Home / Opinion / Columns /  When a celebrity dies young, curious Indian behaviours emerge

When celebrities die, they make death famous. People behave as though dying is yet another remarkable thing the celebrity has done. When famous people die at a very old age, decades after their finest moment, the world is surprised they were alive all these years. But when a celebrity dies young, the death has many of the qualities of fame—it generates excitement. There is sadness, of course, but also an unspoken glee of the living.

All this is universal. Indians demonstrate some additional emotions and behaviour, which may not be unique to Indians but are still attributes that define us. This was evident when news broke on Thursday that the 40-year-old actor Sidharth Shukla had died, possibly of a heart attack.

Here is an incomplete list of how Indians behave and the things they do when a celebrity dies young.

•Many Indian reactions are philosophical but meaningless statements in the family of familiar inanities. Like, “We come into the world with nothing, we leave with nothing."

•If the late celebrity had a popular facade of physical fitness, like large biceps, or was really healthy in more rigorous ways, and had died of some disease, or its effect, like a heart attack, there would be a trace of glee among people who are ailing (most Indians above 45, that is). There would be a declaration that life is uncertain, and a rhetorical question that asks what is the point of all the dieting and exercise if one can just fall dead any moment. There would be the vilification of something called ‘lifestyle’, and of modern Western fitness regimes that are inferior to yoga, which alone can somehow prolong precarious life.

•The sudden death of the young inspires everyone, at least for a day, to talk about “living in the moment" and cherishing “the now". It is as though our preparation for the future is always at the expense of the present. In any case, if humans could survive the tedium of the present, they would not have invented the future. Hope is a place we have created so that we can flee to it now and then.

•In a nation filled with ham philosophers, there is special veneration of destiny every time we are reminded of the suddenness of death. Yet, it is impossible to convince India that the worst sporting idea in the world is the most sacred tactic in Test cricket—batsmen stonewalling deliveries to survive instead of scoring runs. No matter how good you are at defence, if a ball has your name on it, you will go back to the pavilion. A nation that celebrates destiny should know this—that in cricket, free will gets you runs and destiny gets your wicket.

When Indians invoke destiny and the inevitability of death (as though anyone has denied it) and how we must live for now, it is usually a philosophical campaign to justify junk food. Our celebration of “life" and “the present" is a sugar-delivery device.

•India is probably the worst place for a famous death. We are not good at according dignity to death, any death, let alone the death of a celebrity. There are no lines we will not cross.

When an ordinary person dies, the family will leave the world around them in no doubt that she or he has passed on. A mob will beat their chests and sway and wail and faint. Maybe it is a good idea to be this way. Maybe this is honest, maybe it relieves the pain of the two or three people to whom the deceased truly mattered, and maybe there are aspects of ancient cultural behaviour that are better than recent tricks of dignity. But we extend this public lament to celebrities, too.

If the dead person is a legendary politician (South Indian film legends should be classified as politicians even if they don’t contest elections), thousands of us will sway and wail. Most celebrities will not attract this behaviour, but the catharsis will still be played out in public. The media, for instance, will assume it has the right to make all details of the death and mourning public, and they would be rewarded by audiences that are not offended by the indignity of it all.

But one part of this public drama is a tribute—other celebrities in whites turning up at the funeral or prayer meet. These days in India, if beautiful people in whites do not attend your funeral, you have not made it. It will not be very surprising, therefore, if an Indian starts a company that rents beautiful mourners in whites to send off the wealthy who lacked celebrity.

In the media’s coverage of a celebrity’s sudden death, there is always one piece of information conveyed that has the quality of a disclaimer: ‘No foul play suspected’. This sentence has many layers of meaning, none of which means ‘No foul play suspected’. Instead, it seems loaded with the suggestion that there could have been ‘foul play’, and possibly even the secret hope that there was.

When a young Indian male celebrity dies suddenly, his girl friend should consider it a matter of good fortune that he did not kill himself. For she could be destroyed by the media, as we saw in the aftermath of the suicide of Sushant Singh Rajput.

Even if the celebrity has not killed himself, the media can blame his girlfriend for his death—as the source of a fatal form of “stress".

Of late, many have accepted that the lover is as important a figure as the spouse, but they still associate something shady with the word ‘girlfriend’. It is as if the ‘girlfriend’ of a famous man was a transient shadowy figure whom the celebrity had not promoted to ‘wife’ for unknown but excellent reasons.

After the death of Shukla, several news media outlets linked a young actress to him in demeaning ways, like “rumoured girlfriend". One even called her his “alleged girlfriend".

Manu Joseph is a journalist, and a novelist, most recently of ‘Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous’

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