The problem plaguing India’s news media: the Sushant Singh Rajput case

Entrenched sensationalism in news media drives India’s culture of mob mentality and distracts from far more pressing issues

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At the time of writing, 19 August marked India’s highest daily fatality count from COVID-19, the nation recording 1,091 official fatalities with actual numbers likely to be far higher. Yet you would be forgiven for having no idea, such is the extent to which the death of a single man – Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput – has dominated headlines since the 34-year-old was found dead in his apartment more than two months ago. Regardless of the outcome of the recently-announced Central Bureau of Investigation’s probe into the death, the relentless media cycle accompanying the case is just the latest example of the sensationalism that underpins Indian media and public life, where perspective and balance are wilfully forgotten and mental health grossly misunderstood.

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Sushant Singh, the actor famous for starring in movies such as Chhichhore, Kedarnath and MS Dhoni: The Untold Story, was found dead in his apartment on June 14, with initial police investigations ruling the death a suicide. However, following a litany of complaints, probes and campaigns, including accusations from the actor’s family and social media speculation, the CBI will now investigate the case further, in an attempt to shed light on the circumstances which drove the Bollywood star to suicide.

The untimely death of a well-liked celebrity may be a hard pill to swallow, but it pales in the context of other injustices that plague India, including a pandemic that has brought the entire world to its knees and threatens to destroy millions of Indian lives. Reporting on these need not be mutually exclusive, but it is the media’s role to provide audiences with balance, rather than sensationalising tragedy for extended periods.

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The problem is that the latter is the modus operandi for the 24-hour news channels which dominate Indian airwaves, ubiquitously seeking to evoke the two most powerful emotions in viewers: fear and anger.

These emotions can be channelled for a good cause; but in the case of Sushant Singh, the fear and anger stoked by Indian news media has been completely misdirected. Instead of sparking more open and honest discussions regarding mental health, mainstream news channels have brought in society’s fringe-dwellers to opine on the case, focusing on baseless conspiracy theories and “expert” analysis with no substantiation. The curse of the 24-hour news cycle is that news quickly becomes old, so in the constant race to find a new angle, a different take, the conspiracies become wilder and further detached from reality.

It’s no surprise then, that the Indian media has invested heavily in the conspiracy theory that lies at the core of the CBI investigation – that Sushant Singh’s girlfriend, actor Rhea Chakraborty, was responsible for his death. It’s an angle that allows the nation to avoid messy discussions about mental health, distracts the public from the ongoing health crisis, and lends itself to endless speculation, rather than a “plain” suicide.

This is not the first time the media and celebrities have distracted its public from more pressing issues gripping the nation. It is difficult not to be sceptical given just two years ago, representatives from 27 leading media groups, along with actors and singers, were revealed in a sting operation to have accepted bribes for favourable reporting of BJP activities in the lead-up to the 2019 general election.

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The conspiracy also fits into a neat little Bollywood narrative – a hero cannot exist without a villain, and so the media and public have cast Chakraborty as the cruel, money-hungry temptress who drove her boyfriend to take his own life.

And this is where the mob mentality which grips Indian society kicks in; in a country where most are powerless, having a voice – even as part of a vast movement – means catharsis. Predictably but inexcusably, this mentality has driven countless rape and death threats against Chakraborty and her family members, even in the absence of any evidence which at this point implicates the 28-year-old actor in Sushant Singh’s death.

It’s clear that Chakraborty has fast become a nationwide scapegoat, a villain to which all problems can be attributed, even if subconsciously. For those sending rape and death threats, in a society entrenched with sexism, it helps that the “villain” here is a woman.

Inequality and injustice are rife in India. It is disappointing and revealing the extent to which the media is willing to provoke outrage against perceived injustice where it concerns a celebrity while ignoring issues that tear at the fabric of the nation.

Imagine if Indian media powerhouses applied the same degree of pressure and outrage to keep other issues in public discourse, such as the fact that over 200 million Indians suffer from mental disorders, most of which are untreated. Or the fact that marital rape is legal while same-sex marriage is not. Or that hundreds of thousands will likely perish from the COVID-19 pandemic, many of these deaths avoidable.

The Indian media could be the panacea, but it has chosen to be the problem.

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Ritam Mitra
Ritam Mitra
Ritam is an award-winning journalist and lawyer based in Sydney. Ritam writes on domestic and global politics, human rights and social justice, and sport.

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