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Sunday, July 31, 2011

The last act British singer Amy Winehouse’s recent death in London shows how celebrities often fall victim to the dangerous cocktail of depression and drugs. Jyothi Venkatesh and Sonia Sarkar turn the spotlight on some of our own troubled stars

The last act

A heap of newspapers lay scattered outside her door. Inside, Parveen Babi lay dead. When alarmed neighbours called in the police, she had been dead for three days. Her foot had turned gangrenous because of diabetes. Torn by severe mental ailments, the actress — once worshipped by millions of fans — died all by herself.

That was in 2005. But years before that, it was clear that she was slipping away when the star of blockbusters such as Amar Akbar AnthonyNamak Halal andDeewar called the press to her Pali Hill house and courteously distributed copies of a statement accusing actor Amitabh Bachchan and former US President Bill Clinton of scheming to kill her. The shapely, sleek-haired star had given way to a plump woman with frizzy hair and tiny black protrusions on the edge of her face.

But Babi's death didn't really shock the Hindi film industry, which has seen the rise and fatal decline of several artistes. For many in the Hindi film industry, the untimely death of singer Amy Winehouse miles away in England only underscores Bollywood's own tragic deaths. From actor-director Guru Dutt, who died in his room after a night of drinking, to his wife, the singer Geeta Dutt, who became an alcoholic, to composer R.D. Burman, who died a lonely death as his career plummeted — there are many who have succumbed to the pressures of success and failure.

Today, some industry insiders fear, alcohol has given way to hard drugs. A young actress whose parents are both in the industry has been trying to battle a drug addiction. Another upcoming star was caught buying drugs. Actor Sanjay Dutt, who suffered from serious addiction, is one person who has come out of this, perhaps not unscathed, but alive. For many others, however, death by depression — often aided by substance abuse — has been the only outlet.

"Depression is a deep rooted problem that exists in all strata of society. But the effects of demands on sensitive people in the creative field, because of the expectations that are thrust on them, are more serious, especially if they fail to live up to those expectations," says director Mahesh Bhatt, who had a relationship with Babi, and made two films on their troubled affair.

Bhatt recalls that Babi came to him one day, shaking with fear, and rambling about a group of men who were after her. "I had never seen her so helpless," he says. "She went to the US for treatment, but was never the same again. She had recurring bouts, withdrew into a shell and stopped interacting with the outside world."

But the incident that shook the industry occurred one October morning in 1964, when Guru Dutt was found dead in his room. His friend and scriptwriter Abrar Alvi later recalled in a book that he had been drinking till late into the night. The next morning, when his bedroom door was forced open, they found him dead, with a glass carrying the residues of a pink liquid — dregs of a sleeping pill — next to him.

Guru Dutt and Alvi had often discussed suicide, says journalist Sathya Saran, the author of Ten Years With Guru Dutt  Abrar Alvi's Journey. They had talked about how sleeping pills could aid death — and the problem of becoming unconscious while swallowing pills without dying. "I had even tried it once, and he had at least twice before," she quotes Alvi as saying in the book.

"He [Guru Dutt] had worked it out," said Alvi in the book. "He told me, 'You must take it like a mother gives medicine to her child… crush the tablets and dissolve them in water.'"

Saran believes Guru Dutt was "depressive" by nature. "At one moment, he was full of life while the other moment he would be depressed without any reason. He attempted suicide a couple of times and that too without any reason. In the last days of his life, he used to drink regularly but never got abusive. He withdrew himself totally. He lost interest in everything," she says.

But his niece, director Kalpana Lajmi, stresses that while he was a heavy drinker, he was not an alcoholic. "Guru mama was undergoing clinical depression. Every one knows that when you are depressed and consume alcohol and on top of it also take sleeping pills, you will automatically die of a heart attack. My mother tells me that my uncle died in a position that looked like he was calling for help."

His wife Geeta Dutt, with whom Guru Dutt had a stormy relationship which many attributed to his closeness to the actress Waheeda Rehman, died in 1972 of complications related to excessive drinking.

"Geeta was a gregarious and chirpy woman but when one's marriage goes wrong, everything else goes wrong," says Lajmi. "Geeta was grossly misunderstood. She could not fight the demons and started drinking when Guru Dutt was alive and succumbed to alcohol at the age of 42. It was a case of incapability of self-control as far as she was concerned."

Clearly, the deaths follow no regular patterns. For some, the end comes with depression on their journey downhill after they have touched the peak of their careers. Actress Meena Kumari, who was once the reigning queen of Bollywood, became an alcoholic over the years and died a dismal death.

"One reason people in tinsel town often become targets of depression is that they forget their own self because their life revolves around being somebody else on the screen," argues Delhi psychiatrist Rajat Mitra. "They often lose their healthy self-esteem since their sense of self-worthiness is based on external factors such as fame and recognition. They feel debilitated when failure comes."

One victim of failure was musician Rahul Dev Burman. When the music of 20 out of 22 of his films flopped, the talented composer fell into depression, recall Anirudha Bhattacharya and Balaji Vittal, the authors of the 2011 book R.D. Burman: the Man, the Music.

"Burman once told his friends that in the 1970s and early 1980s, his evenings used to start at midnight as he used to be neck deep in work all day long. That was when producers used to line up in front of his house for meetings," says Bhattacharya. "But from the early 1990s, his evenings started at 6pm as there were barely any visitors."

Vittal recalls that in 1989, when he underwent open heart surgery in London, there was no one by his side. He died five years later, ironically when his last film — 1942 Love Story — had resurrected him as a music director of immense talent.

In an industry which worships success and kicks at failure, Burman had few friends left when his music stopped working its magic. At a function to release an album by actress Leena Chandavarkar and Amit Kumar, he was despondent when asked if he was planning to attend a mega party being thrown by a top producer-director, for whom he had composed many a hit song. "He has not invited me, though I was his favourite at one time, just because my music is not doing well these days," he replied. He added that the director had dropped him after signing him up for a film and taken on another composer without even letting him know. "This is the film industry for you," said Burman.

Sociologist Shiv Viswanathan points out that such depression is to be seen more in the creative industry than elsewhere. "There are more chances of an erratic creative person being pushed into depression because his creation can turn out to be a disaster despite his best efforts of making it a hit," he says. "Bollywood stars have too many poignant erratic highs and lows in their lives. They have too many expectations which are difficult to meet and that makes things worse for them," he says.

High expectations, Bhatt suggests, may have been the problem with Raj Kiran, an actor who briefly tasted success before disappearing. Recent reports suggest that he has been living in a mental health institute in the US. "Why Raj got into depression is anybody's guess. He may have set high expectations for himself which he could not meet or maybe his mental illness was a genetically pre-ordained disorder."

Actor Rishi Kapoor, who acted with Kiran in the 1980 film Karz, says he had been trying to locate Kiran for long. "He is a living example of how ruthless the film industry can be when you are no longer saleable and are in dire need of work," stresses Kapoor.

One person who has been there and done that is actor Sanjay Dutt, who overcame drug addiction and returned to cinema with a bang. "I can speak from my own experience that drug addiction can take a toll of your personal as well as professional life. I plead that no one should get into the spree of taking drugs even for a lark," he says.

But battling drugs, he says, gave him the strength to move on. "I have emerged stronger after that." He, however, was one of the few who did. The others never lived to tell their tale.

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