It spoke of a man who seemingly had it all – wealth, power, grace, and style. The lyrics puzzle over how a man who “surely must be happy with everything he’s got” went home one night and “put a bullet through his head.” One of the reasons why conspiracy theories abound when suicides are committed by the rich and famous is exactly this sense of perplexity and incomprehension. When so many human beings are leading poor, arduous, and humdrum lives, how could people with lifestyles others can only dream of, even consider taking their own?
Call it the Richard Cory enigma if you like, but Indians have taken this much too far. Celebrity suicides have had a way of spinning a dark web of conspiracies, an endless string of sensationalist theories, breathless news coverage, and a mind-numbing stream of naive television punditry. The death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput many weeks ago, who the Mumbai police believe took his own life, is an example of this unfortunate obsessiveness. Bollywood has been split with personal vendettas and mudslinging mixed up in discussions of mental health and depression. Politicians have got into the act demanding that the CBI investigate what they believe is murder. The police in Maharashtra and Bihar have locked horns on the question of jurisdiction over the probe. Also, Sushant’s actor girlfriend Rhea Chakraborty has been drawn into the controversy with abetting suicide charges, a controversy that has drawn the Enforcement Directorate to investigate allegations of missing money and its possible laundering.
Even if there are legitimate reasons to believe that Sushant’s death needs to be investigated more closely, some things should be kept in mind. As the courts have underlined time and again, abetment of suicide can be sustained, among other things, only if there is mens rea or direct encouragement of incitement to commit the crime. A difficult relationship, a fight that preceded the tragedy, or intractable differences over issues are not grounds for slapping such charges. Most suicides happen when preceded or even triggered by an immediate event – a lover’s tiff, a failed exam, difficulty in repaying loans, or other challenging situations. But what we often fail to recognise that those who commit or attempt to commit suicide are particularly vulnerable and suffer from mental illness. Not everyone who is rich and famous is happy. Similarly, not everyone who is faced with a difficult situation takes his or her own life.
In India, we continue to fail to recognise these distinctions. Six years after, the issue of whether Sunanda Pushkar’s death was suicide or homicide continues to occupy the courts and fire the fervid imagination of the media. The theories of murder have not abated about actor Sridevi’s death even though the Dubai police concluded it was accidental after investigating the case. Of course, everything is not what it seems to be on the face of it. But charges about murder and abetment to suicide need to be backed with strong and credible evidence. The mere fact that one of Sushant’s girlfriends cannot believe he took his own life doesn’t constitute this. It is all right to feel perplexed when successful people take their own lives, as in the Richard Cory song. What is not right is to spin unfounded and sensationalist theories when they do so.