Mumbai, MAHARASHTRA — On August 18 this year, Rhea Chakraborty’s lawyers issued a statement that summed up her year-long relationship with Bollywood star Sushant Singh Rajput in a few terse paragraphs. To paraphrase:
Chakraborty and Rajput were known to each other for several years and occasionally interacted, until they hit it off at a party in April 2019 and began dating soon after. The relationship between Chakraborty and Sushant’s sister Priyanka got off to a rocky start. The couple moved in together in December 2019. On June 8 2020, Chakraborty moved into her parents’ house as she was suffering from anxiety attacks. Rajput, too, was in a bad place, according to the statement. A few days later, on June 14 2020, Rajput died by suicide.
Two months on, a concatenation of circumstances which make sense only in India in 2020 has turned the tragic death of one of India’s most luminous stars into an unseemly public humiliation of Chakraborty, where many blame her, and her family for Rajput’s death.
An upcoming election in Bihar, the Narendra Modi government’s urge to manage every event using central enforcement agencies and the media, and India’s ambient radiation of politics, misogyny and patriarchy have all played a role in fostering a public conversation so vitriolic that Rajput’s former therapist, Susan Moffat Walker, broke doctor-patient confidentiality to speak up about the actor’s final days.
“Misinformation and conspiracy theories made it my duty to make a statement,” Walker said in an interview with journalist Barkha Dutt, adding that she had diagnosed Rajput as struggling with severe bipolar disorder.
Walker’s statement has done little to assuage those who insist there is more to Rajput’s death than meets the eye. Earlier this week, the Indian Supreme Court adjudicated a three-way battle for jurisdiction between the law enforcement agencies of Mumbai, Bihar (where Rajput and his family are from) and the Central Bureau of Investigation, ruling that the latter should probe the circumstances leading up to Rajput’s death.
The speculation around the actor’s death has been fuelled by a police report filed by Rajput’s father, KK Singh, accusing Chakraborty, her brother Showik, father Indrajeet, and mother Sandhya of abetment to suicide, cheating and criminal conspiracy. Singh’s complaint alleged that Chakraborty and her family had taken control of his son’s life — medicating him against his will, swindling him out of his hard-earned money, and distancing him from his family in Bihar.
News reports suggest that a preliminary investigation by the Enforcement Directorate has found “no substantial direct transfers” from Rajput’s accounts to Chakraborty or her family members. But television anchors have pounced upon stray pieces of unverified evidence attributed to anonymous sources to villainise Chakraborty, a 28-year-old woman still coming to terms with the death of a man who, by several accounts, she loved, looked after, and was planning a future with.
Online, roving swarms of trolls on YouTube, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter have flooded every photograph, video, and article about Chakraborty with threats of rape, death and other forms of abuse.
What went on within the confines of Rajput and Chakraborty’s relationship — like any personal relationship — is still unclear. An investigation into the precise circumstances of Rajput’s death is still pending.
But conversations with those who were close to Rajput and Chakraborty paint a very different picture of the young couple from the narrative playing out on news channels
HuffPost India spoke to three of Chakraborty’s friends, all of whom requested anonymity as they feared being targeted online and in the media for speaking up for her. While A was known to both Sushant and Chakraborty independently and eventually became a close friend of the couple’s, B and C count themselves amongst Chakraborty’s inner circle, having known her since her early days in the industry.
Despite their concerns about being trolled, these friends wanted those following the news of Rajput’s death to know about the version of Chakraborty left out from the current narrative.
To them, Chakraborty is a sensitive, caring young woman who found herself as one half of a young couple struggling to withstand the soul-crushing demands of the Mumbai film industry, a partner navigating the stress and anxieties of Rajput’s mental health diagnosis. Once Rajput was diagnosed as being bipolar, the friends said, he was convinced that the diagnosis, if made public, could end his career as a bankable star.
A Love Story
Chakraborty and Rajput first met in 2013. She was basking in the success of her first Hindi film, Yash Raj Films’ sleeper hit Mere Dad Ki Maruti, while he was looking forward to the release of another YRF production, Shuddh Desi Romance.
A year previously, Rajput had made an impressive debut with Kai Po Che! and was promptly signed for a three-film deal with YRF, of which Shuddh Desi Romance was the first.
Both actors were what Bollywood likes to term ‘outsiders’, first-generation actors who found fame through television: Rajput as Manav Deshmukh, the lead character of the Ekta Kapoor soap Pavitra Rishta; Chakraborty as a VJ on MTV in the late 2000s, at a moment when television still exercised a hold over teenage imaginations.
The two remained professional acquaintances over the years, their paths crossing at screenings, parties and studio events. According to Chakraborty’s statement on August 18, the two actors subsequently met at a party in April 2019, and began dating soon after. That month, HuffPost India learnt, they took a trip together with a group of friends to Pawna Lake, a scenic tourist spot about 200 km from Mumbai, where Rajput had rented a villa.
At Pawna, Rajput and Chakraborty spent time by the lake, bonded over their shared love for tennis, gazed at the stars by night — Rajput was an avid amateur astronomer — and when Chakraborty returned to Mumbai, she told her friends she felt that she was falling for him.
“She said, ‘I’m going to go with the flow. I don’t know what it is yet, but it feels good’,” a friend of the couple, A, subsequently told HuffPost India.
Soon, the couple told their friends they were “official” and Chakraborty began spending much of her time at Rajput’s apartment in Capri Heights in Bandra.
Another friend of Chakraborty’s, B, said she told them Rajput made her feel “complete”, unlike in previous relationships where she felt she was constantly trying to live up to her partner’s expectations.
The couple were clearly in love and, like many Bollywood couples, were intensely private, the three friends told HuffPost India.
“When we first met them as a couple at a common friend’s house, everybody was taken by how quickly they had fallen for each other. We were all happy,” another friend, C, recalled. “This was their honeymoon period so instead of guilt-tripping them for not hanging out with us more often, we just let them be.”
As the couple continued to date, Chakraborty’s friends said, they gradually sensed a change in the young actor.
Chakraborty, who’d meet her gang frequently, began spending more and more time with Rajput, occasionally filling them in on her new relationship.
“It was a mature relationship and you could say so because of the way our friend had changed. I understood her because this was a time when I myself had entered a serious relationship,” said C.
In July 2019, not long after the trip to Pawna Lake, Chakraborty introduced Rajput to her family. They went out for dinner to the Army Officers Institute in Juhu (Chakraborty’s father is a retired army officer) and Rajput took an instant liking towards them, according to A, who was present at the dinner.
At the dinner, said A, Rajput was gentle, respectful and taken by the family’s simplicity. Rajput and Chakraborty’s family subsequently became so close that he’d ask Chakraborty’s mother to cook her special prawn curry for him, A said.
After the dinner, A took Rajput to the side and asked him playfully, “Who, in today’s times, meets the girl’s parents within months of dating? What’s going on?”
To which, the friend said, Rajput replied that he was struck by how close the Chakraborty family was, and that he wanted to be a part of them.
The stigma around mental health and therapy in India makes it difficult for patients to seek help. Indian public figures rarely speak of their struggles, fearing that this might affect their careers. Deepika Padukone is one of the few Bollywood actors to have publicly spoken of her battle with depression. Padukone went public in 2015, she said, after a friend’s suicide.
In Rajput’s case, his therapist Walker has confirmed that the actor was concerned that if news of his illness became public, it could hamper his Bollywood career.
“The need to keep the experience secret and bear things in silence is an added trauma,” Walker told journalist Barkha Dutt in August, in an interview after Rajput’s death.
Rajput’s need for absolute secrecy about his struggle only made it harder for him to seek the help he needed, and isolated the young couple — who had only just started seriously dating — from their friends and family, said the friends who spoke to HuffPost India. News reports suggest Rajput’s family saw this as Chakraborty distancing them from their son. This friction between Chakraborty and Rajput’s family has animated much of the media coverage after Rajput’s death.
For instance, in September 2019, Chakraborty and Rajput moved out of Rajput’s apartment in Capri Heights and into the Waterstones Resort near the Mumbai international airport. That was the month that Chhichhore hit theatres. In the film, Rajput plays a middle-aged father who reaffirms his teenage son’s love for life after the son tries to kill himself for failing his engineering entrance exams.
When this writer met Rajput for an interview at Waterstones Resort that month, Rajput said he was staying at the hotel (an unusual choice, even for an Indian celebrity) because he loved the tennis court and the club, an oasis of calm in the heart of a hectic city. His living arrangement also spoke of Rajput’s immense success in the industry — his massive suite included a kitchen area, a bedroom and a sprawling living area that opened to a balcony with a stunning view.
Rajput and Chakraborty lived at Waterstones for a long period, until they finally found another apartment in Bandra. At the new apartment, they changed much of their personal staff.
Since Rajput’s death, his family has released a set of WhatsApp texts to the media, in which Rajput’s brother-in-law O.P Singh has described the couple’s stay at Waterstones as an instance of Chakraborty controlling Rajput. The messages, sent in February 2020, three months before Rajput’s death, suggest that Rajput’s family was aware of his condition and feared that his life was in danger. The texts don’t make clear exactly why Rajput’s family felt his life was in danger.
Chakraborty and Rajput’s friends who spoke with HuffPost India offer a different perspective on the couple’s choice of homes.
A, who was a mutual friend of the couple, said that Chakraborty had told them they were moving out of their home in Capri Heights as Rajput felt the apartment was bad for his mental health. Rajput, as per this friend’s recollection, wanted to live in another apartment, preferably with a large balcony or terrace. They eventually rented an apartment in Carter Road which had a sprawling terrace, in a building called Mont Blanc. (This is the apartment that Chakraborty referred to in her public statement, in which she said they “officially moved in together in December 2019.”)
The decision to dismiss some of Rajput’s older staff, the friends said, was prompted by an urgent need for privacy and to prevent stories of his illness leaking to the press.
As Chakraborty and Rajput retreated further into their shell, their friend, C, said it wasn’t unusual for their dinner dates or gym routines or salon visits to be cancelled at the last minute.
“I’d just get a message that she needs to be with Sushant, that he’s unwell,” said C.
B, another friend, said they initially got upset as they felt Rajput was isolating them from their friend. But in November 2019, Chakraborty told her friends they did not understand the toll that caregiving was taking on her. B said they apologised and didn’t press for more details.
Chakraborty’s friends and Rajput’s family have starkly different perspectives on her relationship with Rajput. Rajput’s therapist’s public statements indicate Chakraborty was a source of support for the troubled actor.
“When Sushant was severely ill, he depended on Rhea as somewhat of a mother figure. Rhea gave Sushant courage to attend the sessions,” Walker said. “Rhea took care of Sushant’s appointments and gave him enough courage to attend. From the first time I met the couple in November, I was impressed by the degree of concern, love and support she showed.”
Rajput’s concern that he stood to lose everything he had worked so hard for made him withdraw from the public eye, the friends said, but he remained optimistic that he would soon return to work.
“He kept saying that he’s going to get better first and then resume work. A result of this was that both were meeting fewer people,” A, a friend of the couple, said.
C, a close friend of Chakraborty’s, said that Chakraborty opted out of two films in 2019 to spend as much time with Rajput as possible.
“When you’re so deeply in love, you feel everything that your partner feels, you feel their pain as your own,” C said, adding she advised Chakraborty to keep working and completing projects.
The pandemic and the lockdown were devastating for Rajput, Chakraborty’s friends say. Across the world, clinicians have drawn a correlation between the pandemic and the ensuing suspension of life, and worsening mental health — especially for those with preexisting conditions.
In June 2020, Chakraborty said in her public statement released after Rajput’s death, “Sushant had been calling his family, informing them of his decision to move out of Mumbai and requesting them to come meet him.”
The statement says Rajput’s sister Mitu Singh agreed to come and stay with him on June 8. “Due to this development, Sushant requested Rhea to live with her parents for the time being.”
“Rhea had been suffering from her own anxiety issues and often endured panic attacks. Sushant’s conduct also aggravated these conditions,” the statement said.
According to news reports, Mitu has told the police that Chakraborty called her on June 8 to say she had had an argument with Rajput. Mitu told the police she stayed with Rajput till June 12 and then went home to be with her young children.
It is unclear who was with Rajput on June 12 and June 13. On June 14, Mitu told the police she got a call from Rajput’s manager that the actor had locked himself into his bedroom. She said she rushed to his house, a locksmith was called, and when the door was opened, Rajput was found hanging from his ceiling fan.
Two months later, it is clear that India’s investigating agencies, politicians and relentless news cycle have spun Rajput’s death by suicide into a possible conspiracy. On Twitter, #JusticeForSSR has trended for months.
“Anybody with a clear understanding can tell that there’s politics here, but what’s the most disturbing aspect of this whole episode is the normalisation of abuse against women,” said Miriam Joseph, a member of the Women in Cinema Collective and former CEO of Excel Entertainment.
“The fact that today, calling a woman a whore is acceptable, is numbing. How were you brought up to think that this was okay?”
Joseph pointed out that the same people who claim to have been worried about Rajput’s mental health are ravaging Chakraborty’s, while some media channels run a slander campaign against her.
“Women have tolerated violence at the hands of men since forever but you’d think in 2020, in the middle of a pandemic, things would be different,” Joseph said. “How can they have a fair investigation when there are media channels that have played judge, jury and executioner?”
Writer Nisha Susan, co-founder of feminist website The Ladies Finger and author of a recent collection of short stories, said the easiest thing to do is blame the woman and the media is aware of this.
“We are going through a pandemic of thinking through both justice and grief only in terms of retribution. And a girl from elsewhere, who better to blame for the loss of your son,” Susan told HuffPost India. “It would be easy for people in leadership, in politics, religion, media to encourage people to think about loss in terms of universal human suffering and recovering from grief.
“It would be easy to do it but it’s so much more appealing to the hormones, to go around foaming at the mouth asking for a justice no one can give. The child of your heart is gone. The temple of your heart is gone.”
Since Rajput’s death, friends say that Chakraborty’s mental and physical health is in shambles even as she continues to put up a brave front. Her family, particularly her mother, is also suffering.
“They haven’t had a moment to grieve. Has anyone paused to think that here’s a young woman who lost the love of her life? It’s bonkers for us to even process the hysteria that’s unfolding right now. It’s so far from the truth, it shocks the mind,” her friend, C, said.