What is it? Suicide or Murder?
Since mid-June, SSR’s biographical Wikipedia page and the separate article about his death have become a widely trafficked internet battleground. Editors have fiercely disputed whether Wikipedia should reflect conspiracy theories about SSR’s cause of death and if the internet encyclopedia correctly states the actor’s height. (There’s a lot riding on whether he was shorter than 6 feet.) In a time when it seems increasingly hard to agree upon the facts, Wikipedia’s response to SSR’s death shows how even good-faith attempts to document reliable information may inadvertently fuel the conspiracy theorists.
SSR was seen as an outsider, someone who had miraculously broken into the cliquey world of Indian filmmaking despite not having a famous Bollywood surname like Chopra or Kapoor. After starring in the soap opera Pavitra Rishta from 2009 to 2011, he made his film debut in Kai Po Che! in 2013. He played a cricket captain in the 2016 biopic M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story, for which he was nominated for a Filmfare Award, sometimes referred to as the Hindi film industry’s equivalent of the Academy Awards. By all accounts, SSR was a star on the rise.
The Mumbai Police’s report in July concluded that SSR’s death was suicide by asphyxiation. But after public outcry and pressure from politicians from the BJP, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s conservative political party, India’s Supreme Court ruled in August that the Central Bureau of Investigation would conduct its own investigation.
It’s hard to overstate how much Indian media has covered SSR’s death, including showing pictures of his dead body. There were weeks this summer when TV networks in India gave the Bollywood actor’s death more attention than COVID-19. As Michaela Stone Cross wrote for the Juggernaut, “The media—hollowed out by decreasing press freedom and more fake news—was releasing any information it could get its hands on, real or fake. Rajput’s face, eyes rolling, lacerations vivid, could be seen on screens all across India, and three fans killed themselves in his name.” Conservative TV hosts accused Rhea Chakraborty, SSR’s girlfriend, of being a “manipulative” woman who “performed black magic” and “drove Sushant to suicide.” There were calls to #ArrestRheaNow.
Millions of people, dubbed “SSRians,” are using social media to conduct their own research, challenge the official reports, and publicize their own version of the truth. People in the #JusticeforSushant camp have tossed out numerous conspiracy theories, including that SSR was murdered by the Bollywood mafia or that his girlfriend Chakraborty was poisoning him with medication to depress his mood.
Naturally, the controversy has spilled over to Wikipedia, creating a battle between those who think something suspicious happened and those committed to Wikipedia’s ethos. As the Wikipedia editor NedFausa recounts in detail on their user page, it started with disbelief about how quickly it was edited to reflect that he had died. I’ve written before about the process of deaditing—updating Wikipedia pages to reflect people’s deaths—and how it’s not quite as macabre as it sounds. But in the case of SSR, it appears some onlookers were primed to suspect something underhanded was going on.
“The cause of his death updated @Wikipedia at 8:59 A.M. on 14th June. How is this possible” tweeted one user, who was concerned because SSR died between 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. local time. How could Wikipedia be updated with information about SSR’s death a few hours before he died? But Wikipedia uses Coordinated Universal Time as opposed to Indian Standard Time. IST is equal to UTC +05:30. Accounting for the adjustment to UTC, the timing of the Wikipedia-editing corresponded perfectly with the moment that Hindi-language TV stations broke the news. Nevertheless, this simple misunderstanding led the conspiracists to conclude, in the words of NedFausa, that “Wikipedia was furtively scheming with those who murdered SSR.”
Seriously, what is the truth? When will this case be completed to confirm Sushant was killed or to was a suicide?