The anatomy of the restless

Jiah Khan would speak her heart about the casting couchwallas but laugh, ‘It’s all quite gross really. Bollywood’s not for me…’

Just 25 years old, and gone. The suicide of Nafisa Jiah Khan, who was perfect material for Bollywood movies, cannot be sourced to career disappointments, complexities accompanying a disturbed childhood, fractured relationships or, more generically, the quest for love and acceptance.

She ended her life for reasons which will remain unfathomable. Comments on micro-social networking sites — a haven for cruel and knee-jerk responses — amounted to sweeping generalisations, all through Tuesday morning.
Jiah Khan — she had first dropped and then added Nafisa because she liked the full name she was born with — wouldn’t have laughed off the comments. She would have been traumatised, simply because she hadn’t learnt to make the mandatory moves of the showbiz game despite lingering on the B-town peripheries for over half a decade. There were just far too many snakes around to let her reach the next rung on the ladder.
She would speak her heart about the casting couchwallas but laugh, “It’s all quite gross really. Bollywood’s not for me… but wait, I’ll have some big news to tell you very soon.” Not the sort to keep her excitement off the record, she had announced she would be launched as a pop singer in London in a while. “Imagine, they’re talking about me as the Beyonce Knowles of India!” Who the “they” were she didn’t specify — possibly honchos and agents who promise big dreams but deliver bigger nightmares. And the last time I met her, some six months ago, she had whooped that she was studying kathak seriously. What about that Beyonce route? No reply, only eyes rolled heavenwards.
Jiah Khan’s life and death aren’t a typical case study of a girl who wanted to be a marquee empress. It’s more symptomatic of a young woman who was ill-equipped for the pressures endemic in the classic search for stardom. Her mother, Rabiya Khan, an actress who after appearing in some forgettable films in Mumbai had settled in London, to return to base in the hope of making her daughter what she couldn’t be — an A-list heroine. The beginnings were inauspicious: Jiah dropped out from a rom-com, went on to be introduced opposite Amitabh Bachchan in Ram Gopal Varma’s Nishabd — an embarrassing take on Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita.
Followed more ups and downs, Ghajini being the upper and the bimbette sex siren of Housefull being the cheesy downer. In between, reportedly actor Shahid Kapoor, midway through a film, compelled the producer to drop her unceremoniously. She survived but not without being scarred. On release the film tanked big-time, to which she remarked, “At least they can’t blame it on me.”
Clearly, she wasn’t a bimbette. Extremely well-read, the late English writer Bruce Chatwin was her inspiration. She gifted me Chatwin’s In Patagonia, with an inscription asking me to check out a few lines she had marked in gel ink. The lines, she said, were her life-wish, a utopia: “I pictured a low timber home with a shingled roof, caulked against storms, with blazing log fires and the walls lined with all the best books, somewhere to live when the rest of the world blew up.”
The title of one of Chatwin’s collections of essays, Anatomy of Restlessness, in fact is pertinent to Jiah Khan’s brief tryst with life. She wouldn’t sit still, reflect, maintain a degree of politesse about the big shots of the film industry, or even about her biological father. “A man who abandons his children should be shot!” she had said with vehemence in the course of my first interview with her. Her father, a phantom from her past, still resided within her. “He’s in London, too,” she had said, “but has never cared to even make a phone call. I’m his daughter, dammit!” Relentless gossip insisted that she was the daughter of a Bollywood film producer, which she fended off with, “How silly is that!” Any more prying into the subject would have been unfair, or I dare say, unethical.
Without my asking, Jiah Khan had admitted that she had struck up a relationship with a talented assistant director. With him, she aspired to make short films and music videos. It wasn’t to be. Followed tattle that she had married a European man in London, which she rebutted by returning to Mumbai immediately and renewing her Bollywood career. Again, that wasn’t to be. She was back in the news, yes, but for the wrong reasons — for being seen with an aspiring actor. Steadily she became remote, only keeping contact by posting her new photographs on Facebook, which drew hundreds of “wow” responses.
It would be facile, if not pointless, to tag words like “depression” or “frustration” to a stalled career. Earlier, personal and professional anxieties have been traced to the suicide in 1993 of Divya Bharti who, at the age of 19 at the peak of her career, plunged off an apartment balcony. In south India, several actresses have ended their lives over the decades, the case of Silk Smitha (adapted for the film The Dirty Picture) being the most discussed one of the tragedies.
Jiah Khan’s story is likely to be forgotten with time, because it isn’t packed with sensationalistic elements like alcoholism, near-penury or instances of visible exploitation. Unlike Divya Bharti or Silk Smitha, Jiah Khan still had miles to go. She will be remembered, I hope, as a young woman who quit Bollywood as well as the world around her, longing to find that low timber home caulked against storms.

The writer is a journalist, film critic and film director

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