27 October 2020 08:39 AM

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SHOMA A.CHATTERJI | 25 JULY, 2020

Celebrities and Suicide

No suicide notes


The suicide of the rising actor-star Sushant Singh Rajput has already raised so many questions that it makes us begin to feel that a young man’s choice to die has been turned into a media circus.

On the other hand, it also creates space for discussing what pushes young celebrities to choose death over life. This piece tries to probe into why celebrities who lead a high-profile life held in the constant light of public space and the media over the years suffer from depression and choose to die.

The best-known classification of suicide appeared in Emile Durkheim's Suicide, written in 1897. Born in eastern France in 1858, he was the first social scientist to subject specific phenomena of everyday life to close sociological study and to formulate a methodology. His classification is based on the disturbed relationship between society and the individual.

Durkheim divided suicide into three classes - egoistic, altruistic and anomic.

An egoistic suicide happens when abnormal individualism weakens society's control over the individual and reduces the person's immunity against 'collective suicidal inclination'. The individual loses concern for the community he belongs to.

An altruistic suicide results from an excessive sense of duty towards the community.

An anomic suicide occurs when the society fails to control and regulate the behaviour of individuals.

But can suicide be placed in water-tight compartments? Not really because it can easily be a combination of all three factors overlapping or having happened in different phases of the suicidal person’s psyche. After all, the mind of a human being is too complex to be boxed into classifications.

Showbiz is the field of glamour and stardom. People associated with this field are celebrities. Some of them become icons and some lose themselves within the ghosts of failure and fade-outs. There are more failure stories than successful ones and those who cannot cope with failure, give up on their lives.

The lack of psychological counselling within filmdom is one reason. The industry is so egoistic and spilling over with narcissism that it does not occur to anyone to sense that a colleague may be in danger of harming himself / herself.

Edwin Shneidman, co-founder of the Los Angeles Suicide Prevention Centre points out four common factors: the first is inimicality, hostility against oneself.

The second is perturbation, a state of extreme anxiety, with the feeling of being closed in, with no way out.

The third is constriction, with the suicide's perceptions narrowing into a tunnel vision where the mind focusses only on the one unendurable emotion.

The last is cessation, death as the only way out. Each of these suicides could be fitted into either of these descriptions, thus blurring beyond recognition, all attempts to identify and focus on specific causes.

Guru Dutt’s suicide in October 1964 from a lethal combination of sleeping pills and excessive liquor is still a subject of debate. His marriage to Geeta Dutt was on the rocks and there were three kids to take care of. His relationship with Waheeda Rehman had also reached breaking point. This was the last of several attempts. Towards the end, he was almost always in a state of depression. There was no suicide note so the family did not confirm it as a suicide.

Dutt was a successful and critically acclaimed filmmaker of his time and his films are archived in Indian cinema for all time. Then why did he take his life? He was a chronic insomniac and had taken to drinking towards the end of his life. How is it that it did not occur to any of his close friends or family to consult a psychiatrist or counsellor to take care of his problem?

Another success story that ended in tragedy was the sudden death of filmmaker Manmohan Desai in 1994. He is known for iconic films like Amar Akbar Antony, Coolie, Parvarish and Aa Gale Lag Jaa. His death created as much curiosity as his earlier films after he fell off the terrace of his residence. Details about the real nature of his death are shrouded in mystery. Some people speculated that Desai committed suicide as his later films had not been successful while others claimed that his chronic back pain had abetted his fall. Having lost his wife some time ago, Desai was engaged to be married to actress Nanda but this tragedy ended the relationship.

In 2016, Pratyusha Banerjee, 24, a popular television actress was found hanging by the neck in her residence in Mumbai recently. She is reported to have committed suicide. Two close friends refuse to believe that she killed herself because her career and love life were both going smoothly. She did not leave a suicide note.

Two high-profile suicides that remain a mystery are those of Divya Bharati who fell off the fifth floor of her building and Silk Smitha, the sex symbol of Southern films who reportedly died of an overdose of sleeping pills

In June 2013, Jiah Khan, the long-legged dusky beauty who came from London to make a career in films but failed in spite of good films with Amir Khan and Amitabh Bachchan, hung herself in her residence in Mumbai. Her mother revealed a six-page note where Jiah wrote about being harassed and mentally tortured. As all evidence pointed at her boyfriend, Suraj Pancholi who was booked on charge of abetment to suicide.

Later, forensic reports confirmed that the actress was drunk when she committed suicide and her boyfriend was released. No one knows what happened in reality.

Psychiatrist Dr. Sanjay Chugh says, “Suicide as an option would normally be considered when all doors seem closed and one feels trapped from all ends. It is a last resort for those who think that their lives have no meaning and purpose left to it. The individual feels a complete state of hopelessness, helplessness and worthlessness.”

Kuljeet Randhawa, a model-turned-actress who appeared in serials like Special Squad, Hip Hip Hurray and CATS hanged herself at her Juhu apartment on February 8, 2006. Her close friend Nafisa Joseph, a former beauty queen and a VJ was to marry businessman Gautam Khanduja. But the wedding was called off after she learnt that he was already married. She committed suicide.

One exception in these suicides is that according to world statistics, records show that more men than women commit suicide while more women than men attempt suicide. But these celebrity suicides in Indian film and television break this belief. More women than men in India commit suicide in this synthetic world. Why? Probably because women in the industry begin to break the moral codes of how a woman should behave at work, in private life and in relationships. This leads not only to gossip but also to the social stigma that tends to attach to the families they come from.

Many young women cannot cope with this social stigma, the sense of alienation from the family and the instability of their love relationships. Besides, it becomes impossible to accept failure and go back to the life she left behind. The film world is a one-way ticket. You can get in but it is impossible to get out.

Successful are cases like Sushmita Sen who broke down during a press conference soon after she was awarded the Miss Universe title and was flooded with film offers. She reportedly went into deep depression but came out of it.

Dipika Padukone has openly admitted going through long-term psychiatric counselling during phases of depression and nervous breakdown.

Priyanka Chopra’s ex-manager came out with the statement that Priyanka attempted suicide several times attributing the attempts mainly to her volatile life with her then-boy-friend.

Marylyn Monroe was found dead in her bed, all alone, on a morning, holding the receiver of the phone in one hand. Did she die of an overdose of sleeping pills as the media reported? Or, was she deliberately poisoned? Or, was the overdose an accident? Several fans of hers, both male and female, committed suicide following her sudden death and this raises one more question around suicide by celluloid celebrities. It leads to the death of hysteric fans who go overboard with the death of their dearest actor.

The same happened following Sushant Singh Rajput’s suicide as it led to several suicides among very young people across the country. One young boy in his suicide note wrote, “If he can do it, why can’t I?” Do what? Commit suicide like Sushant did? Or, try and build a promising career like their hero Sushant? The question remains hanging in the air.

More than failure in one’s vocation is the feeling of being left all alone in the big bad world of entertainment where relationships are as fragile as popularity, the glitz and the glamour of a star among his/her fans that drives a celebrity to suicide.

The two questions that remain unanswered leading to many more are – one, in most celebrity suicides, the person does not leave a suicide note behind and two, triggered by the first is – this sustains the debate on whether these deaths were suicides, accidents or murder.

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