The media coverage of the drugs probe related to Sushant Singh’s death will have you believe that only women consume drugs.

Rhea Chakraborty with open hair and Deepika Padukone in white shirt and open hair
Flix Opinion Wednesday, October 07, 2020 - 15:04

In the last couple of weeks, TV screens have been plastered with images of actors Rhea Chakraborty, Deepika Padukone, Rakul Preet Singh, Shraddha Kapoor and Sara Ali Khan. While Rhea has arguably become the victim of a media trial in the case of the death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput, whom she was dating, the other three actors were reportedly named by Rhea in the drugs probe in relation to Sushant’s death.

Much has been said about the ethics of journalism in the context of the Sushant Singh Rajput case. However, there is something to be noted about how the coverage has only painted the women so far as consumers and/or solicitors of marijuana in the chats.

According to the Ministry of Social Justice, as of 2019, 2.8% people (between 10 and 75 years of age) in India consume cannabis, of whom 5% are men and 0.6% are women. The household survey looked at over two lakh households across 36 states and union territories. Per a study by the National Drug Dependence Treatment Centre, AIIMS, New Delhi, cannabis use was found to be 5% among men compared to 0.6% in women.

While it remains for investigating agencies to prove that these women have or have not solicited or consumed marijuana, the way they have been hounded and painted as the villains, compared to the near radio silence when it comes to the men in the industry, is telling of the sexist and misogynistic bias in the media.

For instance, once Deepika’s name was revealed in the ‘drugs chat’ – the ethics of leaking these chats by the Narcotics Control Bureau to the media can itself be questioned – the actor's struggles with depression were mocked. An old song she had done in 2011 called ‘Mit Jaaye Gham’ from the film Dum Maaro Dum was in discussion again. While it can be argued that the song itself has euphemisms for consumption of marijuana, the recent comments target Deepika directly.

In contrast, around a week ago, the NCB said that it was set to summon Deepika’s co-stars with the initials ‘S’, ‘R’ and ‘A’ for further investigation. ‘A’, it appears from this TOI report, is a male actor. It is notable that these persons’ privacy is being treated with far more respect than the women’s by the law enforcement as well as the media.

When men have been named in relation to crimes – even as serious as sexual assault and/or misconduct during the Me Too movement – there were many who insisted that the approach should be to treat them as ‘innocent until proven guilty’. However, when it comes to women, the scenario is entirely different.

The way Rhea Chakraborty has been portrayed in the media in the aftermath of Sushant’s death is a case in point. The young woman has been harassed, vilified, and her character assassinated on the news and on social media. Several people even vilified Bengali women in general because Rhea is a Bengali. Regardless of whether she is in some way culpable in Sushant’s death or not, the fact that she lost her partner and could also be grieving has been completely forgotten by a section of the media. And though Rhea has been arrested for allegedly procuring drugs for Sushant, the allegation that it was actually Sushant for whom the drugs were bought, has been glossed over.

Compare this to what happened when actor Sanjay Dutt openly said in 2017 that there was ‘no drug that he had not done’. He was talking about his stint in jail after he was booked under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act, his struggle with substance abuse and so on. His biopic, Sanju, starring Ranbir Kapoor, even chronicled some of this. However, at no point did Sanjay receive anything close to the flak that the women actors mentioned have been subjected to, even though there is very little actual proof against them.

The difference between how the media treats women accused of crimes and men has been seen earlier as well. For instance, the Jolly murder case in Kerala last year saw plenty of misogynistic memes surface after Jolly Thomas, who allegedly killed six people in her family with cyanide, was arrested. These comments ranged from men saying they’ve realised their wives are no devis to being suspicious about drinking the tea given by their wives unless the woman sips it first. Sowmya Rajendran wrote for TNM then, “Every time a crime with a woman as the accused surfaces, misogynists expect all women to be answerable for it. Typically, it's the same people who post #NotAllMen hashtags when women speak up against the overwhelming gender violence that they experience.”

Similar arguments have surfaced now, especially pitting the likes of actor Kangana Ranaut – who has become a favourite of TV channels following a questionable line of reporting on the drugs probe and vilifying the women – against Deepika, Rhea, and others.           

Even when we look at other cases – Sheena Bora’s murder for one – while both Peter and Indrani Mukherjea were accused in the case, Indrani certainly got the rawer end of the deal. Indrani’s character was called into question – how only the worst kind of woman could commit the ‘mother of all murders’. Her private life was questioned too, as were her ambitions.

This isn’t to say that the NCB should, in the present case, also ‘leak’ male actors’ names if they find them involved or that a section of the media should go to town with them too. However, it is worth noting that when a man is indicted, he is just a man known for the transgressions he committed. But when a woman is named, it is as though she becomes answerable for every decision she, and others like her have made in the past, and vice versa. The vilification of the women actors in the drugs probe is just one example – look around you, and there will be several more. 

Views expressed are author's own.