Rhea Chakraborty’s Controversy: A Reflection upon the gender based angles.

On the sudden demise of Sushant Singh Rajput, his girlfriend Rhea Chakraborty was made the scapegoat. Together the society, media and politicians shattered her image. The allegations upon Rhea were that she drove Sushant to commit suicide by controlling him mentally. For doing this, she separated Sushant from his family and put him on wrong medication and drugs. She used his money to enjoy and when she found that Sushant was quitting Bollywood, she found him of no use and left him two days before he committed suicide. This story was broadly accepted by the society and news channels. Earlier, it was only a normal controversy which had angles of Bollywood, nepotism, misogyny and drugs.

Later, this controversy hijacked every social media platform and became a political controversy. Rhea was called a coercive and manipulative person whose actions caused the death of a huge superstar. In addition to Rhea being shown in bad light, Sushant was shown as ambitious, humble and kind to derive the attention of the public and gain sympathy. Showcase of Sushant as an excessively innocent person who couldn’t find out Rhea’s reality, ruined Rhea’s image even more. Many people took to their social media handles and started commenting about Rhea. All these series of incidents made the social media platforms extremely ‘toxic’. Media Channels hyped this controversy which made it a ‘social media phenomenon’.

In the initial part of the paper, we will describe how Rhea’s positionality in the society played a huge role in this controversy. Later, we will draw a parallel of Sushant’s suicide case with Pratyusha Banerjee’s suicide case, in which the famous T.V. actress committed suicide. To give the context of Pratyusha’s case, her friends and family blamed her boyfriend, Rahul for her suicide and also gave some strong evidence against him.  But we find that media and state machinery were silent on this issue and never bombarded Rahul with any label. Our focus would be on analysing why Rhea received so much more hate than Rahul when both were accused of similar things in the similar kind of circumstances.

Positionality of Rhea Explained

In order to understand why Rhea was targeted, we need to understand her position in the society. Rhea is a ‘28 year old’ ‘woman’. She belongs to the ‘upper middle class’ of society. She identifies herself as a ‘Bengali’. The fact that her cultural linguistic identity was ‘Bengali’ is a major reason for the hatred she received. “It is a commonly known stereotype that ‘beautiful’ Bengali women ‘trap’ young and rich guys easily through their ‘black magic’.” “People also call it catching a ‘big fish’(rich men).”[1] “Mixing the age factor with this, research says that women in their twenties are considered biologically more fertile and hence, more sexually appealing than other women.”[2] This exact stereotype was pasted upon Rhea also. “One of the aajtak news channel headline read as ‘Rhea ka Sushant pe kaala jadu’.”[3]

It was said that she used her ‘appearance’ to attract Sushant and after being successful in it, she exploited Sushant and embezzled his money. Sushant used to pay for their trips and for Rhea’s expenses which was used by TV channels to decide that she merely had a financial interest in him and not because she loved him. The fact that she belonged to ‘upper middle class’ of the society meant that she had taken benefit of Sushant who was both rich and powerful. Consequently, Rhea was called a ‘gold digger’.

The assumption that Rhea was a ‘gold digger’ arises from the stereotype that women can never be ‘financially independent’. Women’s inferiority status in the past has led to them being always dependent upon someone. For this reason, society finds it harder to accept women’s ‘financial independence’, naturally making it easier for them to assume a woman like Rhea’s ‘financial dependence’ on a man.

Position of women in the society

The most crucial reason for Rhea’s vulnerability was that she is a ‘woman’. Often, women are considered weak and are easily taken advantage of. “The book ‘Property, Women and Politics: Subjects or Objects’[4] says that when a ‘despotic subject’ is present in the society, it tries to enforce its power on the ‘object’.”[5] Within this controversy, Rhea was an ‘object’ who was used by the ‘subject’. There has been a history of women persistently being ‘objects’ of use. Everything that a woman does has been controlled by the subject.

Women are never allowed to play an active role in their life, they have a passive existence. This continuous subjugation by everyone has reduced their importance in the society. “Hence, the centre position is occupied by the sovereign male and this sovereign masculinity is used by them to exploit the one who is marginalized(objects).”[6] Linking this with our case, where the media, politicians and a huge chunk of society had become masculine and had supressed Rhea who was rendered powerless. It becomes easy to target Rhea( a woman) because within the society she is already at a socially constructed inferior position.

It remained unnoticed to most people that the society is constructed in a manner that women always become ‘objects’ of ‘use’. People continuously blamed Rhea for using Sushant and neglected Rhea who herself had become an ‘object’ of use for the politicians and media. However, the reason this controversy became a widespread social media phenomenon was because of political reasons also. Sushant was from Bihar where elections were upcoming. In order to win them, political parties were ‘hyping’ the sudden death of Sushant and were continuously blaming Rhea for it.

On the other hand, Mumbai police were negligent during the investigation of Sushant’s death and so the central government gave the case to three big agencies: CBI, ED and NCB to show how ‘responsible’ they were as against the state government. Showing state government in bad light could lead to dropping of coalition government in the state and formation of a new government with BJP in Maharashtra. So, Rhea was only used as a ‘tool’ to gain political power.

This reposes the same question as to why women always become object. “Several papers have also come to the finding that over attention has been given to a ‘woman’s beauty’. This over importance given to her appearance leads to ‘internalization’ of the fact that ‘beauty’ is the most necessary thing. When beauty becomes an important asset, people cannot think beyond it. This also made it hard for people to believe that a woman can possess both beauty and brain as higher attention to beauty reduced the perceptions about her mental capacity.”[7] Earlier, women’s beauty and her ability to manage her house and family was considered important for her. Even in marriages what concerned the families the most was the ‘attractiveness’ of the woman. “Because of this thinking, women’s beauty was given more weightage which led people to believe that presence of other skills or education is less important.

It dampened the importance of other skills as beauty decided the status of women. So, women were never motivated or pushed to learn any other skill, become independent or step outside the home which further weakened her position.”[8] It made her an easy prey of the ‘masculinity’ in the society. “Additionally, the hype about ‘beauty’ and ‘physical appearance’ led to ‘objectification’ of women which faded the presence of other skills she had.”[9] “When women are objectified, they are considered less of a human being. Her value is reduced to that of a ‘property’ or of an ‘object’. When women become ‘property’, then the ‘property-holders’(subjects) start dominating her which is considered correct in the eyes of public.”[10] In Rhea’s case too, Rhea was being used, however, the topic of discussion always remained that Rhea used her ‘attractiveness’ to manipulate Sushant.

In one particular video, Rhea was wearing salwar kurta and was requesting people to stop blaming her. To this video, Sushant’s dad’s lawyer replied that Rhea doesn’t usually wear salwar-kurta and she wore it only to appear innocent. This again depicts the ‘hyper-focus’ over a woman’s ‘appearance’. Rhea’s beauty was considered so important in controlling Sushant that everybody stopped thinking rationally. Nobody believed that Rhea and Sushant might have been in love, they only believed that Rhea trapped Sushant using her ‘beauty’.

By saying that, ‘beauty’ was given more importance we do not imply that ‘beauty’ must not be given importance. We are asserting that people have hyped ‘beauty’ to such an extent that it becomes hard for them to see anything apart from that. The public did not see that Sushant was an adult and he could’ve assessed if Rhea was using him. They continuously claimed that Rhea might have trapped Sushant using her ‘beauty’. The hype about her beauty and dressing sense in the video blurred everything else. When public believed in these stereotypes, government involved big agencies in furtherance of these stereotypes. CBI(To check if Rhea controlled Sushant), ED(To check if she had taken his money) and NCB(To check if she manipulated Sushant using drugs).

One more reason for Rhea’s vulnerability, would require us to look into the past. Historically, women have been trained to manage the family by continuously adjusting. She is also told that the masters of the family are her father, brother or her in-laws and that she is below them. In such a familial structure, when she is blamed, she tends to speak nothing as she considers herself submissive. She doesn’t take a stand for herself so that the argument doesn’t exceed and the matter ends immediately. In fact, this is still seen as the best way to manage the family and keep others in the family happy. The unfortunate consequence of this structure was that the ‘men’ or rather the ‘society’ started feeling they are allowed to speak anything against the women and that they borne the responsibility to correct her.

This stereotype is deeply ingrained into our society due to which everybody has ‘internalized’ that the society has the authority to question her actions and to correct her. When women don’t take a stand for themselves, the society starts to dominate them which sometimes women also consider correct due to ‘internalization’. This has pushed their position lower into the social hierarchy and have made them easy targets. Rhea was targeted by the society because they felt that they have the authority and responsibility to correct her by brutally attacking her. She also received hate speech, misogynist comments and rape threats. The reason for rape threats can also be linked to ‘correction’. “‘Corrective assault’ or ‘corrective rape’ is seen a lot in society where rape is used to punish or correct the woman who doesn’t adhere to the societal standards.”[11] Rhea received rape threats due to the ‘overtly corrective’ attitude of the society towards a woman.

Comparison between Sushant and Pratyusha’s suicide case: Deeper insight into the women’s position.

Now, let us examine the case where the TV actress, Pratyusha Banerjee committed suicide and severe allegations were put upon her boyfriend Rahul for using her money and for being the reason of her depressive state. But we know that this incident did not become as infamous as Rhea’s case. Let us find the reasons for it. Firstly, in a man’s case, it is assumed that he is always ‘good with money’, so he can never use a woman for that. In fact, after knowing that Rahul used Pratyusha’s money, people were of the perception that a man may ‘handle’ the finances of the woman as she is incapable to do it herself. Hence there is nothing troubling that Rahul took care of Pratyusha’s finances, it is completely normal, rather good.

Second, we can also cull out from our previous discussion that less was said to Rahul because society considers it a bigger responsibility to correct Rhea(woman), however, they do not find it extremely relevant to correct a man like Rahul who was actually wrong. A woman is forced more to adhere to some standards set by the society and not conforming to those would open a gate for others to comment and correct her.

Rhea and Rahul were affected differently. Rahul did not experience even near to what Rhea experienced because of his dominant ‘male’ position. The stereotypes about a woman are so strong that negative perceptions about her are easier to accept than positive ones. It is easy to accept that she used her beauty to trap someone and that she might be used due to her attractive appearance. However, it is hard to believe that she can handle her finances or that a man can have a financial interest in her.

Society claimed that Rhea had a ‘financial interest’ in Sushant and found it extremely difficult to accept love between the two classes. However, they did not even pay heed to the case where Pratyusha belonging to an ‘upper class’ was being used by Rahul for her money. This happens because ‘financial independence’ is more commonly seen in men and hence, easier to believe in the case of a man. However, if the story would have been that Rahul used Pratyusha for her ‘physical appearance’, it would have been easier for the society to digest. In fact, they would look at it as an example for ‘women’ to protect themselves from such men rather than telling the ‘men’ to stop using women. This discussion points out that society considers it inherently important to protect a woman rather than focusing their attention on the wrong doer. This ‘protectionist’ and ‘paternalistic’ attitude towards women is also the reason why Rhea’s controversy gained more attention.

Gender Based Violence

We must also analyse this controversy through the lens of ‘gender based violence’. Usually, one considers only physical or sexual harms like ‘rape’ or ‘domestic violence’ as acts of gender based violence. But gender based violence can be both physical and mental. In this case, Rhea was mentally and emotionally harassed by the investigating agencies, government, media and society. She also received rape threats because people wanted to attack her sexually also. She did not even get time to peacefully mourn for her boyfriend. These incidents were gender based as they took place mainly because Rhea is a woman.

People were extremely sympathetic about Sushant who had depression and were shaken to listen about his ‘mental health’. However, when it came to Rhea, people were least concerned about her mental health and the level of mental violence that was being inflicted upon her. The history of suppression of women and Rhea was ignorable but the sufferings of Sushant were not. This is because the socially constructed inferior position of a woman diverts all the attention towards the miseries of a man. Hence, this controversy consisted such a high degree of discrimination and ignorance due to ‘gender based stereotypes’ that it took the form of ‘gender based violence’.

Conclusion

It is hypocritic how the public treats the two genders differently. It is also discriminatory how public thought that Rhea used Sushant but couldn’t understand how she was being used. We also see a contrast in the society because its stereotypes are based on ‘submissive position’ of the women however, they find it very easy to believe that Rhea was in a ‘controlling position’. This happens because this controversy was not only influenced by the virtue of Rhea being a ‘woman’ but also of her being an ‘attractive’ Bengali woman. Due to this intersectionality of identities, Rhea faced discrimination.

Regardless of everything, we rarely do see such controversies which people find unforgiving and unforgettable. This controversy became a social media phenomenon also because there were a nationwide ‘lockdown’ and people had nothing to do but to gossip about this. In fact, this controversy showed us how deeply stereotypes and hypocrisy is entrenched within Indian society. We also see how easy it is for the politicians and media to control the society using the stereotypes. Hence, this controversy calls for introspection into our ways of thinking. We as a society, need to figure out that unlearning the old conventions is the only solution to build a less toxic and zeroth level of masculine environment. 


[1] Anannya Chatterjee,Yes! Bengali Women Love To Catch ‘Big Fish’ And Here’s What They Do Next, iDiva(2020), https://www.idiva.com/lifestyle/food/heres-what-bengali-women-do-when-they-catch-big-fish/18012011.

[2] Kellie DJ, Blake KR, Brooks RC (2019), What drives female objectification? An investigation of appearance-based interpersonal perceptions and the objectification of women. PLoS ONE 14(8): e0221388. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0221388.

[3] https://images.app.goo.gl/Fmyy4U8v6Q7dXhA56.

[4] DONNA DICKENSON, PROPERTY, WOMEN AND POLITICS: SUBJECTS OR OBJECTS ( Rutgers University Press 1997).

[5] Ibid.

[6] NIVEDITA MENON, SEEING LIKE A FEMINIST (Zubaan ,Penguin Books 2012).

[7] Claire Gothreau, The Objectification of Women in Politics and Why it Matters, CAWP, https://cawp.rutgers.edu/election-analysis/objectification-women-politics-and-why-it-matters

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Donna Dickenson, Property, Women and Politics: Subjects or Objects 6 ( Rutgers University Press 1997).

[11] Sarah Doan-Minh, Corrective Rape: An Extreme Manifestation of Discrimination and the State’s Complicity in Sexual Violence,30 HWLJ,2019.

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