(Jiah in March; snagged from her Twitter feed.)
The Times of India is reporting that actress Jiah Khan has committed suicide. She was reportedly found dead in her apartment in Juhu. She was 25 years old.
Part of me is hoping it's a TOI mistake and Jiah will pop back up on the filmi news circuit tomorrow to laugh about this... or that she's changed her name, cut her hair, and run off to Brazil with a super-sexy lover and the next time we see her she'll be Juliana Fernandez, acclaimed Brazilian telenovela actress.
Jiah Khan was a wonderful actor. Unfortunately, talent can only take a woman so far.
Despite what Apna Bombay Talkies would like us to think, show business can be a cruel place. Not that men trying to make it from outside the industry have an easy time, but for a woman, it's at least one hundred times harder. Without a powerful sugar daddy to help get roles and to act as security against the casting couch, women who want to work in the industry are at the mercy of every sleazy guy out there. And believe me, there are a lot of them. Actors who expect their co-stars to sleep with them just because; powerful industrialists and directors used to having a bevy of pretty girls at their disposal...
A woman is damned if she doesn't and damned if she does.
Since Jiah has passed on, I'll speak frankly. From the beginning she faced the sleaziest side of Bollywood. A sixteen year old facing cat calls from the crew in her bikini and then getting asked questions like this from the press:
What if with your wet look, you end up becoming the sex symbol of 2007?
That would be weird. I just want to entertain... I could even become the Kiss Girl... have you seen the promo in which I kiss Mr. Amitabh Bachchan on the cheek? That's so cool... so sweet and innocent.
Bless her heart, she tried her best. If 33 year old, not very connected me finds the sexual harassment overwhelming, it would take a 19 year old with a spine of steel and the mental defenses of the Pentagon to fend off all the creepy uncles she must have come in contact with.
And, speaking even more frankly, the stories that filtered out from the Housefull set were troubling. Jiah was rumored to be Sajid Khan's plaything, while the other ladies on set ignored her. She would have been about 22 or 23 at the time. And then there were no more roles. Was she blacklisted for not going along with casting couch? Did she sleep with the wrong guys? Was she passed over in favor of less talented but better connected girls? Or was she simply unwilling to accept that Bollywood only wanted one thing from her and that Ram Gopal Varma doomed her as soon as he cast her as his Lolita in Nishabd, forever the "bold" girl, the sex symbol whether she liked it or not.
I can't claim to know Jiah - though we chatted once or twice online - and I certainly can't claim to know why she committed suicide but I can say this: Jiah Khan's career exemplifies the disposable way women are treated by the film industry. Jiah was a unprotected woman and she was "bold," therefore she never got to play heroine. (She also never got to play a professor or a spy or a policewoman or an accountant or an engineer. Not that those roles exist for any woman.) She was also old news, washed up at 25 because if he can't get a big name, every producer wants a new girl to debut as heroine; a new girl to do the item. And though Jiah was gorgeous, she was no model, certainly not fair, tall, and slim like Nargis. (Who is also discovering just how disposable women are.)
So, where does a mainstream actor like Jiah go if she is unable to get work (or unwilling to take the work she is offered) in Mumbai? Certainly not to LA or London, whose film industries have little use for women of color and even less for the emotive acting required by Hindi films. South, perhaps, though she would face the same casting couch troubles there. Or to theater, where - if she was extremely lucky - she would emerge as the next Shahana Goswami in 10 years time, a talented actress doing bit roles in horrible Abhishek Bachchan films, but at least she would be working.
Jiah's death holds all the sadness and bitterness of lost opportunity. The promise of the young medical student from Ghajini has been broken and the joie-de-vivre of the woman with a whip in Housefull will never be seen again.
As a fan of Jiah's, I want to extend my sympathies to her family and friends. I didn't know her in real life but on screen she shone like the sun and she will be missed. I was always waiting to hear when Jiah's next project would be announced and, sadly, now I always will be.