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Heartbreak hotel

Jiah Khan's untimely death exposes the unmanageable levels of toxicity, competition, loneliness and emotional rejection that are pushing young Bollywood aspirants and models over the edge

Malavika Sangghvi 

Jiah Khan
Jiah Khan

Viveka Babajee. Nafisa Joseph. Sucheta Anand. Rinky Chowdhary. Monica Dutta. Pinky Rajesh Chavda. Pallavi Jha. Jiah Khan. This is a sad litany of names of young women some household names, some national heartthrobs and others condemned to 2 cm of notoriety in the morning papers. All have one thing in common: they checked in at Mumbais infamous Heartbreak Hotel and never checked out. When actress Jiah Khans body was found hanging in her apartment, the shiver of horror that ran through Mumbais spine was as much for the loss of one so beautiful, young, and talented as for the sense of the hollow inevitable clich of it all young beautiful actress-model-showbiz-professional living an ersatz life in a shiny city, exposed to unmanageable levels of toxicity, competition, loneliness, rejection and heartbreak, killing herself. What do you expect? I think the enormous pressure to succeed takes a toll on beautiful young women who are often fragile and vulnerable to rejection, says Fahad Samar, ad-filmmaker, columnist and author of a soon-to-be-published book on Bollywood, They have grown up being hailed as exquisite creatures by friends and family, but when the time comes to parlay their beauty into commercial success, only a few have the tenacity to make it in the face of cut-throat competition. Rejection is a harsh wake up call and those who lack a tough hide succumb to the lure of suicide. Samars thoughts are shared by Anna (Adrienne) Bredemeyer, a top Mumbai model in the 1980s who has successfully segued into a career of brand ambassadorship. The world of glamour and fame is a fickle one and one can easily lose oneself in the hoopla, she says. But Bollywood is an irrational world, where success is awfully competitive and what makes a film, or an actor, succeed at the box office is completely unpredictable. Glamour and advertising photographer David de Souza says, The room at the top is narrow. You need to have nerves of steel and deeper wisdom, that borders on spirituality, to negotiate those highways, and yet be centered enough to deal with not getting enough work and your films failing at the box office.

SUCHETA ANAND According to police reports, airhostess Anand ended her life in June 2008, following an argument with her boyfriend over the question of marriage.

MONICA CHOWDHARY A failed marriage to an expat has been stated as the cause for the 2009-suicide of this top model of the 1970s.

RINKI CHOWDHARY This aspiring actress took her life in October 2010 just a week before her marriage. Her boyfriend was booked under Section 302 but later released due to lack of evidence

So life becomes an endless cycle of meeting obligations. Neerja Shah, former editor of fashion magazine Elle and TV producer, recalls being told about a model, a part of the chi chi circle, who was stressed out at having to spend loads of money to keep her wardrobe, jewellery and makeup in sync with the in crowd. Yet, she was afraid that, if refused invitations a couple of times, she would be thrown out of the group, says Shah. Ironically, it is this insecurity that often drives a career in show business . When that gets abruptly withdrawn, it appears as if there is nothing else to live for, says Rajesh Parikh, head of psychiatry at Mumbais Jaslok Hospital.

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A trip to Versova provides the context in which young women with stars in their eyes live and die in Mumbai. Built on what was until the 1980s a swampy mosquito-infested strip in the northern seaside suburb of Mumbai, Versova epitomises the outreach of the showbiz dream, its demands, pressures, and ubiquity. Once, actors and their extended families lived in the leafy avenues of Pali Hill and Juhu. But with each decade, and every fresh flexing of its enormous muscle and maw, the world of showbiz pushed out the citys borders. First at the nether end of Juhu to Silver Beach and the Beach House Society where The Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) graduates like Danny Denzongpa and Jaya Bhaduri and the flower power crowd of Parveen Babi and Kabir Bedi came to roost. Later came the Juhu Vile Parle Development Scheme where Amitabh Bachchan and Dharmendra resided in mansions commensurate with their status. And then the rise of private TV and cable culture led to the development of the Lokhandwala complex and its satellite neighbourhoods like Versova. Versova is a paean to skin-deep beauty and surface glam. Its residents call it TV land. The neighbourhood has more nail bars, gyms, hair salons and dance studios than perhaps anywhere else in the city. Here rents are low, and the young live at cut-rate prices in step with the cut-rate competition. Here, theres always a coffee bar to launder away your time while waiting for that important phone call from a talent scout and theres a cheap bar to drown your rejection in. An astute observer of the anthropology of showbiz in Mumbai says about Versova, Its built to service aspiration; struggling young models and actors dont have much money to eat expensive meals or buy expensive clothes. Their lives are centered on primping up, working out, skipping meals and looking good. Versova is all about this impulse. But of course, Versova is not the suicide capital of Mumbai, though it has been the scene of many notorious ones. Young women have hanged themselves or overdosed on pills or jumped off balconies in Bandra, Juhu, Pali Hill and Vile Parle too. Its just that Versova, with its single-minded intent, conveys the stark reality of stardoms harsh demands. While researching a series of articles on Bollywood for the now defunct Sunday magazine in the late 1990s, I recall a successful actor telling me about how the pressure never ends no matter where youve reached on the greasy pole. At first you have to get noticed somehow, anyhow. So you hang outside producers doors or at the Prithvi caf or on film sets hoping to get noticed. Maybe you get signed, he said. But you have to make sure youre in with the production assistants, the cast, your co-stars and the in-crowd on the sets. All this without threatening any one or stepping on giant egos. Then if youre lucky, your film is a hit. But the sucking up to get signed by bigger set-ups and production houses never stops and once you make it to the top camps, the pressure doesnt ease. He added morosely, And of course, you have to look good, stay away from controversies, and be under constant media and public scrutiny ALL the time! And if this sounds bad, consider the fact that the pressures and competition have increased exponentially since then. A heartbreak, a rejection or a broken engagement under these circumstances could easily be the last straw that breaks the camels back.

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I never lost anyone close fortunately. I did know Nafisa Joseph, she was lovely. Most of the causes of these girls death seem to be boys, and that is just unacceptable, says actress Kim Sharma, who made her debut in Yash Raj Films Mohabbatein, and now lives in Africa with her husband. Women need to know, learn and believe that theres so much more to life than a man. There, however, is no time to learn about such things. With entire focus on their looks, other aspects of their personality lie raw and undeveloped.

Says de Souza. Women are more prone to love or think they are in love, while a man at first contact is in lust mode and makes no bones about it. The difference is in expectations. Not all the women in the list at the beginning of this article have killed themselves over a broken heart, and whether Jiah Khan took her life because of professional disappointments or due to emotional abuse by a man has been a subject of numerous dinner party debates; but man-trouble has been cause of enough suicides to call for concern. When we are told by someone we are attracted to that he or she would actually rather just be good friends with us, what we often hear is confirmation that we really are, as we have secretly suspected all along, a monstrous ungainly untouchable aberration, says philosopher Alain de Botton in his book How To Think More About Sex, Rejection hurts so much because we take it as a damning judgement passed, not merely on our physical appeal, but on our entire selves and on our very right to exist. The young tend to have a large set of insecurities that have to do with the fact that they are only just developing a sense of self, says Leeza Mangaldas, an alumnus of Columbia University, who too is an aspirant in Bollywood. Body image, sexuality are all causes of insecurity and confusion, and unfortunately, heartbreak can seem insurmountable, she says. When Babajee was found dead in her Bandra residence, police reports stated that she had committed suicide as a result of depression after separating from her stockbroker boyfriend Gautam Vora. The last page of her diary, found next to her body, had a chilling message: You killed me, Gautam Vora. Nafisa Joseph, a model and an MTV video jockey, killed herself by hanging herself after her relationship with her fiance, businessman Gautam Khanduja, went sour. The couple had called off their wedding after the model apparently discovered that Khanduja had lied about his divorce. Josephs parents filed a police complaint against Khanduja, following which he was arrested under Section 306 (abetment of suicide). In June 2008, airhostess Sucheta Anands body was found hanging in a hotel in Juhu. The Santa Cruz police arrested her boyfriend, Indigo Airlines co-pilot Arjun Menon, on charges of abetment. According to reports, a day before Anand committed suicide, she and Menon had met for dinner and had argued over marriage. Monica Chowdhary (nee Dutta), one of Mumbai's top models in the 1970s and daughter of the famous ghazal singer Chitra Singh, committed suicide at her Bandra residence in 2009. Police said she had been depressed for a long time over her failed marriage to an expat. Rinky Chowdhary, an aspiring actress, killed herself a week before her marriage in October 2010. At the behest of her mother, the police arrested her boyfriend, Sahil Malik, who had been present in the house when Rinky had allegedly committed suicide. However, a telling indictment of how little import we afford the man factor in these suicides is the fact that not a single of the alleged abusers has been convicted. Although Vora was questioned several times, there was not enough evidence to press abetment charges against him for driving Babajee to suicide. A mere suicide note is not enough, said the police. The trial against Khanduja was stayed by the Bombay High Court until January 2006. Khanduja claimed there was no evidence to prove that breaking off their engagement had led to Josephs suicide. After questioning, Menon, who had been arrested on charges of abetment, was discharged by the sessions court. Malik was booked under Section 302 (murder) of the Indian Penal Code, but was released on bail as there was no corroborative evidence to prove he had killed Rinky Chowdhary.

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Of course, there is a great danger in romanticising the clich of fragile young women and their broken hearts. The extreme sensitivity of the subject frightens me from saying more than that my heart goes out to anyone who suffers to that extent, says actor Tara Sharma. And frankly, I do not think one can generalise a profession or a love interest or anything specific as being a cause; each case is different and tragic. Suicide isnt an issue specific to young women. According to Mangaldas, models and actors just make for a more saleable story and are more photogenic, than say, farmers or middle-aged housewives. In the publics imagination, theres something cinematically tragic when a beautiful, young woman kills herself and the media romanticises it. I dont think that models and actors are significantly more likely to commit suicide than people from the same socio-economic background and pursuing other careers, she says. It is a splattering of such cases in the media that makes former model, actress and ad-film producer Aarti Surendranath wince every time she reads the newspapers. It is not just girls that one needs to be concerned about. Recently, a young 21-year-old son of a senior crime branch officer shot himself in the room next to his parents. In Delhi, a 19-year-old boy jumped off the 16th floor, she says. Most blame the media for highlighting suicides by the rich and the glamorous, thus making it seem that its only models and actors who are snuffing out their lives. With Twitter, Facebook and a zillion reporters all peering into your life, privacy is non-existent, so one hears more about this. There is a vicariousness to it all which the media feeds on and makes, entertaining, says de Souza. Actor Boman Irani concurs, as does Samar, who says that instead of sensationalising suicides, the media should help create awareness about this serious problem that afflicts todays youth.

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The phenomenon of women in showbiz taking their own lives is not new, or exclusive to India alone. Wikipedia has a long section on actresses and models that have killed themselves (a similar one for men is startlingly shorter). Ever since young and beautiful actor Marilyn Monroe and model Margaux Hemingway were found dead, popular culture has fed off the syndrome and almost glorified it. So whats to be done? How do we stop young women from killing themselves? How can we put an end to the causes that lead them to that tragic final act? I put the question to the people who have seen these cases up close and painfully personal: models, actresses, filmmakers and psychiatrists. I was surprised by the consensus in their views: they called for a de-stigmatisation of mental illness, more familial support, therapy recognition and support for victims of depression and exerting less pressures to succeed. Families need to act as support systems and not push their daughters and sons too hard not just in acting, but also in academics and life in general. Friends, colleagues and counselors need to recognise the signs of depression and help those who are fragile and vulnerable, says Samar. According to Irani, its not that suicides dont occur outside of showbiz. But everything here is magnified, so is the depression, he says. De Souza advocates looking inwards to solve the problem. More than comment on celebrities, and what they should or should not do, I prefer to look at the spectrum from my own perspective. Can I stop putting great value to it? When will I stop hankering over a new camera, a bigger house, and a faster car? When I have succeeded in answering that question for myself, then I might proceed to be advocative, he says. Heartbreak Hotel. Perhaps theres a way out yet.

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First Published: Sat, August 10 2013. 00:24 IST