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Indian media, fueled by aggressive television anchors, has worked itself into an unprecedented feeding frenzy since the death of popular 34-year-old actor Sushant Singh Rajput at his Mumbai home June 14. The question now is whether this is Bollywood on self-destruct or a further example of media manipulation in service of a conservative political agenda.

The Mumbai police initially ruled the death a suicide. But media and the public found it difficult to accept that a successful actor with hits like “M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story” and “Kedarnath” under his belt would take his life. Within days of Rajput’s death, rumors involving the highest echelons of Bollywood circulated on social media and WhatsApp, suggesting that the self-made outsider from a small town was depressed as a result of being shunned in the elite, nepotistic circles of the film industry. 

By the end of July, when the police ruled out foul play, the narrative changed. The star’s father, K.K. Singh, accused Rajput’s former girlfriend, the actor Rhea Chakraborty, and her family of abetting suicide and financial misappropriation. India’s Enforcement Directorate for financial crimes began an investigation. The following month, the Supreme Court transferred the investigation of Rajput’s death to the Central Bureau of Investigation and rumors that Rajput was murdered began to circulate. 

By the end of August, the narrative changed yet again, and a third national investigative body, the Narcotics Control Bureau, got into the act. In early September, Chakraborty was arrested on suspicion of supplying marijuana to Rajput. 

Haranguing television anchors appointed themselves judge and jury, with daily trials on primetime television. Matters went into overdrive when WhatsApp messages with Chakraborty led the NCB to haul in actors Deepika Padukone (“xXx: Return of Xander Cage”), Sara Ali Khan, Rakul Preet Singh and Shraddha Kapoor for drug-related questioning. Prominent filmmaker Karan Johar was forced to issue a statement denying claims that drugs were consumed at a party at his home in 2019. 

So far, so Bollywood. But the political angles are rarely far from the surface. Why have only women been called by the NCB? Why is free-spirited Bollywood — which has often led the social agenda on issues including gender identity, arranged marriages and religious integration — under attack?

Liberal filmmaker Hansal Mehta, known for Muslim rights biopic “Shahid” and seminal gay rights film “Aligarh,” is a trenchant presence on Twitter. “These are entertainment channels masquerading as news channels,” Mehta tells Variety. “What they are doing is, in the absence of entertainment at the multiplexes, providing us daily entertainment featuring Bollywood stars on news channels.”

Mehta cites several burning issues in India, like contentious farm legislation, unemployment, plunging GDP and toxic pandemic numbers (6.3 million infected and counting), that have taken a backseat to the daily drip feeds that Indian news channels claim are leaked to them by the investigative agencies. A producer who wished to remain anonymous for fear of being targeted in an increasingly authoritarian political atmosphere, tells Variety: “The fascists have found Bollywood as a tool for policing thought. The media is completely manipulated, including social media.” 

Civil society has been under attack from the Modi government, which seems to accept no other authority or version of the truth. Human rights activists languish in jail. Amnesty International recently closed down its India operations after years of frustration. “We are in an undeclared state of emergency,” the producer says. 

Chandraprakash Dwivedi is a respected chronicler of Indian history and culture via his film and television output, including “Chanakya,” “Pinjar,” “Upanishad Ganga” and the upcoming historical epic film “Prithviraj,” starring top Bollywood actor Akshay Kumar. Dwivedi describes the
current scenario in India as a “media circus” but disagrees that it is in the service of diverting attention from other issues. “All the [TV] channels cannot work on the agenda of any government,” he tells Variety. “So this projection that it is to divert attention from success or failure of the government, I do not buy this argument.” 

The general audience appears to be consuming the ongoing drama with relish. “Suddenly you are getting a peek into their homes, their lives,” says Mehta, referring to Bollywood stars on daily primetime display. 

On Oct. 2, Johar tweeted a letter to Prime Minister Modi, with leading filmmakers Rajkumar Hirani, Aanand L. Rai, Rohit Shetty, Sajid Nadiadwala, Ekta Kapoor and Dinesh Vijan tagged, launching the Change Within initiative to celebrate the 75th anniversary of India’s independence.

The following day, Kumar released a video saying that the industry has a drug problem but that not all Bollywood stars should be tarred with the same brush.

On Oct. 7, Chakraborty was released on bail by the Bombay High Court that found no merit in the NCB’s charge of “financing and harbouring illegal drug trafficking.” The court also rejected the prosecution’s argument that “celebrities and role models should be treated harshly so that it sets an example for the young generation,” saying that the law of the land is the same for everyone.

Mehta is saddened by the general perception of Bollywood caused by the media maelstrom.  “We are still providing livelihoods through this tough time,” he says. “We are providing content to the ecosystem that is still running — the OTTs, and the audiences are getting films and shows to watch. Rather than appreciating that, there is this campaign to vilify and make us look like drug addicts.”