Bollywood: Dark Side of Jia Khan Death
By Rajeesh Six years after the beautiful ingenue burst into mainstream Indian cinema as a Hindi Lolita alongside Bollywood veteran Amitabh Bachhan, the Londoner was found dead in her Mumbai flat this week – a victim, apparently, of depression fuelled by thwarted ambition.
In a country where women die cruel and preventable deaths every day, the demise of a glamorous “outsider” – allegedly by her own hand – would seem to have drawn disproportionate attention across the subcontinent.
But the 25-year-old’s passing, just as India’s film industry celebrates its centenary, has again raised questions about Bollywood’s role in reinforcing damaging gender stereotypes – not just on-screen but also behind it.
Earlier this year, in the wake of the brutal gang rape and murder of a Delhi student, some big names in Indian film introspected over the industry’s culpability in glamourising sexual violence and perpetuating misogyny in Indian society.
Yet there’s been little discussion about how the Bollywood machine treats women.
India’s Mail Today newspaper this week devoted a double-page spread to Khan’s death and that of numerous other female Bollywood stars who in recent years “gave in to hopelessness”, listing such acolytes as Tamil siren Silk Smitha and Parveen Babi.
Though Khan left no suicide note, her mother – a one-time Bollywood ingenue herself – told police in her statement: “She was fed up with the struggle … she was besotted with Bollywood but Bollywood had nothing to offer her.”
India’s is hardly the only entertainment industry to be accused of eating its young, pretty ones first.
But another Bollywood ingenue, also an outsider with experience in western films, told The Weekend Australian she understood how the intense pressures and constant humiliations of the Indian industry might have contributed to Khan’s demise.
“It can be very demoralising, the things that you have to cope with here, and I know the depths you can sink to if you let it get to you,” the actress said on condition of anonymity. “It’s so male dominated and you have to have a really thick skin to deal with the disparaging comments; you’re too short, too thin, too fat, too dark. If you go into a casting and don’t act like a bimbo, people don’t like you and so won’t cast you, but if you do then you’re not a credible actress.”
In a video interview posted on her official website, a confident-seeming Khan spoke of a desire for roles that required her to act and not just “be a pretty face”.
For the most part, serious acting is not required of Bollywood’s heroines, who are more often plucked from the lines of beauty pageants – Aishwarya Rai and Priyanka Chopra – than drama schools.
Gul Panag, a former Miss India turned actress and social commentator, says the industry rarely asks its women to be anything beyond a pretty prize for the hero. “This industry has always been harsh on women,” she says. “The girl is a replaceable commodity; if it’s not this pretty young thing then it’s that pretty young thing.”
Urvashi Butalia, a Delhi-based author and feminist publisher, says there “needs to be a lot of thinking and discussion about how the industry treats women”.
“It’s no secret what actresses have to live through to get roles, the sexual exploitation, but it never gets spoken of.
“There’s hardly ever a voice from within that will raise those kinds of issues.”
Khan’s tragic downfall is in some ways a reversal of the usual hard-scrabble actor’s tale. Her Bollywood debut was a fairytale, with prominent roles in two big-name films, Nishabd and Ghajini, which starred one of India’s most respected actors, Amir Khan.
Her career took a dive after she broke Bollywood’s golden rule by quarrelling with the male lead, Shahid Kapoor, in her fourth movie and she was dropped half way through the shoot.
“The heroes have always ruled in Bollywood, just as in Indian society itself,” says industry reporter Soumyadipta Banerjee, who interviewed Khan several times. “They pull all the strings, right down to deciding the day of release,” he said.
Like others, Banerjee has speculated Khan’s career might have benefited from a Bollywood “Godfather”, one of the ageing, unctuous industry “heroes” who lend their patronage to much younger starlets.
Of the many to proffer opinions on Khan’s death this week, perhaps author and former film-zine editor Shobhaa De offered the most illuminating view in a blog that at times seemed as cruel as the industry she purported to censure. “There’s no place for losers and has-beens in Bollywood,” she wrote with cool savagery a day after Khan’s death, concluding the actress was likely a “victim of instant success … Jiah probably imagined she could hack it by herself, relying on talent and good looks. Poor Jiah. Little did she know there are thousands like her on the fringes of Bollywood.”