Rhea Chakraborty: Grief doesn’t go away, your life grows around it

The last time we met was in October 2021 at a quaint café in Khar. Just as she had got out of her car, she was hounded by the paparazzi for pictures.

Fresh out of her own scarring experience at the hands of the media, she was suitably startled. Throughout the meeting, she was skittish. It has been over two years since then. When we return to the same café this time, Chakraborty is approached by a fan for a selfie. She kindly obliges, wearing a confident smile. “Life has come a long way. This year has been normal for me after three years. It’s very important for me to feel normal. I love the fact that I can be out and about, doing regular things,” she says.

What is ‘normal’ after the storm that has braved through? After her boyfriend Sushant Singh Rajput’s death in June 2020, she was arrested in September 2020 by the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) in a drug-related case. The actor spent 28 days in Byculla jail as an undertrial before being granted bail. “Normalcy comes from different things,” she reflects. “I am aware that I am widely recognised by people because of the extensive and unwarranted media coverage that I got because of what happened in 2020. A year ago, I was uncomfortable with the media around. I was still coming off the PTSD [Post-traumatic Stress Disorder] of 2020. A lot of it was about cameras being there. There was yelling, screaming, hounding and mostly harassment. It used to bring back memories earlier. Over time, I was thrown into situations where I was required to go out, meet people and get photographed. It has taken a lot of therapy to be able to stand in front of 100 media people and get clicked. Time has also done its trick. I am feeling confident about myself.”

Rhea Chakraborty with Gautam Gulati, Sonu Sood, and Prince Narula

Her confidence shows. In the past year, Chakraborty has hosted Roadies season 19, featured in several shoots, and even addressed a conclave, her first appearance on a public platform since 2020. Slowly, she has embraced the person she has become—someone who is wiser thanks to the experiences, and knows that grief should be made place for, not battled. She admits that like it happens to every celebrity, she too had nearly no place to grieve privately when calamity struck. “In the first few months, I was thrown into a storm, and it was a spectacle after that. But honestly, grief is something that lingers. It doesn’t go away. Your grief stays and your life grows around it. Healing is about facing our own emotions and the pain that comes with it. In therapy, I realised how to stop letting it take over my life.”

From the NCB landing at her doorstep to having to do prison time, to being trolled mercilessly, Chakraborty’s is the classic case of a woman who paid the price for patriarchy. Till date, she says that her endeavour is about putting the spotlight on the tabooed subject of mental health. “Are we aware enough? No. Tier-2 and 3 cities, and villages have a long way to go as far as [awareness around] mental health is concerned. Mental health is the real pandemic that we realised during the pandemic. It was sitting right there amidst all of us and we just brushed it under the carpet. I hate it when people say, ‘Pagal ho kya? Don’t waste money on doctors.’ Our parents and their parents didn’t have the awareness; they called it a rough patch. But one needs support and kindness through it.”

Have people become kinder in the post-pandemic world, after seeing the fragility of life? “I am not sure. I am still one of the most trolled people online. But in the eye of the storm, I saw kindness. I had friends rally behind me, help me and my family emotionally and monetarily. That gave me strength. Our society is patriarchal. But from my story, I have realised that the women-pull-each-other-down narrative might exist, but there is a strong wave of women standing together and flourishing.”

Activist Sudha Bhardwaj, who was in Byculla jail at the same time as Chakraborty, had revealed how the latter had danced for all the inmates the day her bail came through. Recently, at the conclave, the actor recollected how she and the other inmates—all surviving on their resilience—would find happiness in simple, small things. “If there are tough times in life, you somehow get the strength to fight back.

In prison, I met people who have been through so much and remained strong. Truth is powerful and reiterating that to yourself, gives you courage. I deeply cherish my parents and my brother. We made it out alive and smiling because of each other. If their emotional support didn’t exist, I wouldn’t have made it.” Earlier this year, there was judicial relief for her as the CBI (Central Bureau of Investigation) decided not to challenge her bail in the Supreme Court.

Work-wise, Chakraborty is back on the map after Roadies 19. Considering the actor started her career with MTV, it was a homecoming of sorts. “The person who was on my first show, Teen Diva, was on this show too. Debbie [Deborah Polycarp, MTV Content head] had made me a VJ, she came to me with Roadies this time. I enjoyed Roadies because it’s a lot like real life—contestants go through a lot physically, emotionally, and they have to rise above it. I got to experience human resilience on set. But the first day was very emotional for me. It was the same studio and same vanity van where I shot Chehre (2021). That was the last time I ever shot anything. I was anxious. I felt I didn’t know how to be in front of a camera anymore. But the what-ifs vanished once the camera rolled.”

It might be a studied conclusion that one has drawn, but it seems the actor is not getting much work in Bollywood. Are people scared of hiring her? “I feel there is still a sense of fear on that front, but I’m hoping it normalises soon. A lot of it has calmed down, and honestly, the power of trolls is gone.”

We met her a few days before Diwali, and obviously one wonders what are her plans for the festival. It will be a family affair, she says. “I stand in the kitchen pretending to help my mother, but I am actually only trying to eat the treats fresh off the stove. We were posted in places across the country because of my father’s Army job, so my mother’s cooking has a wide range—from aate ke laddoo to shakkar pada to mixtures. I have been eating laddoos daily for a week. The tranquility of wearing a kurta and sprawling on the couch, knowing well that you are surrounded by love is the best,” she grins. She is right. The storm has passed and like Haruki Murakami said, “Once the storm is over, you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in.”

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