Mumbai: It’s easy to think of @SSRMansur21 as a Twitter bot. The account uses a stock photo of Sushant Singh Rajput, it only tweets and retweets posts about him, and all hashtags it ever uses are related to the late actor. Since it was created in August 2020, the @SSRMansur21 account has posted 84.8k (84,800) tweets. That’s nearly 300 tweets a day.
But behind @SSRMansur21 is a real person. Shubham Gaikwad is a 21-year-old student from a village in central Maharashtra. He’s shy and self-conscious. He’s also a bit paranoid. He wants his exact location to be withheld; he wouldn’t even share his phone number or switch on his video during our Zoom call.
If people find out who Gaikwad is and he gets arrested, it would mean the #JusticeForSSR movement would lose a nimble-fingered warrior. And Gaikwad can’t have that.
Gaikwad idolises Rajput. He has seen every one of Rajput’s movies and interviews. He has also taken screenshots of all of Rajput’s Instagram posts, lest they get deleted one day. It had happened in 2019, when the actor had deleted several posts without warning. Gaikwad was distraught after.
Gaikwad lives with his parents but doesn’t get along with them. After Rajput’s death, he stopped talking to his friends because they couldn’t understand why he should be so distressed. He has a tentative, almost apologetic way of speaking.
But when he talks about the actor, Gaikwad’s voice transforms into one of authority. “He was a self-made star,” he said. “He’d never lie. He’d wake up at 4 am and meditate. For his roles, he gave countless auditions. He wanted to live a nice life with his family and work for the nation. Just like me.”
Rajput inspired Gaikwad to better himself. During one of his diploma exams, he’d regularly watch “motivational” videos of the actor, like the talk he gave at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Bombay on his struggle to break into Bollywood. Gaikwad scored the highest marks that semester. But he never tried to meet or speak to the actor. “I know my weakness,” said Gaikwad. “I can’t talk well. I didn’t want to embarrass him out of my behaviour.”
Rajput died on 14 June 2020. When he first heard of it, Gaikwad grabbed his phone and DM’d Rajput on Instagram: “Are you okay?” Over the next couple of days, news reports said Rajput was depressed, that it drove him to commit suicide. But Gaikwad wasn’t convinced. “He was the type to encourage, inspire and push people. He couldn’t be depressed.”
The past few years, Gaikwad has kept a diary to record his thoughts and feelings, just like Rajput used to do. On 15 June, Gaikwad recorded the actor’s death in his diary: “It was murder.” A couple of months later, he joined the Justice for SSR campaign.
The Biggest Lie, The Only Truth
In October 2016, Rajput was invited as a guest speaker at a leadership summit at the IIT-Bombay. You can watch his speech from the time on YouTube. It’s short, self-effacing and bereft of any sermons one usually gets to see at such summits. Rajput, dressed in a casual shirt and jeans and looking almost like a high school graduate, is leading with his story, giving his audience a peek into his hopes and dreams. It’s not a novel approach. But Rajput’s sincerity, and his disarming awkwardness, make it a masterclass in public speaking.
Right off the bat, Rajput acknowledges the elephant in the room: that he, a college drop-out, is tasked with addressing a room full of some of the brightest minds in one of India’s finest universities. “What can I tell you that they already don’t know?” he wonders. Perhaps, he can talk about the two things he’s learnt about success in his time on the field. Things no one had told him about when he was their age.
He grabs a marker and writes on a whiteboard:
1. The biggest lie
2. The only truth
The biggest lie, he says, is that ‘money plus recognition is equal to happiness plus success’. Growing up in a middle class family, both money and fame were absent in his life. To make up, he studied hard and snagged a seat in a premier engineering college in Delhi. He should’ve been happy but he didn’t feel it. So he started preparing for the civil services exams, thinking that’d help. In the meantime, he enrolled himself in an acting and dance class. The idea was to conquer his shyness he had, “and still have”. The other reason: “Because there were no girls in my college.”
The world of performing arts seduced him. After trying to juggle art and academics, Rajput dropped out, only two semesters shy of his degree. Now he had to prove he made the right choice. To his friends and family, and to himself.
Rajput started out in films as a background dancer. Two years later, in 2009, he got his first break in television. He started earning. A lot. Soon, he bought a house and a car. “And I was getting such female attention that my engineering college friends could only possibly dream of.”
“Then something unusual happened.” Rajput pauses. “I got used to everything. And I felt cheated.”
That’s when he realised ‘The only truth’. All these years, he was obsessed about what comes next, swinging from past to future, not living in the moment. He started thinking. Acting made him come alive, it made hard work seem like anything but work. Finally he understood the true meaning of success. It didn’t mean ‘money plus recognition’ but ‘now plus excitement’.
“So, here I am right now, five years down the line. Money and fame, I have much more of them than I had ever planned. And the best thing? One of my professors, who was very dear to me, called me recently, asking to plan an interaction with students. I very humbly requested, ‘Can I get my degree back?’ And it’s happening. And I’m very excited again.”
A deafening applause. Rajput has won the crowd. It’s only taken him 15 minutes.
Rise Of The SSR Army
It’s been exactly a year since Rajput was found dead in his Mumbai apartment, hanging from a ceiling fan. A Mumbai police investigation said the actor had committed suicide. An All India Institute of Medical Science (AIIMS) medical board confirmed it. Rajput’s therapist, Susan Walker, in a breach of patient confidentiality, issued a statement claiming the actor was suffering from depression and bipolar disorder. Yet, a large section of people disbelieved that his mental health led to his death.
At the centre of these theories is the ‘Justice for SSR’ campaign. As a group, they identify as ‘SSR Army’. As individuals, they go as ‘SSRians’. They believe Rajput was above mental illness. They claim he was murdered. They’re unclear on who killed him. But depending on who you ask, the blame rests on Bollywood, politicians from all parties other than the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Mumbai’s drug cartel and the underworld. Some, or all, of them, together or separately, conspired to stop a humble, intelligent and patriotic actor from stardom. All because the nepotists didn’t want a small-town outsider in their fold.
Rajput, 33, had made a mark in spite of spending less than a decade in Bollywood. Since 2013, he had starred in several memorable Hindi movies like Kai Po Che, Sonchiriya and Chhichhore. He acted with passion and danced with abandon. After his death, all sorts of people cried foul. A few of them became SSRians.
There are two kinds of SSRians. One, like Gaikwad: who followed him assiduously during his acting years. His death felt like the actor had betrayed them. Rajput never let on that he was struggling with his mental health. There was no suicide note found in his apartment either. It didn’t add up. When alternate theories around his death cropped up, many latched on to it.
To others, Rajput represented the triumph of an outsider in an insular industry. Rajput had no godfather; he earned his place on hard work and merit. It's similar to the mythology Prime Minister Narendra Modi has created around himself by harping on his origins as a small town tea-seller from a disadvantaged family. In India’s starkly unequal society, both set a precedent: that a common man can reach the top. It wasn’t difficult to believe that the traditional power brokers would conspire to pull them down.
The SSRians number anywhere between tens of thousands to a few lakhs. You find them on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Koo. A lot of them are young, educated and conversant, if not skilled, in English. Most don’t use their real name or photos. They follow each other or use Telegram groups to plan and coordinate the hashtags and keywords for the day. Then they post and reshare throughout the day.
The SSRians converge in large numbers against anyone they deem going against their beliefs. Last month, they went after Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, for a Wiki entry that said Rajput’s death was an act of suicide. After a barrage of tweets, Wales replied that he was willing to engage with them privately. But for most part, their activism involves tagging the PM, his ministers, central agencies and its personnel to expedite their probe.
The BJP has arguably been the biggest beneficiary of the campaign. The actor died in June, four months before Bihar was scheduled to hold assembly elections. Rajput was born in Patna, the state capital. The BJP leveraged his death to unleash a majoritarian, muscular campaign to get “justice” for a fellow Bihari. The BJP-Janata Dal (United) government in Bihar even flew down an IPS officer to Mumbai to probe the death. He couldn’t do much though: the Mumbai civic body locked him up in a quarantine facility for 14 days.
A University of Michigan study in October 2020 found BJP leaders and followers were active proponents of the “murder” theory. “The move towards conspiracies was accompanied by multiple supporting actors—the local police was proposed as incompetent, or in cahoots with the cabal, the state government itself was presented as nepotistic and inimical to the interests of poor outsiders,” the study said.
The BJP-led government at the Centre also charged the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), Enforcement Directorate (ED) and Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) to probe the actor’s death. In September, the NCB recovered 59 gm ganja from two men alleged to be close to Rajput. They briefly arrested Rajput’s girl friend and fellow actor Rhea Chakraborty, alleging she was an “active member of (a) drugs syndicate connected with drugs supplies". “Even a sadhu’s chillam holds more [drugs] than Rhea’s consumption,” Suhas Gokhale, retired senior inspector at the anti-narcotics branch of Mumbai Police, had said at the time.
In March, the NCB filed a chargesheet naming 33 accused, including Chakraborty. None of the major actors, politicians, journalists or public figures named and defamed by the SSRians were named or arrested. But co-opting their cause has earned the BJP loyalists among SSRians.
Even as the second Covid-19 wave devastated the country, almost none of the SSRians criticised it for mismanagement of the pandemic. If they did acknowledge the pandemic at all, it was mostly to express support of the government or organize relief efforts. When ‘#ModiMustResign’ trended on Twitter, so did ‘Sushant Ek Sitara’.
Swati Chaturvedi, journalist and author of I Am a Troll: Inside the Secret World of the BJP’s Digital Army, argued that the Justice for SSR was a campaign run by the BJP to manage headlines. “Even the NCB actions were part of the same script,” said Chaturvedi “The BJP & its proxies, and its cheerleaders of the mass media, ran a campaign to demonise Rhea Charkaborty.”
In November 2020, a Mumbai Police investigation identified nearly 150,000 Twitter bots used to “defame” Maharashtra police and government. A lot of those active had joined the platform in or after June 2020. Chaturvedi said it was part of “paid social media work which is often outsourced to trolls farms & companies which run bots”.
A year on, that might have changed. Last month, Ananth Prabhu, a cyber security trainer for Karnataka Police, analysed a few randomly selected accounts at my request. “These aren’t bots,” he said. “But it’s possible that these are proxy accounts.”
A person can have multiple accounts on Twitter. It’s a tactic often used to show support, amplify posts and keep certain issues ‘trending’. “It’s also possible they use anonymous browsers like Tor. It helps users stay anonymous and suggests that SSRians come from across the world,” said Prabhu. Indeed, a number of SSR fans have flags of foreign countries in their bio.
I wrote to over two dozen SSRians for this piece. Most didn’t want to be interviewed. Some didn’t reply to my messages, some abandoned the conversation after introductions. A Twitter user called Anonymous Girl cancelled our interview at the last minute, saying: “My parents have come to know of this. I can’t anymore.” Finally, five SSRians agreed to go on record.
Stages Of Grief
When the news of Rajput’s death broke, the social media reaction went through the familiar motions of grief: shock, denial and anger.
Joseph R, 34, was among the early volunteers of the SSR Army. He lives in Mumbai with his wife, also an SSRian. He has salt-and-pepper hair and a Frank Zappa moustache. When deep in thought, his fingers start stroking it.
“When I came to know of his death, I started seeing things, and then I started feeling things,” said Joseph. “It would come to my mind that I am Sushant... If I was killed in this manner, I’d feel it. If I have no control over seeing my family, and I had so many things planned, and all that is diminished in a few seconds. That pain ran through my mind. I was like, I should do something for the guy.”
Joseph knew of Rajput much before the actor made his big-screen debut. He and the actor worked out in the same gym in suburban Mumbai around 2011. Joseph remembers that the actor was focused and friendly. But they never talked. “In Andheri, you see a lot of celebrities. You don’t make a big deal about it.” Once the actor left the gym around 2012, Joseph kept an eye out for Rajput’s movies and followed his career.
After he died, Joseph started spending six to seven hours on Twitter a day. He spoke to a “few people” from the film industry and “found out” it wasn’t suicide. By now, the demand for a CBI inquiry had reached a crescendo. A week before Rajput’s death, his manager Disha Salian too was found dead after she jumped off a building. Many suspected that her death was linked to his.
Indian TV news channels have a history of fanning conspiracy theories after a celebrity’s death. When actor Sridevi was found dead in a bathtub in 2018, many channels similarly speculated the involvement of her husband Boney Kapoor. In Rajput’s case though, no theory was too far-fetched to be aired. Anyone who was ever unkind, cheeky or dismissive of Rajput was a suspect.
Here’s a sample: Arnab Goswami, editor of Republic TV, once hauled up actress Alia Bhatt for her comments on the chat show Koffee With Karan in 2019. Bhatt, in response to a question on lines of the drinking game ‘Kill-Marry-Hookup’, had picked Rajput as someone she’d “kill”. “Why would you say ‘kill’?” Goswami thundered. “I can understand ‘marry’ or ‘hookup’ but why would you say ‘kill’?”
In July, Sushant’s father K K Rajput filed an FIR against his son’s actress girlfriend Rhea Chakraborty and her family. Rhea, claimed Rajput senior, drove Sushant to suicide using drugs, blackmail and extortion. The SSR Army now turned vicious.
Chakraborty received a barrage of rape and death threats. Online trolls also targeted actors Deepika Padukone and Rakul Preet Singh and star-kids Sara Ali Khan and Shraddha Kapoor. Some like actress Sonakshi Sinha quit Twitter altogether, saying she was “better off” without the hate.
Joseph said he wasn’t a troll. “For me, it was more about guiding people not to do what they were doing... There were students and teenagers who didn't know how to use Twitter. You had to go to DM them and make them understand don’t do this.” Yet, in August, his account was suspended. “There were hundreds of accounts being suspended who were voicing out for justice,” he said. “We lost our account because we were asking the right questions.”
Joseph created a new Twitter account. He now spends 2 hours there every day. He’s stopped taking up Bollywood projects. “My conscience doesn’t allow me to,” he said. He doesn’t mind the BJP’s opportunism, though. “Whatever they did that time helped us,” said Joseph. “I don’t want to put that down now. They did it for various reasons but it needed to be done that time.” He is currently coordinating a campaign to send handwritten letters to CBI headquarters to expedite the investigation.
“If he gets justice, it’d mean that everything is possible if you do it the right way, if you are on the right path and do the right things,” said Joseph. “It’d mean a commoner or a middle class person is not someone you can play around with.”
The SSR Army has a horizontal hierarchy. But some voices, who claim to have a close connection to the actor, have become its de-facto leaders over time. These include Nilotpal Mrinal, a “family friend” of Rajput’s; choreographer Ganesh Hiwarkar and former event manager Smita Parekh.
Parekh owes her limelight to a series of appearances on Republic TV. In these, she identifies as Rajput’s friend, questions the police investigation and alludes to Rhea’s involvement in the actor’s death. Rajput had stopped responding to her texts months before his death. This, she believes, was because of the increasing role of Rhea in his life.
“There are different verticals [to the campaign],” she explained over Zoom. “There’s a hashtag vertical, a ground protest team, an international group and a team of social causes to keep Sushant’s name alive.” The Justice for SSR campaign has taken over her life. She’s stopped working. Her days consist of trawling social media platforms and coordinating with SSR volunteers, sometimes as soon as she is up.
A few months ago, Parekh quit Mumbai to move back to her hometown in Rajasthan. She’d started receiving death threats, she claims. Living in Mumbai didn’t feel safe anymore. But unlike other SSRians, she is careful not to squarely pin blame. The BJP did politicise the death, she admitted, but she still trusts the party and its central agencies.
Does the possible lack of impartiality of the CBI probe worry her? I asked. The CBI is, after all, called the ‘caged parrot’.
“I don’t understand that much but if that’s the way, we should be hopeful. If they’re controlled by the ruling party, it’ll be in our favour.”
Days after our chat, she texted me asking my credentials and why I wanted to know about the workings of the campaign. “The team which creates HT [hashtags] their accounts [are] being suspended one by one. It’s strange,” she wrote.
I had nothing to do with it, I replied. I hadn’t even written the article.
“Well suspending accounts won’t stop us,” she wrote. “Karma Will them and how. [sic]”
She didn’t speak to me after.
The Narcissism Of Celebrity Worship
In Celebrity Worship, author and theologian Pete Ward explores the relationship between religion, media and culture to explain fandom and its effects. He opens with the case study of Sir David Attenborough.
The seventh episode of Attenborough’s Blue Planet II nature documentary, released on the BBC in 2017, talked about the devastating effects of plastic pollution on marine life. The reports accompanied visuals of dolphins playing with plastic in the sea, of an albatross feeding a plastic bag to its chicks. It had an immediate impact on viewers. A 2018-19 report by the British supermarket chain Waitrose found that 88 per cent of those who saw the documentary had changed their behaviour.
“It would be impossible to understand the importance of Blue Planet II without taking into account its presenter David Attenborough,” Ward writes. “He is someone who has given his life to bringing to us the marvellous beauty of the natural world, and it is because of his authenticity built up over decades on television, that millions of people were motivated to adjust their lifestyles. However, Sir David is who he is because of the ways in which his audience over decades have chosen to engage with his message. A ‘national treasure’ [as he is known in the UK] is not simply made by the media but by the nation.”
Celebrity worship, Ward argues, is about the self. Viewers don’t worship Attenborough. He represents something moving and meaningful. The media persona he’s cultivated through years makes him someone they trust, someone they take seriously.
“Celebrities are important,” writes Ward, “because they are the primary resources in processing the project of self.”
In India, celebrity worship is also literal. There are temples and shrines for actors, politicians and cricketers across the country. In Tamil Nadu, fans of Rajinikanth often conduct maha-abhishekam (a religious ceremony) for their star on the eve of his film release. Salman Khan, who enjoys a similar cult following, acknowledged the motivations of his fans in an interview in 2013: "They somewhere see themselves in me.”
Rajput didn’t have Salman’s machismo or Rajnikanth’s swagger. But he was hard-working, self-deprecating and approachable. He would oblige fans for selfies; he would interact with them on Instagram. In all of his films, he played the good guy. In interviews, he spoke of his middle class values, small-town upbringing and the years of struggle before he could be successful. A large section of his fans could relate to that.
Most SSRians experience what psychologists call a ‘parasocial relationship’ with the actor. These are one-way relationships a person forms with a public figure. These figures might not even know of their existence but fans can still feel close to them. Over the last two decades, social scientists from the UK and the US have conducted long-term studies on the fans of singers Bruce Springsteen and David Bowie. Such relationships, they found, played a crucial role in how the fans navigated adolescence and adulthood. One Bowie fan interviewed said he couldn’t imagine a life without the singer.
“Sushant Singh Rajput is a good example of the way that fans think they know celebrities intimately, right down to their motives for doing things,” said David Giles, PhD, from the University of Winchester, United Kingdom. A media psychologist, Giles has researched parasocial relationships for over two decades.
“Just as it's very hard to accept the suicide of a loved one or family member (because they're effectively saying you're not worth being alive for), so fans will cling on to every last shred of hope when their hero dies,” said Ward. “So, if there is any chance that fans could concoct a 'conspiracy', a cover-up, etc. they will chase that possibility rather than accept the evidence that their hero felt he would be better off without them.”
It’s thus not unusual for fans to not get over their favoured celebrity’s death. The problem is when they make broad assumptions on how police, politics and the film industry works. Many cherry-pick events, circulate morphed photos, and are goaded on by TV news channels with scant regard for fact-checking. SSRians aren’t insensitive to mental health, they just can't accept that Rajput could have been a victim of it. Rajput was 'one-of-them' and he reached the top. They’d rather not see themselves fall.
Sanjay Srivastava, sociologist with University College London, said the actor represented the changing ideas of social aspirations in India. “Over the past three decades, the [Indian] economy has changed,” said Srivastava. “There is greater movement of young people from small to large cities. There has also emerged an expanded notion of achievement and the sense that those of modest means can also go on to bright futures.
“Rajput typifies this idea of a 'new' India and hence the strong affinity that many might feel towards him,” said Srivastava “He represents, then, the idea of small town struggle and the ways in which an 'innocent' man can be 'tricked' by the wiley ways of the metropolis.”
The theme plays up often in pulp fiction, especially Hindi detective fiction, he adds. An innocent small town man gets into a relationship with a conniving city woman and ends up in tatters. In Rajput’s death, that role of a vamp is attributed to Chakraborty.
“So, it may not just be about a 'common' person becoming successful and then being pulled down by the powerful,” said Srivastava. “Rather, Rajput is part of a series of larger discourses about contemporary Indian culture relating to aspirations, family life, the 'dangerous' woman and 'innocent' masculinity.”
Love You To The Moon And Back
Bohra, 46, lives in Mumbai with his wife and a 10 year old son. He’s a technical advisor at a UK-based telecom firm. Every day, he spends an hour reading or watching something about Rajput. Every chance he gets, he plugs the actor’s quotes in conversations. He never thought Rajput was just an actor but more of a bhai (brother) and a guru.
At first, his obsessions worried his family. “Many times my mother or wife would say, you are trying to impersonate someone. But if I’m getting inspired by someone, I’m not losing my identity. Rajput bhai was a different person, Ashish is a different person. Never has Ashish thought of becoming Sushant because Ashish knows Sushant bhai is very high. And you can’t go against gravity.”
Rajput’s death hit him hard, “like a tsunami”. In his attempts to cope, Bohra turned to religion. He organized an abhishek (a Hindu ritual for the departed) and a blood donation camp in the actor’s name. He’d spend hours watching Republic TV, following Twitter theories questioning the actor’s suicide. “It came to a point that I was about to be thrown out of my house!” he said.
Eventually, Bohra decided that he needed to acquire something Rajput had too. “I started analysing. A penthouse like Sushant bhai’s is not possible. A BMW like Sushant bhai I can’t afford...” He settled for the next best thing: land on the moon.
For the record, no one can own land on the moon. But for years, several dubious ‘companies’ have been advertising moon landing sites such as 'Bay of Rainbows', 'Sea of Rains' and 'Lake of Dreams' as for sale. Bohra contacted nearly 250 companies before eventually settling on the one that sold a land parcel to Rajput a few years ago. For Rs 25,000, he got an acre of land at the ‘Sea of Muscovy’. “And fortunately, with blessings of Sushant bhai, my land and his land are next to each other,” he said, visibly chuffed.
Today, Bohra spends 5-6 hours campaigning on Twitter. He does it all while juggling his responsibilities towards them. His family and friends have made their peace with it too. SSRians plan to mark the actor’s death anniversary with food donations, lighting candles and creating a ‘Twitter storm’. Ashish Bohra has one more suggestion: Don’t speak of the actor in past tense. For “he’s alive in your heart.”
What does Justice for Sushant look like? “It means the culprits are behind the bars,” he said. And who are the culprits? “It’s not 1 or 2 but it’s a nexus... A person like Sushant bhai can never be driven to a point to commit suicide. I’ve followed him for 10 years. I’ve seen his intelligence grow. I can assure you he’s not going to commit suicide...”
Can he be so sure? He never even met the man. “Nowadays I don’t need to know a person personally to know him,” said Bohra. “I can google it out.”
(Omkar Khandekar is a Mumbai-based journalist.)