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Rhea Chakraborty Is Not A National Villain. She’s A Feminist Icon.

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Sep 10, 2020

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Image Credit: PTI

In June, Rhea Chakraborty was an independent woman, living her life in Mumbai with her partner, on her own terms, free of societal scrutiny. She was exercising freedom and agency most women across India only dream about. In only a matter of weeks, the same lifestyle that accorded her freedom was weaponized against her, after her partner, Sushant Singh Rajput, died by suicide. Her lifestyle, one defined by autonomy, quickly became suspect to those who couldn’t understand or allow it, leading to her sudden and absolute alienation from most of the country. Ironically, it’s through this very intense ‘otherizing’ and vilification that Rhea’s story ultimately became one entirely relatable to most women in India — the state of being regarded with suspicion for her choices, condemnation for her desires, and hate for her existence.

Three months after Sushant’s suicide, we see India has already made up its mind about Rhea, already decided she’s to blame — if not guilty of cold-blooded murder, then at least of manipulating him, stealing money from him, hooking him onto drugs, turning an otherwise small-town engineer-turned-actor into someone who was driven to take his own life, in some devious, yet inexplicable way. Everyone has already put her on trial, even though the public, media, and government can’t quite figure out the charges. As allegations flit from financial fraud to emotional manipulation to drug use, we see collective desperation to pin a vague notion of guilt to Rhea, though only one aspect of her remains on trial in the court of public opinion — her lifestyle and her independence. It’s what women in India suffer every day — their lifestyles are subjected to the scrutiny of people way more concerned about delivering judgments on their character than they are about these women’s safety, dignity, or lives. Indian women’s lives teeter between knowing their independence is no crime, yet having to behave like it is, because their agency presents a far more outrageous threat to society than any of their behavior.

In the diversionary circus that is #JusticeForSSR, India found a scapegoat in Rhea, enabled by a patriarchal society that teaches us to ascribe deviance and cunning in every woman who dares to do as she pleases. If Rhea shows strength of character in public, people exclaim at how perfectly cold and uncaring she can be; if she stands up for herself, people look for ways to distrust her; if she is straightforward and vulnerable, people think she’s a manipulative witch. At this point, as far as the media and the masses are concerned, it doesn’t matter what Rhea says or does. The guilty verdict is already in, and anything she does or says will be used against her, simply by virtue of the kind of woman she is — independent, free-thinking, strong. And it’s the kind of woman we can not understand, neither accept, in Indian society.

If any of what’s happening right now were actually about Sushant, we’d be talking about the scourge of mental health problems in India and their accompanying stigma. If it were about Sushant being disadvantaged in his career, we’d be talking about equal opportunity and the ways in which we can better empower marginalized artists. But those are too nuanced and too complicated to elicit the full power of the country’s rage. What is simpler to harness is the unrelenting misogyny that centers a young woman’s character as the focal point of the country’s anger, disappointment, and anxiety. It’s what happens when a patriarchal society looks for a target to unload their rage and disillusionment — it directs a barrage of hate and suspicion at women, whose lived experiences display an exhausting reel of constantly navigating the expectations and biases of their family, their community and their nation.


Related on The Swaddle:

Reimagining Witchcraft as a Refuge for Marginalized Groups


Rhea’s experience reveals the depth of bias society holds against independent women. Initial allegations against her involved age-old accusations of witchcraft often levied upon women who deviate from society’s expectations. TV news channels like Aaj Tak took the bait and ran visuals of a ‘witch’-like Rhea, spinning a narrative of hypnotic control that a devious Rhea exerted over an unsuspecting Sushant. Her presence and influence in Sushant’s life even unnerved his family, to the extent that her every move became a cause for distrust, seen as ploys to isolate Sushant from the people who ‘really’ loved him. This narrative, spun to paint Rhea as a cunning, devious witch with magical powers, not only negated Sushant’s own agency, but also delegitimized their romantic relationship. Even when Rhea calmly explained she helped Sushant seek medical attention for his mental illness, the story became that she was ‘mixing drugs into his coffee.’ An innocuous pooja she once did became ‘evidence for black magic.’ Such is an ordinary woman’s power, that she can tear families apart, empty bank accounts, and lead people to their deaths. It’s almost as if Sushant had no ability to think for himself, let alone make mistakes. The most witch-like thing Rhea is guilty of is taking up space, and if that’s her crime, then every woman is a witch. 

Alternatively, Rhea is painted as an uncaring partner, as someone who ‘let’ Sushant die, as if it was her sole responsibility to keep him alive. One of Rhea’s supposed ‘crimes’ was her absence in Sushant’s life during his last few days. By linking her absence to his death, the narrative once again paints her as not having fulfilled a responsibility we so often lay on only women — to serve as emotional crutches for their loved ones, to serve as protectors of their mental and physical health, and consider themselves failures if they fall short. It’s what we expect, even need women to do — be it housewives acting like cheerleaders for their husbands, or sisters putting their reputations on the line to defend their brothers, or mothers being responsible for their children’s wellbeing well into adulthood, or girlfriends and wives being an emotional rock for their partners. Society constantly dehumanizes women into objects that exist to keep someone else alive and well. But in Rhea, we see a woman trying to exist as an actual, vulnerable human being with her own needs and desires, for once trying to put herself, her dignity, and safety before anyone else’s. In her deviation from an age-old gender role, we see power, one that has always been frightening, and therefore unacceptable, in society.

Of course, the public has concluded, Rhea could have only wanted Sushant for material gain. Touting its report as a “massive breakthrough,” Republic TV alleged that Sushant’s bank balance had more than halved in a matter of months, on account of footing Rhea’s “hair, makeup, shopping, [and] parlour” expenses. This tactic invoked another tired trope — that of men making all the money, and women trying to separate them from the fruits of their labor in pursuit of frivolous luxuries. It further branded Rhea the gold-digging, manipulative, unfeeling, and materialistic brand of woman, by whom innocent, hard-working male partners, oblivious to their feminine wiles, will be duped. It signals the inherent distrust society has of women, especially young, hard-working, capable ones, as if completely unable to fathom that a woman could be smart enough to be financially independent, and not need to devise some underhanded, manipulative scheme to get there.

The terms and traits assigned to Rhea in an attempt to “prove” her guilt are highly gendered, in that they’re extremely incriminating for only women in Indian society. The latest attack on her — suspicion and subsequent arrest for her having enabled Sushant’s drug use — shows this witch hunt has now moved beyond Rhea’s own personhood. At this point, it has little to do with her character, her personality or her lifestyle; it’s more about creating a laundry list of lifestyle choices we consider unacceptable for women, and trying to associate them to her in whichever way possible in an attempt to add to an already-existing narrative around her being a free-thinking, manipulative, devious woman. 

And as the noise grows increasingly distant from Rhea as a person, and as it becomes increasingly dehumanizing and nonsensical, it’s all the more important for us to center her personhood, her behavior, and her agency. All Rhea has done is ask for a fair evaluation of Sushant’s death as a grieving loved one trying to understand why her partner decided to die by suicide. She has been open and forthcoming about her relationship with him, while constantly making herself available to provide an alternative, human version of events despite the terrifying wave of public opinion against her. With dignity and grace — two traits people often applaud women for, but somehow refuse to afford Rhea today — she displays superhuman strength in front of people hellbent on confirming her guilt. In her steadfastness and honesty, it’s imperative we realize the fight this woman has unwittingly taken on — perhaps for the rest of the foreseeable future, if not her lifetime — simply to exist as a young, independent and struggling woman, who lost a man she loved. 

And that’s a right all women in India are fighting constantly, to either earn or exercise — to be themselves, to exist without censure, to portray vulnerability without being called manipulative, to grieve without being blamed, to live on their own terms in a society that can accept and welcome them. Rhea may not have wanted this burden, but India has collectively thrust it upon her. In a country that is gunning for her destruction, Rhea’s existence is revolutionary, and so is the existence of every woman who stands beside her.

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Written By The Swaddle Team

  1. Mona

    Seriously??!!! Rhea has become a beacon of grace and dignity? What is wrong with you all? Seriously! You want to be a feminist, STOP PLAYING THE WOMAN IS A VICTIM CARD! Stop it!! The more you sue the card the more we are alienating ourselves from the fight for equality for women. As much as I understand that supplying Weed is not equal to running a drug network, but in no way shape and form she is the victim here. Please stop with this trope of because she is a woman she is being charged. Articles such as this and writers of such articles make it difficult for feminists to continue the fight.

  2. Alisa

    The media trial that Rhea Chakraborty is facing, is insane.
    The others trials (ED, NCB and CBI) are due process of law. While this seems like harassment, partners/spouses are in the eyes of law. Mull this for a moment, if they were married, and SSR was a woman, Rhea (in that case the husband) would be in jail, no questions asked. Unnatural death of a wife within 7 years of marriage is seen as domestic violence unless proved otherwise.
    Hopefully Rhea will get justice. And so will SSR. The media need to prioritize right. And NO Rhea is not icon-feminist or otherwise. Don’t bring down feminism to nonsense. There is a female autoricksaw driver in Mumbai. Find her and make her an icon. Buying drugs for boyfriend, living in etc. should not be criteria for being a feminist.

  3. Himanshi K

    Agreed. I hope for more sensible people who have enough tolerance to understand this perspective too

  4. Jas

    hahahaha that was a shitty story, I’m glad she’s arrested! JUSTICE FOR SUSHANT!

  5. Rashu Jain

    She is innocent…she is suffering becoz of true love ……picture vl b change…truth will cum out …god bless her

  6. Aarti Sharma

    Not against Gender equality or anything of that kind. However, since you guys took the time out to paint such a helpless and sympathy driven post for Rhea, I too am gonna take time out of my busy schedule to give you guys a reply over this.
    I am completely against the witch-hunt that has been carried forward however what I cannot understand is that if Rhea knew the depth and seriousness of his mental health, why did she procure drugs for him? Sure he had a voice of his own , he had his own choices and she may not have forced him. But she did play a critical role by procuring them for him which she could have avoided by choice owing to his mental health condition. Why did she continue to procure them then?
    Also, how do you explain the stuff she added in his beverage? What was it? Do you have answers while you use the evidenced in air quotes?
    Gender should not be bias while conducting a trial and I am a woman myself and I speak on behalf of all women, that in any crime no woman or man should be declared as a criminal or proven innocent just on basis of gender. While there is no major evidence to suggest money laundering or any murder conspiracy, there is no doubt that Rhea like the other people in the industry is not as innocent as portrayed. Consuming drugs is extremely common and not such a big deal for most people, but here we are talking about a person suffering and the suspect having full knowledge about it and yet procuring drugs for him. That is just ethically wrong and whatever said and done she does have a huge part to play in the loss of someone’s son, someone’s brother and a wonderful and talented artist.

  7. Vanshika Bhagat

    This is by far the most sense making article I have read on this issue. Thank you to your team for writing it. The way you have stood up for Rhea is worth appreciating. Thank you very much.

  8. Neha

    Shushanth was forced to leave his ex girlfriend Ankita, was forced to buy a house in Bandra as soon as he joined Bollywood, was forced to go around with Kirti Sanon, was then used and shown fake dreams by Sara Ali Khan, was then forced to go on relationship with Rhea, was then forced to use his credit cards and use all this money, was then forced to take drugs and marijuana. Was forced to stop all contacts with his family and then forced to die. I am wondering what was he thinking all this while when all the people had so much control over him??!!!

  9. Yamini

    Shame on u swaddle
    I rly liked ur videos on youtube but u just dissappointed by supporting a drug peddler
    She was not independent women
    She was gold digger living off sushant money
    She was not earning n even her family was exploiting sushant money.
    Pls dont make this into gender bias circus using victim card
    Cbi doesnt see if its male or female.she has been peddling drugs since 2017(before meeting sushant)
    She is criminal to administer drugs without consent of sushnt .
    U r respectable site
    Pls try to see the truth

  10. Shruti

    Look I’m all for writing whatever you want. However, mentioning Sushant died by “suicide”, when there is a plethora of incriminating evidence pointing to murder is a lapse in your writing. You claim to be feminists but have not written anything about the endless lies told by Rhea or the fact that there must be a reason that India’s top 3 agencies are investigating her. By giving Rhea is clean chit arent you also handing out the judgment for this case? Do your due diligence and stop using feminism to be “cool”

  11. Dipali Shergill

    Brilliant article!! Would have reposted it multiple times if it were written about someone who can really be called a feminist icon, someone who has the galls to really smash patriarchy by calling out oppressive liars. Writers like you who can use such powerful writing to further a suspicious agenda are actually dangerous to the feminist movement. As an unashamed feminist myself, I REFUSE TO ACCEPT Rhea Chakraborty as a feminist icon until/unless she is really proven innocent OR untill she comes out and helps the investigation find out who could be behind the suspicious death of the person who she claims to have loved. Till that time, you are just giving feminism a bad rep. #NotInMyName

  12. Chaudhri Adnan

    I do not understand how can anyone ignore the treatment meted out at Sushant’s sister who was there. Until the family registered an FIR, she was being brutally trolled by people for almost a month for being a part of his brother’s murder. Why did all the people seeking equality and just treatment not come out in her support?

    Why did no one support her when she when to NCB and CBI and was mobbed by journalists? Why did the selective feminism of the fancy few only choose to valourize Rhea, not the deceased’s sister?

    I believe in equality and just treatment too. My mother raised us alone: three sister and one brother. Two of my sisters are divorced and left their cheating husbands and are working independently now raising their children. The third one is in due process to get an official divorce because her husband went for a second marriage without her consent.

    We are always told to be strong. My mother has set firm principles for us and my sisters are stronger than me. When I was diagnosed with chronic depression early this year, they came to my rescue and stood by my side like a rock.

    What would have happened had girlfriend taken over instead and enjoyed drugs with me while simultaneously getting treatment for my depression? And I would have disappeared one day after her dumping me.

    Who would my family call out?

    I don’t think I need to give answers here. The agencies will give their verdict. I am also not saying Rhea did that. But having drugs with a depressed person is the worst thing that one can do.

    Don’t give me bullshit reasons that addicts cannot be controlled. If you can take him for therapies and to counsellors, you can also control his addiction. You wouldn’t film him when he is high. You wouldn’t record his meeting’s audio recording and leak out after his death.

    Wrong is wrong. Men are wrong. Women are wrong. There are good and bad people. Yes, a large part of women’s population is suppressed and their voices are crushed, but just going by the very principles of feminism, ‘no gender enjoys superiority over the other, hence should be treated fairly.’

    Wrong men and women deserve such trials so that the truth should come out, especially in corrupt societies like India and Pakistan where the right one never gets justice. It is good to be loud and clear in making a point.

    And Rhea is not a feminist. A person who was feeding off her entire family with her boyfriend’s money cannot be a feminist. Now she wants to smash patriarchy. It is oddly bizarre.

    Please stop this fancy brand of feminism. Which is nothing but just a hoax.

    I live around real women. Who can make me stand on one leg for hours if I do something wrong. Who live on their own terms, make their own money and have thrown toxic men out of their lives. So don’t sell this balderdash here.

  13. Kamini Choudhary

    Shut up you insane wanna be feminist. Do you actually know the meaning of feminism. If you know then you should not have made Rhea a feminist icon. But its not your fault. Now- a- days consuming drugs or smoking marijuana is the first requirement to become a feminist. Shit to your feminism and your feminist icon…

  14. Supriya Ghildiyal

    Someone who has been accused and arrested for different crimes cannot be called a feminist icon. The trial is still on and you should have restrained on such non sense unless proven innocent on all accords. Absolutely shameful of you guys to write this utter piece of crap

  15. Sazia

    I agree that what’s happening with Rhea is completely patriarchal! This shouldn’t happen with any women, ever. But, I REFUSE TO CONSIDER RHEA AS A FEMINIST ICON. Feminism is a huge and more organized thing. There are millions of icons out there. Rhea can’t be an icon!!!! Get that thing. If you want to protest about something, protest about the pathetic treatment towards her by the disgusting media. But plz don’t try to convince us that she is an icon that too a Feminist Icon. I hope you understand. Thank you.

  16. Gaurav

    It’s such a tragedy what’s happening / happened with Rhea. Hats off to her for having gone through so much already with a strong front. Would love people to realise that this Justice for SSR and the not-so-popular justice for Rhea is the same thing. If it’s truly the truth they’re after to begin with.

  17. Shruti

    She’s being tried legally for crimes she may or may not have committed. But our law states that no one should be pronounced guilty without a trial.. I don’t know if she has or hasn’t done wrong but the way media and everyone is treating her is definitely not justified. Whatever is concluded by the National agencies is going to be the last word.. Media trails based on half truths shouldn’t be encouraged.

  18. Yashvi Maheshwari

    You can’t blame anyone without complete evidences in your hand, whether this is the case for men or women, nobody should be treated like this without having full proofs.

  19. Dona

    Well written. Rhea might be innocent or guilty, but she had the courage to live her life on her terms. And that courage is what makes a true feminist. A true feminist does not need to be pure (as mentioned in some of the comments). That’s just another version of oppression just like patriarchy. True feminism is the courage to live your life independently and as you wish (good or bad), to follow your dreams and make mistakes. Rhea tried and she deserves respect for it.
    In this whole circus, what is really shameful is the media trials and character assassination and shameless hounding that we, the rest of India did. She might have committed a crime, but so did we. And with sadistic pleasure. Shame on us. As her dad said ‘Thank you India for destroying a middle class family’. Hearing that hurt… Shame in us…

  20. Aditi

    How dare you declare Rhea Chakraborty a Feminist Icon?
    DO NOT call a lying, manipulative woman a feminist icon. Don’t feel so entitled to declare her NOT GUILTY.
    Your article clearly states Sushant committed suicide. Please, double check your facts and information before writing nonsensical articles using big words from the Oxford Dictionary.
    You are either part of the problem, working towards an agenda or simply a poor excuse for a writer.
    Just change your profession before young girls read your article and form a flawed concept of feminists and feminism.

  21. Sabitha.P.C

    From villain to icon, the span is too compressed to accommodate a person like Rhea. She may have represented independence and agency, but she grossly misused them. We can blame the media trial as unwarranted, but the law had let loose its reins consequently,someone took over.Today, would you blame the veteran Navy officer for being attacked ? When a woman gets victimised for reasons not proved, but very much in the wrong, do you make her a feminist icon? What a travesty of the idea of woman empowerment? Do refrain from such biased approaches to gender and stop demeaning feminism. Lies,slandering and the gender card cannot blur our common sense nor the justice that is to be delivered. Oppose patriarchy, but not by sabotaging perspectives on womanhood. A balance has to be struck.

  22. Sid

    No doubt swaddle is a leftist media supporter. We want death penalty for reha and others if found guilty.

  23. Nikhar Maheshwari

    Beautiful read. Makes me think about my own perspectives, leave the society in general. So important that women get educated about standing up and doing what they feel is right without patriarchal bias, and also support other women who do that.

  24. Indu Mishra

    This is the worst i have read today.please stop calling Rhea feminist ICON. The writer here has mentioned that Sushant died by suicide..Have you already declared the judgement.what do u want to prove by writing these kinds of articles.there are already enough clear evidences that prove that this is not suicide.ofcourse law will take its own course and truth will prevail.
    These articles and starting #supportrhea is just a paid PR to clean the much maligned image of hers. People should have some humanity for the person who was full of life and died under mysterious circumstances. there is absolutely no angle of patriarchy or feminism, please don’t drag feminism everywhere.

    And yes please stop writing this bullshit…!!

  25. Anisha

    Rhea might be innocent. And the media trial she is facing is not something anyone deserves.
    But for God’s sake she is not a feminist icon. She has done nothing YET to make anyone want to follow her footsteps. There are much better role models out there who have fought the patriarchy and done good for the society. How about making Sampat Pal Devi our icon….and there are so many more…

  26. Disha Roy

    I support her completely, she had done nothing wrong and the only people who should be on trial are those who are defaming her.

    #JUSTICEFORRHEA

  27. Sucharita Narasipuram

    Would love to hear your views on Kangana Ranaut who is also villianised when she stood against patriarchy

  28. Annaya uddhas

    Feminist icon? Are you kidding me.

    Watch her TEDX talk, you can understand her behaviour well. A very hard core liar and narcissistic personality. She has the ability to use the people around her for best of her use. I think this website team should consider removing the person who ever wrote this article from the job immediately. Atleast you should verify the genuineness of the author. Hope she was not bribed the paid team of Rhea. Such a serious disappointed of misusing the responsibility of over hyping the drama.

  29. Mathan

    Absolute rubbish
    The rabid feminists are out in force..
    Again.

  30. Ansh Raghuwanshi

    I agree that she is not the one responsible for Sushant’s death, and what is happening is not what she deserved. We don’t know what happened there. It is not possible to know how was the relationship between two people, but I am sure of one thing that she is not a feminist icon. Because she didn’t fight back, she too tried to use the victim card, posting videos saying satyamev jayate and the truth shall prevail. If you believe that would happen then you don’t need to try to look poor and win sympathy. So please don’t treat her like a victim or a criminal, and she is definitely not a feminist icon. 🙂

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