and videos on Sushant have sadness, anger and frustration, all at the same time. For someone who had a relatively short film career, why did his death create so much reaction?
This is because Sushant’s suicide could represent something larger — the death of Indian aspiration. Sushant was an outsider who moved up the ranks the hardest possible way. First, the Patna boy studied for engineering like all good middle-class boys are expected to do. From engineering college, he went to acting school and did theatre. He became a background dancer. He did TV serials and dance reality shows. Finally, he got a break in a small Hindi movie based on the Gujarat riots. That movie became a hit and Sushant eventually had a film career.
It normally doesn’t happen that way in India. Star kids get big breaks in big launch movies. Sushant was different. His rise in the last decade represented the new aspirational India. Unlike the old India based on connections, this was an India based on talent and hard work. This India said a star can come from anywhere. It was an India full of opportunity for those willing to work for it. This was a new paradigm in a country with a feudal culture, where the rich, powerful and the elite hoarded most opportunities. The two decades of fast economic growth (1990s-2010s) changed all this. Indian per-capita incomes grew a staggering five times in this period. The youth began to dream big. Sushant, Dhoni, Virat, the Bansals (of Flipkart fame) — all first-generation mega success stories came about in this period. The youth not only had career success, they also came on the streets and toppled governments. The Indian youth and their dreams were simply unstoppable.
And then, something changed. Look around today. A lot of that optimism is gone. Corona has a part to play in it, but even before, we had the slowest economy in a decade. Unemployment was at a multi-decade high. The youth no longer dreams big. It, like Indian youth of the past, seeks security. Government jobs are most in demand again. Foreign investors are no longer excited about India, they worry for it. Rating agencies no longer upgrade India, they downgrade it. Sector after sector is in distress. Like India of the past, conglomerates close to the government are doing well. Even the start-up scene isn’t the same.
And in all this gloom, almost as a metaphor, even a mega-success story like Sushant couldn’t survive. It shook millions of Indian youth to the core. In an already pessimistic environment, it raised uncomfortable questions. Is there no place for a self-made Indian? Is your Indian dream, if you don’t come with connections, ultimately doomed? Will the rich and powerful always crush the talented Indian? This is why Sushant’s death resonated and created enormous reaction. The bigger question is, are some of the apprehensions true? Is Indian aspiration dead? Most importantly, how do we bring it back?
It is important to understand why we ended up this way. As India became richer and more powerful, we became drunk and giddy on our success. Some of our worst traits came out. We still had a long way to go before becoming a developed country. However, we shifted our priorities. Economic growth, opportunity and aspiration were no longer important. Hindu-Muslim, India-Pakistan and some sort of a chest-beating ‘we have arrived’ nationalism took centerstage. After all, our per capita income grew from $300 in 1990 to $2,000. We had reason to feel this pride. However, the developed world is at $60,000. Even China is at $10,000. Compared to these numbers, $2,000 is still small. We have a long way to go. We need to focus on economy above anything else. We need to stop endless debates on issues that have never served India. Indians have both positive and negative traits at the same time. We need to curb our worst traits and bring out our best for the next few decades.
We unfortunately lost Sushant. Let us make sure the Indian youth doesn’t lose something else — its aspirations and hope.