(If you feel suicidal or know someone in distress, please reach out to them with kindness and call these numbers of local emergency services, helplines, and mental health NGOs)
Pallavi Dey, Bidisha De Majumder, Manjusha Niyogi, Saraswati Das. In a span of two weeks, Kolkata has seen as many as four model-turned-actors meeting unnatural deaths. All four were found hanging, even amid allegations of 'murder' in at least one of the cases.
The spate of alleged suicides has obviously shocked the Bengali film and TV industry but what has specifically gone wrong? As The Quint went around, speaking to actors of different generations, the darkness lurking underneath the glitz and glamour again came up.
'Success Will Take Time'
Indrani Haldar is an industry veteran of many award-winning films and serials. She was the face of Shrimoyee, the Bengali serial the immensely-popular Hindi Anupama takes from, and took it on a chart-beating spree. She has had her bad days, though. Haldar was once a very popular face of Bengali cinema and then, suddenly, she started to lose jobs on the large screen. It was the small screen which kept her going and then even that stopped at a point. Her twin victory towers of Goenda Ginni and Shrimoyee are very recent when compared to her overall career. Haldar thinks budding actors are often in a 'hurry' and the breakneck competition is taking them down dangerous paths.
The actor goes on to say: "We could get over tough times because we had grown up as a part of the industry. Thing is, success will take time here. It's not an Insta reel that would be ready in an instant and would get you millions of subscribers at a click. Newcomers have to be guided in that way."
Dr Debanjan Banerjee, consultant neuropsychiatrist, Apollo Hospitals, Kolkata, agrees with Haldar. "When it comes to showbiz, what visual media usually show is the glamour, the glitz. No one shows the making of a star. While stress is there at every profession, the glamour of the entertainment industry is a little too tempting. Young actors who come in face a discord between expectation and reality as they expect to see success and glamour almost overnight, but that never happens."
A worrying Haldar points out how the industry was always one of struggles. Why suddenly this string of suicides, then? Haldar remembers she had once cried to the legendary actor Soumitra Chatterjee about not getting enough work. "Soumitra Uncle told me, 'It doesn’t matter. An actor must always be ready.' We had such great men to guide us…"
'Building a Support System'
Actors like Haldar were lucky to have great mentors. But are senior actors playing the same role for newcomers? Many seniors in the industry say newcomers don't always pay enough heed to them. What do new-gen actors say?
Chandni Saha, a popular face of Bengali TV, says, "The effort has to come from both sides, it is true. If juniors show interest, seniors will help. But no one trusts their colleagues now, especially in showbiz."
But whether you get it from the industry or not, you need to build a strong support system around you, she says: "You need at least one person in your family, or among your friends who would know everything about you. Who would not judge you ever. When people start hiding everything, the darkness starts piling up inside and you never know what happens next.”
Known in the industry to be one of Chandni’s close friends, actor Anuradha Mukherjee has worked in quite a few projects in both Kolkata and Mumbai. Anuradha points out lack of work shouldn’t be the reason of death for the four girls. All of them were working, earning money, not sitting at home. She harps on the importance of a strong support system especially given the fact that most newcomer actors stay away from their families. They either come from smaller towns to Kolkata or even if their families stay in Kolkata, they have to fend for themselves.
"Society, conservative as it is, is always a little suspicious of our profession, especially in the case of girls. Body image issues, being separate from the family, a constant competition and a fear of losing out make the fight very difficult for every actor, not only here, but all across the world. There is no empathy in the entire system."Anuradha Mukherjee, Actor
The Social Media Angle
Established actors like Chandni as well as struggling newcomers like Pritam Ganguly bring out another aspect of getting work at the industry. Social media. While social media is now a source of income for many trying to make their mark in the film industry, it is also drying up the age-old system of getting a work in the industry, they say. There is no talent agency working in the Bengali entertainment industry. It's mostly visiting producer's offices, dropping your photos and waiting for the call for an audition. However, now, actors allege that many producers and casting directors are looking for social media ‘scores’ of the candidate.
"It is being said that you need to have a certain amount of following on Instagram to get work here. You can’t just have acting or for that matter a presentable face. If reels become your source of a chance, things are bound to get complicated," says Chandni.
This leads on to a breakneck competition. "I can see how everyone else is advancing in their careers, thanks to social media. As a struggling actor, I feel a fear of losing out, an urge of being ‘there’ always, at every party, at every event. Instagram faces are always happy. We never get to see the murky waters underneath," Pritam points out.
A Necessary ‘Plan B’
Anuradha herself had left Kolkata at an early age and took a leap of faith to go and stay in Mumbai, trying to establish herself there. She has an advice for new actors.
"Anyone coming into the industry should get some basic education under their belt. Not only does it help one to take a mature decision but also opens up a ‘Plan B’. If you don’t come from a rich household, you must have a Plan B. You can work as a director’s assistant, write, or even produce your own content."
'Your Craft Is Your Only Go-To'
Whether it be the pressure of society itself, social media, or the demands of casting couch, as some actors like Rai Debalina De alleges, struggling actors are trying to find refuge in their own craft.
"There have been so many nights where I would almost have wept, but I have a brilliant fan base and a great support system," says Anshu Bach, who had a very successful career as a child actor but hasn’t had it easy as he tried to establish himself as an adult lead.
"I have had to fight my own self, my image from the childhood acting days. But not everything is in my hands. I can only work and keep on upgrading my skills as an artist. Whether it gets distributed or marketed enough, is not in my control. People don’t get to see my work. But that doesn’t take away my belief in my craft. I am a believer."
Pritam agrees with Anshu, but you need money to keep the dreams alive as well, he says.
The Most Ignored Aspect: Mental Health
Dr Debanjan Banerjee points out how the deaths are similar and almost follow a pattern. "All the model-actors are in their early 20s, at the beginning of their career. There is some estrangement in the family. Another huge similarity is the expectation-reality mismatch. While it is shocking, technically such a string of suicides is actually well-known. It’s called the Domino effect."
"Such is the effect that the third death reportedly followed that of her friend. She kept on saying she would follow her friend to the same end. When someone dies by suicide and the news is spread in the media, especially on visual medium, where even photographs are shown, it acts as a social model for those who are contemplating a suicide. They almost think it is an act of bravado, especially if the people are of same profile.”
But is there a particular reason of this happening among actors? Dr Banerjee speaks of a hypothesis and points out that the cumulative stress among actors is "much more than in any other profession."
As already pointed out, we never get to see the struggles an actor has gone through. "So, often when a naive newbie comes into the industry, they think within a week, they might be successful. Plus there is financial crisis, different 'demands' of favour, a cultural ecology to which one has to adjust. The lines between personal and professional often gets blurred for people in showbiz and in the case of aspiring actors, there is a constant social expectation imposed on a person that acts as a constant burden. At one point of time, it just snaps."
Media often say there must be some underlying mental illness or even depression. However, Dr Banerjee says that a person doesn’t need to have depression to think of suicide. There might be different social and cultural reasons. Sometimes people might even try something impulsively. "They might not have actually wanted to die," he says.
The Role of Media
Media has a huge role to play when it comes to reporting suicides, the mental health expert opines. Rather than sensationalising, we need to highlight how to prevent suicides.
"We need to highlight suicide prevention helplines like ‘Kiran’ (1800-599-0019) of the Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities (DEPwD) or that of the Indian Psychiatric Society (1800-532-0807) which is open 7 days a week, 8pm-2am."
There are clear international guidelines for suicide reporting. But research shows that very few media forums go by this.
"There are things like the Werther Effect and the Papageno Effect," Dr Banerjee says. In the first, a person might attempt to take their life, ‘inspired’ by reportage in the media. In the latter, a person might even come back from a path of suicide if media show instances where a person is saved from suicide.
"There should be a dialogue between media professionals and mental health professionals. Some terms like ‘sin’, showing the victims' photos, that is sensationalisation. We need to be sensitive and not assume anything like personal issues or that of drug abuse."
"There is so much of stigma around mental health still. Media has more power to save people, much more than us mental health professionals."Dr Debanjan Banerjee, consultant neuropsychiatrist, Apollo Hospitals, Kolkata
The Way Out
There are three things that need to be kept in mind, Dr Banerjee says. One is a healthy family bonding, another is taking necessary steps like not letting the person be near sharp objects, medicines or letting them shut the door of their room if they show symptoms like being aloof, not speaking much, loss of appetite, loss of sleep.
"Thirdly, seek help."