Bollywood drug saga drags on, fuels discussions on prevalence of drug use in industry

Actor Sushant Singh Rajput's possible suicide on June 14 led to two months of frenzied media coverage. PHOTO: AFP

BANGALORE - Filmmaking in India has ground nearly to a halt amid the Covid-19 pandemic - but celebrities are making the kind of headlines they would not wish on their worst rivals.

Actor Sushant Singh Rajput's possible suicide on June 14 led to two months of frenzied media coverage and the police using Bollywood actors' private WhatsApp chats to allege widespread drug use in the film industry.

The Narcotics Control Bureau, India's apex drug law enforcement agency, has launched a drugs probe. It arrested 20 people, including Rhea Chakraborty, Rajput's actor girlfriend.

The narcotics agency has summoned 35 people for interrogation. Top actors Deepika Padukone, Sara Ali Khan, Shraddha Kapoor and Rakul Preet Singh, as well as fashion designer Simone Khambatta, were questioned for several hours on Sept 25 and 26.

Indians are watching round the clock the high-energy, low-evidence news about Bollywood's "drug cartels" - to quote TV anchors. This coverage has sparked living room discussions about drug use in the glitzy industry that makes about 400 films a year.

Things heated up in July when Mr Rajput's parents filed a police complaint accusing Ms Chakraborty and her family of driving him to suicide. They also alleged that she transferred some of their son's money to unknown accounts.

The Enforcement Directorate, which investigates money laundering, registered a case against Ms Chakraborty. It is yet to find a money trail, but the ED found some WhatsApp chats allegedly related to marijuana after making forensic clones of Ms Chakraborty's phones.

Those were given to the narcotics agency, which registered a case against Ms Chakraborty and five others but made no arrests. Then, filing a second case to "uproot the drug citadel in Bollywood", the agency arrested 19 people, including Ms Chakraborty and her brother.

Since late September, the narcotics agency has summoned many actors based on WhatsApp chats found on other people's phones. None of the actors summoned are accused officially.

"Drug use not particular to Bollywood"

Bollywood's alleged involvement with the criminal underworld and drug suppliers' stranglehold over film funding are largely a thing of the past, many insiders say.

Producer Sidharth Jain of screenwriting company The Story Ink said that with the arrival of international production studios and professionals with non-film backgrounds in the past decade, the industry is now more professional.

Contracts have clauses prohibiting the use of drugs during shoots.

Film critic Mayank Shekhar said: "Unlike what much of the media is showing, this is not a Bollywood drug cartel story. The word 'cartel' points to supply, not consumption. Unless you can prove that people are supplying drugs, how can you call it a Bollywood cartel?"

India's narcotics law criminalises the making, sale, purchase, possession and use of a range of drugs including heroin, opium, morphine, cocaine and LSD. It also punishes the consumption of the resin and the tops of the cannabis plant, but not its seeds and leaves, which have been traditionally consumed in India - in an edible preparation known as "bhang" - for thousands of years.

  • How the Bollywood drug story unfolded

  • June 14
    Young actor Sushant Singh Rajput is found dead at his home in Mumbai, Suicide is suspected.

    July 25
    Mr Rajput's family lodge a police complaint accusing Mr Rajput's girlfriend, actress Rhea Chakraborty of abetting his suicide.

    July 26
    Ms Chakraborty comes under intense media scrutiny over claims she manipulated Mr Rajput and took money off him.

    Sept 8
    Ms Chakraborty is arrested after a police scan of her phone reveals WhatsApp chats about buying drugs. So far 20 arrests have been made in the drug probe.

    SEPT 14
    Some TV channels show leaked screenshots of private chat messages, and allege widespread drug use in the film industry.

    SEPT 25-26
    Top Bollywood stars like Deepika Padukone, Sara Ali Khan, Shraddha Kapoor and Rakul Preet Singh are summoned by the Narcotics Control Bureau for questioning, based on the chat messages. A total of 35 people have been questioned.

In 2018, nearly 60 per cent of over 81,000 drug-related arrests nationwide were made for possession for personal use. Thinktank Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy found that most of those arrested in Mumbai that year were daily-wage earners.

They were apprehended for cannabis consumption.

Mamta Kulkarni is one of the few actors being investigated along with her husband Vijay Goswami - who is now jailed in the USA - for being involved in a global drug cartel.

A Mumbai screenwriter who did not want to be named said: "People do consume a fair amount of weed and hash in the (film) industry but it is not enough to support narcoterrorism. I know peers who engage in recreational drugs like MDMA and cocaine but I also know many who abstain."

In the late seventies, director and writer Mahesh Bhatt said he had used LSD after a tumultuous relationship with an actress. Singer Yo Yo Honey Singh recently confessed to addiction and said he was treated by his family.

Troubled film star Sanjay Dutt, who was jailed for illegal possession of weapons in connection with the 1993 Mumbai bombings, had also admitted to having tried "every drug that existed" in the nineties. He quit after rehabilitation and is now a vocal anti-drug crusader.

In 2001, Mumbai police arrested emerging actor Fardeen Khan for attempting to buy a gram of cocaine. The actor did a detoxification course and was granted bail with immunity in 2012.

Actor Kangana Ranaut, who is today the loudest critic of nepotism and "star culture", claimed that "99 per cent of Bollywood takes drugs". But other film professionals say that while drug consumption is prevalent, it is not an industry-specific practice.

"Who is interested in industrialists and investment bankers doing drugs? Drug stories about famous Bollywood people sell easily, just like the exaggerated gossip of their affairs and rivalries," said Mr Jain.

As television reporters chase actors in cars, corner them in airports and camp outside their homes, a new class of paparazzi has emerged in India.

"Did you use drugs, Deepika?! Tell us!" shouted a Republic Bharat reporter from her taxi window, as she chased Ms Padukone's car in Mumbai.

The media coverage, many believe, has fuelled the investigations. Some actors asked why Ms Chakraborty was arrested and denied bail, even though she was not found in possession of any drugs.

"This backlash is why many of us are quiet, worrying who is next. But we are furious," said a young actor who is otherwise outspoken but did not wish to be named.

Mr Shekhar worried that the "smear campaign" could affect female professionals and talented people entering the film industry.

"People already fight against stigma when telling their families they are entering the world of cinema or when looking for apartments in Mumbai. Showing the industry as a drug den will just deepen preconceived notions about it," said Mr Shekhar.

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