Here’s an unfolding story that has made headlines across India and on the international circuit.
Gripping is an understatement.
It has taken communication to a new level, crisis communication to a new level and social media to a new level.
On a mid-June Sunday morning in one of Mumbai’s suburbs, the body of a 34-year-old man was discovered hanging in his apartment.
A young, bright, academically brilliant individual from Bihar state in eastern India had a dream to make it big in the country’s entertainment heartland.
A maths and physics supremo, he switched his love of academic life for the starry lights of Bollywood’s film and music industry — so often a magnet for those wanting to enter the world of glitz and glamour.
Whether as an actor, actress, director, singer, musician or scriptwriter. Mumbai is the destination.
Sushant Singh Rajput was living the dream.
Here was an industry outsider who left home to carve a career in Tinseltown.
After a short stint in Indian TV serials, he got his big break on the big screen.
An outsider with no industry background who went on to star in seven hit films in as many years.
A talented outsider who managed to navigate an industry known for power struggles and gross nepotism.
An outsider who maintained his dignity and down to earth approach to climb the ladder to success.
And an outsider who was an inspiration to others keen to follow in his footsteps to fame and fortune.
Yet, on June 14, everything came to a standstill. His world tragically came crashing down.
Sushant Singh’s death touched the hearts of millions — movie goers or not.
There was an outpouring of grief, disbelief, shock and numbness.
His demise sent ripples across the Bollywood fraternity and shook the Indian Prime Minister.
But what was to unfold has left many questions unanswered to this very day.
Why did such a gifted individual’s life end this way? How did it happen? What went wrong? And, more pertinent, who was responsible for his death?
The taboo subject of mental health has resurfaced with reports of him being in a state of depression after losing lucrative film contracts.
So too has the nepotism debate. The influence of seasoned Bollywood families giving their ‘talented or talentless’ sons and daughters an easy passage into the industry.
With outsiders seen as a real threat, nepotism is being argued as the factor behind pushing him to his death and conspiracy theories are abound — including bullying and murder!
The media circus has been in overdrive. TV debates, newspaper commentaries are endless.
Social media too has been a hive of activity.
The most talked about subject on social media throughout June has been Sushant Singh Rajput.
His death has stirred up the ‘insiders versus outsiders’ debate.
An ‘us versus them’ culture.
The secure versus the insecure.
And the privileged ‘born to fame versus those with no industry godfather’ argument as newcomers are forced to sweat it out.
The following are reasons why suicide as the official cause of Sushant Singh’s death is being doubted in many quarters.
The reaction has rocked Bollywood
TRUTH AND TRANSPARENCY: COMMUNICATION IS THE KEY
So, here’s a story that will clearly not rest.
A young Indian star of Hindi cinema whose sudden mysterious death has sparked an outcry with demands for an investigation into the murky industry that Bollywood is.
It has raised issues that should have been addressed long ago.
But Sushant Singh’s death has stirred up controversy that may now prove difficult to navigate out of.
Murder is a serious accusation. I won’t dwell on that.
What is crucial is the need to understand the background. And to create a level playing field with facts not brushed under the carpet.
Nepotism has been around for decades. The media has turned a blind eye to it as power brokers, including PR professionals, wield their strength to keep out negative stories.
The media has a big role to play. Not to run shy of telling the story, nor shy of uncovering the facts, and hold an industry accountable for lack of fair play in putting talentless ahead of talented.
Gossip or rumours — the media must separate fact from fiction.
Few media houses in India do that. Many jump onto the bandwagon plucking commentators from nowhere to boost TV ratings, for example. Is this ethical journalism?
Ethical communication is also at the hands of PR professionals.
As communicators, PRs have to fundamentally propagate messaging to protect, preserve and enhance both reputation and image.
The role of the PR is to guide and counsel clients.
I get that.
In Bollywood, PRs have long been at the whim of clients. Hats off to them for the hype created weeks before a movie launch.
But being forced to succumb to tipping off media to capture those trendy airport and gym looks.
To focus on securing newspaper column inches at the expense of ‘real’ stories.
To push out meaningless stories to protect their clients and their retainers.
Today, those airport shots are not to be seen for obvious reasons during the current lockdown.
Given the circumstances, will there ever be an appetite for the type of PR that celebrities have for so long been exposed to.
I doubt very much. The public backlash would be inevitable.
Behind the scenes, there’s a scurry of activity between PRs and celebrity clients to keep out of, rather than in, the media spotlight following Sushant Singh’s death.
Any move, any image captured, or any commentary by the big hitters on social media platforms will come under the microscope.
So right now, strategies are shifting towards more ethical PR in Bollywood.
Industry outsiders are on the offensive, in control, getting sympathy and better PR mileage than insiders.
Outsiders are very much on the front foot.
At stake here is the credibility of an industry shaken to its core, coming two years after the MeToo movement in the US hit Bollywood and turned the spotlight on the mighty and wealthy.
This movement may well have died down, but the circumstances of Sushant Singh’s death will not pass by easily.
Will this case take a new twist?
Communication will play a crucial role in how the story enters a new chapter.
With social media accounts removed, it’s like a fall from grace, and a long ladder to climb up to win back public trust and confidence.
Handling trolls is the biggest challenge.
Be quiet, there’s something to hide. Come out and face a barrage of criticism. The balance has to be created.
For the first time in a long time, the privileged players are having to listen.
For sure, PR supremos are busy advising those in need how to get out of a mess they find themselves in.
And much of this centres on projecting honesty, trust and transparency — some of the basic principles of PR.
It’s a time when the PR machine can truly come to the fore and provide counselling at its best.
Communication partners can orchestrate carefully thought through narratives to help clear the air.
As the police faces continued pressure to provide answers in the case of Sushant Singh Rajput, let his legacy do the talking.
On July 24, his last film is scheduled for release.
for the most viewed and liked movie trailer in YouTube history.
It has amassed more than 25 million views and 5.5 million likes within 24 hours — far eclipsing the last two Avengers films.
What better testimonial to his work than a farewell movie which promises to touch the hearts of many.
Sushant Singh Rajput, rest in peace.
Updesh Kapur is Director of Strategy at Cicero & Bernay Public Relations, an independent PR agency headquartered in Dubai offering new-age public relations consultancy to the UAE and across the MENA region. | www.cbpr.me