Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput was found dead by apparent suicide at his Mumbai residence on June 14. What was a tragic end to a promising young star's career has turned into a media frenzy centred on the 34-year-old actor's girlfriend Rhea Chakraborty.

The round-the-clock media coverage of the case has trumped the coronavirus crisis and the India-China border crisis, with television networks seeing record viewership, raising questions of divisionary tactics by certain political quarters.

Lawyers and activists said the case is also a disquieting reminder of how women in Bollywood meet with harsher moral judgements than their male counterparts.

The case has since drawn in central investigation agencies as well as officers from the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) and has even become a political talking point for the upcoming elections in Bihar state – Rajput's home state.

Chakraborty was arrested earlier this month, while prominent Bollywood personalities, including Deepika Padukone, have been questioned in an escalating drug investigation.

The police announced that Rajput's was a case of accidental death and post-mortem and viscera reports accessed by the media ruled out foul play. But Rajput's family have accused Chakraborty, the actor's live-in partner, of abetment to suicide, theft, cheating, conspiracy and wrongful confinement.

The Enforcement Directorate, examining money-laundering allegations against Chakraborty, has not found big transactions from the late actor's account to the accused's account. The CBI has not held a news briefing to reveal their findings.

But Chakraborty has found herself the subject of a vilification campaign by the media, including social media where "justice for Sushant" has trended multiple times in the past months, activists say.

The actress and her brother remain in judicial custody under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, for allegedly procuring 59 grams of cannabis for Rajput. The NCB claims Chakraborty is part of a "drug syndicate".

Nandita Rao, Delhi High Court lawyer and activist, said that the charges against the actor are not commensurate with the evidence.

"Marijuana is a 'conventional' drug. The quantity is so small. To be a drug dealer, you have to procure commercial quantities and there has to be someone apart from your boyfriend that you have to sell it to," Rao told Al Jazeera.

Rao said that the media trial appears politically orchestrated.

"It started out as an agenda against second- and third-generation Bollywood producers and actors. When Rajput died by suicide, the narrative was that he was pushed to do it by nepotism in the film industry," she told Al Jazeera.

"[But later,] when the Bihar election took centre stage, the same people started shouting from the rooftops that he was ill-treated by his girlfriend and that she stole his money and abandoned him. Some even said that he did not have a mental illness and that she had drugged him.

Earlier this month, the governing Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) cultural cell unveiled posters with a photograph of Rajput with the message, "na bhule hai, na bhulne denge (we have neither forgotten, nor will we forget)". Critics say the BJP has tried to squeeze political mileage out of Rajput's death.

This is not the first time female actors in Bollywood have been held to different moral yardsticks for their romantic relationships or public conduct. In the 1990s, Bollywood actress Rekha was blamed for the suicide death of her husband Mukesh Aggarwal.

Yasser Usman, the author of the unofficial biography, Rekha: The Untold Story, said those same people were sympathetic to actor Sanjay Dutt's drug addiction.

Actor Tapsee Pannu laments that it may take a few more lifetimes for things to be fair for women. "A certain section of the media and the society were so interested in seeing her [Chakraborty] behind bars that they forgot that she has been arrested on charges unrelated to the main investigation." 


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