Bollywood Tragedy Shines Spotlight on Male Depression
SB VEDA, CONTRIBUTING EDITOR
“Boys and men are told not only not to cry – but also that if they focus too much on their mental anguish, just like at a scab, the wounds will never heal.”
He was emblematic of young Bollywood, blazing a splendiferous trail through the Mumbai sky: young, talented, and bankable, Sushant Singh Rajput seemed riding the crest of a wave of self-made success. From TV to Bollywood films – and coupling commercial triumph with critical acclaim – the thirty-four-year-old heartthrob seemed to be living a dream. That the reality was a nightmare was tragically exposed when his lifeless body was found on June 14th swinging from a rope tied to a ceiling fan in his apartment.
The cause of death: asphyxiation due to hanging.
The shocking news made headlines both in South Asia and elsewhere. In his native India, the press, Bollywood film community, and his large fan base struggled to make sense of the tragedy, for the young star had left no note. And, while his father had told police that he was aware his son had felt “low” at times, he had not observed any signs of depression in his boy.
Police uncovered a very different story: prescriptions for various medications and packets of anti-depressants strewn in his bedroom; he had silently been suffering from a deep mental decline for at least half-year. It is alleged that he’d lost seven film deals over this time due resistance from the Bollywood establishment, some of whom had mocked his modest upbringing and history of acting in TV.
His personal life, too, was rocky. Though he had planned to marry his girlfriend, actress Rhea Chakravarti, later this year, there are reports that the relationship was rocky and the two may have even split prior to his death. The actress admitted to police that she was staying with Rajput at his flat during the Covid-19 lockdown but had left following a heated argument. Her number was the last call Rajput made from his cellphone. It went unanswered.
While Rajput’s story has garnered much press and social media attention, it has been a much-suppressed facxt that mental health issues have been a silent killer for South Asian men.
The issue was studied in 2010 by Time to Change, a British national campaign aimed at ending stigma and discrimination surrounding mental health.
It found that South Asians with mental health issues had very different experiences compared to members of other communities.
The report said mental health was rarely discussed because of the risk it posed to a family’s reputation and status. Men in particular were expected to just ‘move on with things,’ rather than dwell on their pain.
Indeed, Dr. Sanjay Sen, former head of the psychiatry department at a prominent Indian hospital, and now a senior consultant in Newcastle, UK, in speaking to this publication, concurs: “Boys and men are told not only not to cry – but also that if they focus too much on their mental anguish, just like at a scab, the wounds will never heal.”
He also says that South Asians have a greater sense of shame than other communities, and a culture of self-blame exists that borders on religious masochism.
“Many are taught that their pain is as a result of sins committed in past lives, and that the afflicted are thereby destined to suffer,” says Sen. This spiritual self-flagellation serves as a barrier to get help.
Machismo, too, figures prominently in the upbringing of the majority of South Asian males. With depression being equated to weakness by their rearing and social environment, South Asian men are often compelled to suffer in silence.
While wives can offer comfort to ailing spouses, it is not uncommon for a South Asian wife, having been brought up in a household in which the father figure never vocalized mental anguish to similarly see low mood in a husband as weakness.
“A wife is often conditioned to rely on her husband for strength,” says Neelam Munshi, a clinical psychologist in private practice in Kolkata. “And, not the other way around.”
“Indeed, Indian women often have to contend with overbearing in-laws, the pressures of child-rearing and tending to the home – as well as, these days, doing a job. It’s a lot to handle. The idea that they should have to play nursemaid to their crying husband can, under these conditions, actually be quite repulsive to them,” Munshi adds.
“At the same time, Indian mothers will dote over their male children, encourage them to cry on their shoulder – even offer their breast as comfort well after the normal breastfeeding period is over.”
For families, says Munshi, this is a double-edged sword: “Ironically, the ideal that a husband should be strong sometimes prevents battered women, too from seeking help.”
By consequence, married South Asian men, especially immigrants and those in arranged marriages, have nobody with whom they can give voice to their suffering.
As a result, alcoholism rates are rising in among South Asian men both in South Asia and in countries to which to which South Asians have immigrated. Traditional means of coping with alcoholism such as Alcoholics Anonymous are not culturally attuned or flexible enough to integrate South Asians who tend have cultural barriers in place that make it difficult for dogmatic approaches to treatment to take effect.
Historically, when South Asians lived in joint-families (those in which adult siblings and their families lived under one roof) South Asian men could commiserate with brothers, cousins – even go back to their childhood defence mechanism of talking to their mothers. With nuclear families being the norm even in South Asia as well as abroad, family ties no longer offer the substitute for therapy that has been the norm for generations.
Still, public awareness is slowly lifting the cone of silence.
Rajput is hardly the first South Asian origin celebrity to face mental health challenges. UK cricket star, Monty Panesar has publicly battled mental health issues, openly calling out the culture of shame and self-blame that is endemic in the South Asian community.
Panesar, who has suffered from paranoia and anxiety, is one of the few celebrities of South Asian origin outside of the region to openly speak out about his problems.
Speaking to the BBC, Panesar, who is now a mental health ambassador for the Professional Cricketers’ Association, said the sport was understanding of his circumstances.
That said, he had a very different appraisal of the South Asian Community.
“In our Asian community there was no understanding of what mental heath is…A lot of young Asians came forward [after I went public] and said, ‘we’re glad you opened up because it’s a huge taboo in our community’.”
Acceptance of the use of anti-depressants and alcoholism drugs is on the rise, and so South Asian men are opening up to their doctors more in the past. But talking about problems to a therapist is still frowned upon.
The one positive that seems to be coming out of Rajput’s tragic demise is that, for the first time, in a very significant way, a conversation about depression is occurring – be it on social media or the dinner table – by South Asians. Aside from his film success, perhaps the legacy of the Bollywood prince is that just as he shone brightly in life, in death he has illuminated a very dark place in the South Asian community – one that needed desperately to be exposed.