Star Deaths: Abnormal Journalism Is the New Normal

Khalid Mohamed pens his thoughts on covering mysterious celebrity deaths and star suicides then and right now.

6 min read
Divya Bharti, Sridevi and Sushant Singh Rajput.
  • A reporter barges into a home to ask a surprised man, dressed just in his shorts, for his reaction to the drug peddling links alleged in the Sushant Singh Rajput case. The intruder is answered with four-letter words.
  • Media reporters and the paparazzi prevent food delivery outside the home of the “prime suspect” Rhea Chakraborty.
  • Most evenings on prime time, Arnab Goswami of Republic TV levels charges at high-pitch. TRPS for the channel shoot up sky-high.
  • Kangana Ranaut speaks on relentlessly about miscellaneous film industry issues – nepotism and more -- linking them to the tragic death of the 34-year-old actor.
  • Rhea Chakraborty shows up to defend herself in a talkathon with Rajdeep Sardesai of India Today and other anchors.
  • A billboard in the U.S. claims victory has been achieved with the CBI conducting the investigation. It is removed by the company in charge of the billboard. No one has been proven guilty…not yet.
  • WhatsApp messages endlessly pass knee-jerk verdicts.
  • It’s all political: a tussle between the Centre and Maharashtra, it is conjectured, revolving around the upcoming Bihar elections.
  • Two films are already announced, one of them named Murder or Suicide. The actor’s father has given no permission for a film or a book. But with a disclaimer, imagined theories do get through, can’t they?
  • Close friends and acquaintances call up dutifully every pandemic evening, “What’s the update?”
  • Rhea Chakraborty’s harassment is regretted by a few actors, the most prominent ones being Vidya Balan and Taapsee Pannu.
  • Journalism is dead, point out hundreds of voices. Yet every tidbit is monitored.
  • The official decree is for the press to exercise restraint.

Switch off, this Old Schoolwala Journo suggests. Stay home, let it be, allow the CBI, the police to continue with the investigation, believe in the due process of law and fair justice.

Media-trials have been common since ages though. Still, it has to be asked, does anyone – occupying a seat of power – have a right to pass judgement, or sort out the conspiracy theories, without so much as a shadow of doubt, from the digital and print towers?

How did you and your peers report on sensational suicides, slayings and mysterious deaths back in time? I’m asked. To be honest, not always within the compulsory code of ethics. Must-words like alleged, reportedly and suspected would be insisted upon only by a few disciplinarian News Editors presiding over the subbing desk.

At the same time, screaming headlines, however, were nerve-jangling, especially from the spicy magazines and tabloids. It’s no secret that Rusi Karanjia of Blitz had, let’s say, influenced the jury’s verdict in the case of Commander KM Nanavati charged with the murder of his wife’s paramour, Prem Ahuja, back in the 1959. After Nanavati was pardoned, the jury system was gradually abolished.

Blitz headline on the Nanavati case.
Blitz headline on the Nanavati case.
(Photo Courtesy: Pinterest)

That was before my time. I was around, though, circa October 1990 when Rekha was witch-hunted after her husband, Mukesh Aggarwal had committed suicide by hanging himself with her dupatta. Was it hers? We’ll never know. A Cine Blitz hoarding shouted out loud that the suicide was prompted because Aggarwal had discovered an “unholy relationship” between his wife and secretary Farzana Khan. Rekha’s face was tarred on the posters of her film Sheshnaag.

In the swirl of unqualified accusations, Rekha maintained a silence. My request for an interview for The Times of India was politely refused. Since the newspaper’s circulation and influence, then, was immense, she opted to talk to a more trustworthy journalist of the media group. “I did not kill Mukesh,” she stated.

Meanwhile, there were revelations that Aggarwal was being treated by a psycho-analyst for chronic depression.

It was surmised that Rekha would never be accepted back in the Bollywood fold. Only Shashi Kapoor of her colleagues, had sent her a condolence letter.

Rekha with her late husband Mukesh Aggarwal.
Rekha with her late husband Mukesh Aggarwal.
(Photo Courtesy: Twitter)

The media brouhaha died a natural death. Despite the Aggarwal family’s allegations (yes, that word is essential), Mukesh’s death was concluded to be a suicide. And Rekha resumed her career, the magazines coveted her for covers and largely antiseptic interviews, including by myself for the TOI and subsequently Filmfare. The press needed her to sell their publications, and she needed the press to build an aura of mystique around her.


Of course, the Rekha-Mukesh Aggarwal case wouldn’t have reached a closure that smoothly in today’s welter of Twitter trolls, WhatsApp memes, multiple news channels and the swelling crowd of the paparazzi. This may amount to saying the obvious, but it has to be asserted that with the arch-competition for eyeballs and traction, journalism has become, to put it politely, insanely aggressive and desperate.

A senior reporter of a newspaper confided that if he didn’t file a story or two on the online edition, his job was at stake. Can’t come up with a fresh angle or even rehashed updates on the Sushant Singh Rajput, and so many journalists could join the ranks of the retrenched in the time of Covid-19. If a rival channel couldn’t snag the first studio conversation with Rhea Chakraborty, heads could roll.

Contracts of journalists are fragile, the strong trade unions who would fight for their rights are a relic of the past. If they are driven to desperate measures, there’s a reason – the need to survive. Yet this is no apology for the newspersons crashing into apartments or hounding Rhea Chakraborty. Neither is it an apology for Ms Chakraborty. It’s just a plaint, let’s remain steadfast in our ethics which at the risk of sounding stodgy, is the touchstone of journalism.

Divya Bharti’s death by “accidental death” at the age of 19 (April, 1993), was covered extensively. Again guesswork was attempted but was her husband, producer Sajid Nadiadwala, hounded and blamed. To a degree, yes, but hardly to the degree of a ‘devil hunt’.

Sajid Nadiadwala with the late Divya Bharti.
Sajid Nadiadwala with the late Divya Bharti.
(Photo Courtesy: Pinterest)

Earlier the wizardly director Manmohan Desai had leapt to his death (February, 1994) because he could no longer endure his extreme back pain. At the mortuary, no one showed up to thrust a pad and pencil before his son Ketan.

The Priya Rajvansh murder (March, 2000), was this even adequately covered? And the Jiah Khan suicide at the age of 25, didn’t spark a mega-furore, did it? Straight reports, no manic hysteria around the charges levelled against Suraj Pancholi by her mother Rabiya Khan.

Without a shred of doubt, it was never ever anarchical as this. Flashback for a moment to the death of Parveen Babi (January, 2005) who was found three days after passing away in her apartment in Juhu. Obituaries were low-key to the extent of being mere tokenism for the mentally-unstable actor.

Sridevi’s death by drowning (February, 2018) in a Dubai hotel suite incited bizarre reports, including a male reporter jumping into a bath-tub. Conspiracy theories abounded. Once the Sridevi was cremated in Mumbai, again the whispers came to a halt.
A news channel reporting on actor Sridevi’s death.
A news channel reporting on actor Sridevi’s death.
(Photo Courtesy: Twitter)

Strictly by comparison, the Old School was relatively staid, knowing how far to poke their noses into instances which require substantiated truth, sourced ideally from the investigating authorities.

The descent of journalism today has been intensified, hopefully, not to a point of no return. Posts on Facebook and online articles by veteran newspersons have condemned the everyday insinuations and campaigns on the Sushant Singh Rajput case. News was never meant to have an agenda. Report the facts, delete any hint of comment. That’s going, going, gone. And the New Normal, at least at this point, is Abnormal Journalism.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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