In Charlie Chaplin, a low-budget comic caper and the last film in her short screen life, Monal played a call girl who commits suicide. On April 14, the day when she was scheduled to attend the muhurat of her new film, Pey Veedu (House of Ghosts), real life cruelly imitated the reel life of this five-films-old Tamil cinema actress. Better known as top actress Simran's sister, 21-year-old Monal hanged herself to death with a dupatta in the ninth floor of her apartment in Vadapalani, Chennai's Pali Hill.
She left behind no suicide note, and speculations abound on why this vivacious fresh face, with seemingly all the right connections, took her life. The grapevine, fuelled by sensation-hungry film magazines and the industry, floated several theories: her alleged affair with choreographer Prasanna and her foster-mother Veena's disapproval of it; or how Monal had just fought over retaining a share of the payment she had received for a new film.
Was life unnervingly imitating art for Monal? (In all her films, her character never got the man she loved.) Or did it have to do with a career which still hadn't showed enough promise at the box-office? (She invariably played the second-rung heroine and was getting identified with sizzling 'item' numbers.) Her manager, Riyaaz, is flip about it: "There's not much to analyse here. There were family problems."
Whatever the reason, Monal's is just the latest in a long line of actresses who have taken their own lives in Kollywood—as the Tamil industry calls itself (after Kodambakkam where much of it is based). At least 10 heroines have committed suicide in the past two decades: some of the more popular ones include Fatafat Jayalakshmi (1978), Shoba (1979), Kalpana (1980), Silk Smitha (1996) and Viji (2000). This February, six-film-old Pratyuksha also died mysteriously—her body was found in a car with her industrialist boyfriend. The police is still clueless whether it was a suicide or murder. Even star actress Khushboo confesses to mulling over taking her life. Says she: "Once there is pressure to succeed, you get the feeling that the whole world is crumbling around you. Even I've thought of committing suicide early in my career."
In film-crazed Tamil Nadu, heroines evoke a huge amount of interest about their work and private lives. Their diehard fans see them as nothing more than sexy and desirable pin-ups. And, very typically, Tamil cinema's ageing, overpaid male stars need these poorly-paid starlets to dance and pine for them on screen to reinforce their cultivated images of virility.
Monal's death provoked a queer reaction in the male-dominated industry. Actors Sarat Kumar and Vijaykanth, president and secretary of the Film Artistes Association respectively, suggested that women actors needed counselling. But Khushboo has a counter. Says she: "The idea of counselling could also be extended to men in the industry. But remember, we live in a male-dominated society."
Veteran Kollywood watchers are quick to blame these suicides on family pressures, especially the 'domineering mother'. Says film historian, Film News Anandan: "The mothers want to make the most when the going is good. Add to this an exploitative industry. Invariably, young stars seek love in men their mothers disapprove of. Either they listen to their mothers and are career-focused, or they choose their lovers over all else, or they just die. From Balu Mahendra's Shoba to Monal, the script has not changed much for women in the industry." Agrees Bharathi Visveswaran, consultant psychiatrist with Apollo Hospital: "Most actresses' mothers turn out to be failed actresses. They get vicarious pleasure in seeing their daughters succeed. Sometimes they are even jealous when a man gets their daughter's attention, leading to tensions."
Though the exploitative mother is an easy and obvious target, Tamil industry's use-and-throw culture vis-a-vis actresses makes most of them insecure. Over the past decade, producers have been flooding Tamil cinema with heroines from the north. When a heroine tries to hike her price after a hit, producers and the hero usually junk her and go for a new face for as low as Rs 50,000. So there's always a bevy of wannabes queuing up at the producer's door. Monal was caught on the same fringe. Very few actresses—a Simran or a Jyotika—can dictate their price. Top stars like Vijay or Prabhu Deva go for a new heroine in each film, thus creating more pressure and negative competition among lower-end heroines. In such situation, a fight over attending an awards night function with a boyfriend—as it happened with Monal—can turn out to be a final trigger. Says Riyaaz matter-of-factly: "All actresses have a sad story to tell. There's no peace for them. What Monal did was stupid."
Exploitation and pressure apart, there is a flourishing muck-raking film rags industry here which consistently targets actresses to sell. Recently, two magazines called Thalaippu Cheidi (The Headlines) and Roja cooked up a story about actress Mumtaaz running a prostitution centre, alleged she was lesbian and charged her mother with killing the actress' father. Mumtaaz took the magazines to court and won the case.
When actresses don't end their lives, they are forced to end their careers by marrying men—sometimes already married—from the industry. Last year, Devyani ran away from home and married director Rajkumar, who had piloted her biggest hit. Sita, another leading star of the last decade, staged a similar escape to marry actor Partiban. Most wind up their careers under pressure.
In unsparing Kollywood, actresses often have a stark choice: end your career or end your life.