Hashtags, Abuse, Threats: Are We Even Ready To Evolve?
Sushant Singh Rajput's demise showed us the ugly side of the media and social media.
"The best way to maintain your sanity is to stay away from social media," Anurag Kashyap said in a recent interview. What transpired in the wake of Sushant Singh Rajput's death is a slur of accusations on social media, countless conspiracy theories, a formation of unhealthy divides, rape threats being hurled at daughters of Bollywood stars and endless hashtags baying for blood.
This mud-slinging and the fear of expressing one's opinions took me back to somewhat gentler times when thought went into forming opinions, there was enough room for discussions and making a point did not mean being screamed at or put down.
What should have ideally happened in the past one-and-a-half months is an assessment of mental health, the role of media, responsibility of platforms such as Twitter and Instagram in creating a safer space, and cyberbullying. Instead what we witnessed was a complete circus, with everyone trying to conjure narratives that further their ulterior motives.
Let us take a step back and look at all that has gone wrong:
On Nepotism and the Insider-Outsider Debate
There was a time when nepotism, struggle and privileges in the industry were addressed with a lot more nuance and sensitivity. There was dignity in diction and acknowledgement of the struggle that every celebrity has or is going through. Amidst all the social media cacophony that we are experiencing, old interviews of celebrities resurfaced.
On one hand some people tried to become the voices of reason. On the other hand, troll armies did nothing but unleash hatred on actors and filmmakers trying to change perspectives.
One such clip was part of a series scripted by Film Companion. Titled 'Meeting Ground', one of the episodes featured Kangana Ranaut and the late Irrfan Khan. The duo can be seen engaging in a healthy discussion about each other’s body of work, appreciating the change in audience’s perspective and also weighing in on outsider versus insider.
When asked by Kangana about what it feels like to be an outsider, Irrfan replied, “As outsiders, there’s an additional cross that we carry - that we don’t want to follow a formula. The way a story is told I want to redefine that.” The duo agreed that no two people are the same and it’s the conviction with which one undertakes their journey that ultimately pays off. They also spoke on what they would like to change about Bollywood.
In another video, we see Kangana being very articulate about nepotism the film industry. Calling it the ‘quota’ system, Kangana says that she does not mind the privilege of star kids because she too has a substantial amount of it back home with her mom being a teacher, dad a businessman, grandfather an IAS officer etc.
Since Sushant's demise, Kangana has taken upon herself to provide 'justice' for the late actor, making tall claims about what he had been going through and who all pushed Sushant to take this extreme step. The irony is that, in a recent interaction with a publication, Kangana said she didn't even know him personally.
It is disheartening to see the same actor who spoke volumes about the ills of social media taking recourse to the same ‘ugly’ system to berate actors, trash filmmakers and their efforts and conjure conspiracy theories around a tragic death of a bright talent to push her own agenda. Added to that are her so-called ‘fans’ hovering on virtual platforms to launch full-blown attacks on celebs who refuse to be on the same page with Kangana.
Dissecting and gossiping about a public figure’s personal life is not a new phenomenon, it has existed for decades. Not too long back, Priyanka Chopra was a favourite topic of discussion - her alleged affair with Shah Rukh Khan, fallout with Karan Johar, not belonging to any ‘camps’ and so on. In an interview with NDTV some years back, The Sky is Pink Star opened up as to whether these things do affect her at all.
“From the time I came to the Bollywood industry, I wasn’t part of any camp not because I didn’t choose it but because I didn’t have a choice. I didn’t have friends. I just did the work I got. I have never asked for work and never needed to. Whatever little opportunity I get, I will give my life to it. Coming from a small town in Bareilly to where I am now, anyone can do it".Priyanka Chopra, Actor
Do these examples mean that problems didn’t exist? Of course they do. But do you ever remember an actor getting off social media (whatever little there was) because of incessant trolling or even worry about their family’s safety? Today, actors are forced to.
Sonam Kapoor’s very recent albeit problematic remark on ‘privilege and karma’ resulted in such extreme online bullying (mind you, not criticism) that she decided to disable her comments section on Instagram and pen a long post calling out the harassment. Not just Sonam, Alia Bhatt, Sushant Rajput’s girlfriend Rhea Chakraborty, Ankita Lokhande, Swastika Mukherjee, Karan Johar - from openly sending the women rape threats to wishing death upon all of them and even their families, most celebs have been targeted.
Also, did hashtags to boycott a news channel start trending the minute a person from within the film industry dared raise uncomfortable questions or shatter the illusion about ‘perfect’ outsiders? After Anurag Kashyap gave an unfiltered opinion on national television, a barrage of expletives were thrown at him on Twitter and #BoycottNDTV went viral within a few hours.
Role of Media
Another aspect that has come under the scanner is the urgent need for responsible coverage by the media. That this institution also acts as a catalyst for nepotism has always been a concern.
In an interview with Sidharth Malhotra and Manoj Bajpayee. the latter said, “The struggle of outsiders will always be there. However, I have another problem. Media is making a star of a two-year-old child. It’s not the insiders who are making the breakthrough tough for outsiders but media is pouring water over their hopes. The media is not just stalking a child but also making other children who don’t belong to the fraternity feel they are inferior. It’s time we think back and introspect”.
Recently, filmmaker Apurva Asrani referred to an old article on Sushant, wherein his tweets were made fun of for a few laughs.
Cut to 2020. What did this introspection result in? It led to a certain section of the media not just ‘stalking’ celebs but also religiously following their WhatsApp DPs. Taapsee Pannu and Anurag Kashyap echoed Bajpayee's thoughts a few days ago with respect to the buzz.
If the coverage regarding Sridevi’s death made you cringe, the headlines surrounding Sushant’s death must have left you speechless.
Of course, there are the ever-ready social media crusaders and a section of the Bollywood industry itself, digging out frivolous, old video clips to justify nasty narratives circulating as forwards and tweets.
Even Sushant’s last film, Dil Bechara, wasn't allowed to release in sobriety. A day before its premiere, author Chetan Bhagat took to Twitter to ‘warn’ film reviewers to 'please keep quiet.' In other words, to shy away from speaking their minds, which is ideally the greatest send-off an artist aspires for.
Was there a modicum of effort to pay heed to those pointing out the flaws of the systems? The sad sighs speak volumes.
If there is a far greater tragedy than the one we are all trying to grapple with, it’s that the most important discussion on mental health took a complete backseat. It takes a lot of courage to face your inner demons and speak about it, hoping to take baby steps and remove the stigma around depression, suicide and other mental health disorders. Deepika Padukone braved her reserve to open up about her battles and is actively striving for a more empathetic society.
“Mental illness happened to me when I had least expected it. I was at a professional high, my movies were doing great and I was in an amazing relationship. Everything was going just perfect. One morning when I woke up and I felt all was well, I fainted”.Deepika Padukone at a forum in Davos
That should have been a wake-up call to not equate fame and success with happiness. But once again we chose to gleefully ignore a measured and thoughtful discussion and instead partake in a mudbath. From being termed a bipolar to citing his old tweets apparently ‘begging’ people to watch his films and making a baseless reference to Sushant speaking about ‘actors’ mental health’ in an interview - a mockery was made of something that already carries with it a tag of shame.
What has all of this taught us? That we have not just normalised bullying and sensationalism but glorified it too.
Gone are those days when opinions didn't have to compete for 'popular' and 'unpopular' positions. Calling for a tangible change does not come with all of us being busy defending inner prejudices on social media, it comes with constructive criticism and setting aside ego battles.
Some may ask: Are we romanticising the past? Not at all. But did lessons of the bygone days serve as a reminder that we need to evolve? Has easy access to internet and the social media enabled us to redeem past mistakes? The aforementioned discussion points to a grim reality.
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