Tunisha Sharma’s death: We need to talk about mental health, not rant about ‘love jihad’

Spare a thought for the young ones Tunisha Sharma, the television actor who chose the middle of a working day to prepare for the terrifying and lonely decision to end his life in a make-up room, almost as if his life were a masquerade. Perhaps, according to the many reports on the matter, his love was unfulfilled. Perhaps she was in need of affection, insecure, violated and uncomfortable in her career, perhaps driven to be the golden goose of her family and quite possibly misunderstood for who she really was. On a crowded set, the 20-year-old hanged herself, enduring intense physical pain, because she was tired of failing more. And it was over in seconds, with no one on the crew suspecting she’d taken the extreme step.

However, the mental isolation that could have led Sharma to take his own life is the least talked about part of his death, even as the tragedy has become the focus of the pervasive sadism of our ever-curious millions. Everyone wants to know the salacious details of the young woman’s life. After all, a 20-year-old starlet must be in more dangerous relationships than a working woman’s real problems. Overnight, her friends in the industry and her family appropriated her life, analyzing what went wrong. Sharma’s mother blamed her ex-boyfriend and co-star Sheezan Khan for being her villain, even bringing the toxic political discourse of “love jihad” into the narrative. Khan’s mother and sister also usurped Sharma’s story, claiming that she was practically exploited and abused by her own family and that she was happy with her adoptive family, even playing an audio clip of Sharma testifying the their generosity.

With the girl gone, her death absolves everyone of the need to wonder what they might have been missing, allowing them to set the course of a national conversation. Everyone benefits, it seems, from using the “love jihad” angle: the right wing can justify its hate politics, the media gets fodder for prime time discussions, and families get a starring role in reality shows.

In many ways, Sharma’s case brings us back to the 2020 suicide of actor Sushant Singh Rajput, which continues to be used to spread conspiracy theories, despite an AIIMS report ruling out murder. We still have a hard time accepting that despite his obvious success, Rajput may have been broken inside, that he had a history of depression, and that although he was a “hero” in public perception, he too was fragile and vulnerable.

Rajput’s suicide quickly escalated into a murder conspiracy involving the actor’s family, embezzled money, black magic, an alleged exploitative live-in partner, a political bigwig, Bollywood mafia and nepotism, insider versus outsider debate and anything else. The tragedy of him has been weaponized by political parties to settle scores between them, using his starry aura. For Bihar Prime Minister Nitish Kumar, who suffered from a severe image deficit, the case of an exploited “earth child” in distant Mumbai could not have come at a more opportune time. As Aam Bihari regards Sushant as his ‘hero’, the actor has been iconified as ‘the pride of Bihar’, although none of the politicians who have espoused his cause are known to have had any association with him. As for the BJP in Maharashtra, its army of trolls staged an alleged association his girlfriend Rhea Chakraborty had with Shiv Sena’s scion Aaditya Thackeray, garnering more mud than evidence.

Chakraborty, another struggling Bollywood actor like Sharma, was at a stroke considered the femme fatale, who drove the deceased actor into addiction, conned him and trapped him in a world of debt and drug cartels. It became news simply because the forensic evidence and cold facts of the actor’s death were too dry to squeeze. So his incarceration became more visually satisfying as a portrait of immediate justice.

Both Rajputs and Chakrabortys, like Khan and Sharma, were appropriated as political tools. If the BJP has fueled the ‘justice for Sushant’ campaign, Congress has embarked on the ‘justice for Rhea’ crusade. Self-proclaimed activists shouted slogans against the “campaign of denigration” against the “daughter of Bengal” and held up placards saying: “We will not stop until she gets justice”. Bengal Congress chief Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury had even invested her with upper caste “respectability”, calling her a “Bengali Brahmin”. The right-wing fringe and trolls may have ended Khan’s fledgling career now, vowing to keep him in jail so he can’t prey on Hindu women.

Through it all, we’re missing what should have been the real conversation all along: Mental health disorders have become the new pandemic of our times, ruthless in their grip on individuals from the ordinary to the extraordinary. These young deaths should also open a conversation about performance pressure in the entertainment industry, where a number of actors have taken the extreme step while encountering financial and personal hardships. Let’s at least give Sharma some grace and dignity in death.

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