First came the shock—and awe, and social media was overrun with ra-ras and tributes. “She was my most favourite actress… she made acting look so natural… I never knew whether to focus on her mobile face or her quicksilver dance moves…. She handled her life with so much grace… she never washed her dirty laundry in public.” The usual suspects put up snatches of dialogues and songs from Sadma, Mr India and Chaalbaaz. Unlikely fans introduced the Hindi-speaking universe to the melody and moves of Kshana Kshanam, a Telugu comic thriller made by Ram Gopal Varma in the ’90s.
And then came more detailed reports. The actor had died after a cardiac arrest in Dubai, soon after chatting with her husband in their hotel room, it was said. The post-mortem report said she’d accidentally drowned in the bathtub and mentioned alcohol. And tongues began to wag. Praise quickly gave way to slander. “That’s what happens when you go under the scalpel so many times…. Wonder if it had anything to do with her crash diets plus invasive treatments for size zero figure and youthful looks…. Did anyone make her drown in the tub…. She hadn’t ventured out of her room for two days.” Ramsay Brothers’ fans suggested that the ghost of Boney Kapoor’s first wife was behind the death. “Why did Sridevi die just before her daughter’s debut movie release, just like her husband’s first wife died a few weeks before her son’s debut release...? Was Mona Kapoor’s regret over her broken home so vast that it hung around and took Sridevi in its wake?”
The sordidness didn’t just come from bloggers and laypersons with a Twitter account. Successful professionals joined journalists in TV studios to hold forth on the death, blithely casting aspersions and commenting decisively on people they’d never met and issues they know little about. Last evening, at a party, I overheard two middle-aged gents (whom I normally respect) discuss the issue threadbare, both offering expert views on what “really happened”. Neither uttered a word of commiseration for the two girls who’d just lost their mother or their bereaved father.
Celebrities are fair game for scrutiny and social commentary but why do we love pulling down the very people we put up on pedestals? What does our nastiness about a superstar’s death say about us? Why do we—the middle and upper classes—derive so much delight from the misfortune of others? Is our schadenfreude sparked by our innate nastiness or is it triggered by low self-esteem? Psychologists say technology makes us feel close to, and sometimes competitive with, people we don’t know. We see stars on our TV screens and think we know them.
And because of that, away from the admiration, there’s a secret part of us that resents the fact they’re doing better than we are, just as we would the successful guy next door. Our glee in the celebrity’s fall, thus, is not totally abnormal. But—and it’s a big but—while anyone can get sucked in initially by the glee, it’s the decent ones among us who quickly feel ashamed, and get out of the resentment room. So where do you fall on the decency scale?