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Home > News> Opinion > Opinion | Rhea Chakraborty and a brief history of scapegoats

Opinion | Rhea Chakraborty and a brief history of scapegoats

Rhea Chakraborty is a whipping girl—a stand-in for People Like Us. The bizarre nature of her televised torment is meant to make us feel tormented, and remind us of the all-powerful force of available state machinery

Rhea Chakraborty hounded by the press outside the NCB on 6 September, two days before she was arrested.
Rhea Chakraborty hounded by the press outside the NCB on 6 September, two days before she was arrested.

The events of this week got me interested in the etymology of “scapegoat". It is Biblical in origin, first recorded around 1530 in Tyndale’s Bible. On the Day of Atonement, one of two goats was sent into the wilderness with the sins of the people symbolically laid upon it, while the other goat was sacrificed.

In many ways, a scapegoat, with its trappings of symbolic crime and punishment, is like a “whipping boy". It might seem like an odd notion today that royal courts would keep a child for the purpose of beating him when the crown prince slipped up. But the whipping boy was an established position at the English court in the 15th century.

Outside the Bible, and around the world, scapegoats are human and usually chosen from groups that are powerless to fight back. Rhea Chakraborty, a 28 year-old female actor with no industry connections, no husband who is a film star or cricketer, no father who is a film-maker or badminton champion, makes a very good scapegoat as scapegoats go. She is a whipping girl—a stand-in for People Like Us. The bizarre nature of her televised torment is meant to make us feel tormented, and remind us of the all-powerful force of available state machinery.

While this paper’s film writer, Uday Bhatia, had written a memorable tribute to actor Sushant Singh Rajput in the week he died by suicide in June, we had since avoided covering the frenzy that followed. Our reasoning was that Lounge readers, like the Lounge team, don’t take shrill, hysterical TV news seriously. But then, this week, the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) arrested Chakraborty on charges of procuring marijuana for Rajput. It is no longer in the realm of hysteria. If found guilty under the sections she has been charged under, she can be imprisoned for up to 10 years—this is extraordinary given that the NCB usually only gets involved when quantities like 50-100kg are involved. As several critics have pointed out, it is no coincidence that this three-act tragedy has coincided with India’s covid-19 infections surging, the economy contracting and tensions between India and China rising to the highest level since 1962.

One of the stand-out points in our 25 Reasons To Love Rangeela cover story last week was the anecdote of its lead actor, Aamir Khan, pointing out to director Ram Gopal Varma, that the movie had no villain. We are a culture that loves a villain. Even better if the villain is an attractive and ambitious woman who was in a “live-in" relationship with a man and who speaks the same language as a popular female politician who is a challenge to the Union government. As our columnist Sandip Roy writes this week, it makes for “a perfect storm of moral outrage—drugs, sex, money and Bollywood". In any case, one thing the Central agencies and TV channels should accept is that Chakraborty is a superwoman who is not just an expert money launderer but a black magic expert and (as the NCB says) “an active member of a drugs syndicate connected with drug supplies". These are a lot of things to do while also trying to make a career as an actor.

A 2016 article in The Hindu on the “witches" of Jharkhand by journalist Shiv Sahay Singh, had Adivasi rights activist Xavier Dias saying that witch-hunts—a popular form of scapegoating—are so rampant in Jharkhand that whenever a new disease sets in that afflicts either people or cattle and villagers fail to comprehend it, they look for witches to kill. Some of the women who were killed just before the piece was reported included a woman known to openly voice her dislike of the sale of liquor in the village; a single woman in her 40s who had spurned the attention of men who had taken an interest in her; and another who had opened a makeshift temple where she was the officiating priest.

In 1939, three Yale psychologists attempted to theorize the phenomenon of scapegoating. Their Frustration–Aggression hypothesis says that when a person or group gets frustrated at something beyond their control, they release their aggression on less powerful groups, i.e., the scapegoat. A man disrespected at work goes home and beats his wife, classic case of the Frustration–Aggression hypothesis. This theory is used to explain riots and revolutions, which are believed to be caused by deprived sections of society expressing their bottled-up frustration through violence.

Those after Chakraborty, and those cheering the spectacle, are like those wife beaters. Chakraborty herself appears devoid of anger in her TV appearances. While her Smash Patriarchy slogan T-shirt has been the subject of some attention, I have been particularly struck by Chakraborty’s distant look on TV. She is numb. She is us. Outrage doesn’t seem appropriate any more. But to all those who have said this week, “we’re signing out of this", don’t. Because the few hours you look away, something worse might happen. Someone else could get arrested. Or someone could interpret your slang and accuse you of something sinister.

If it wasn’t so desperately sad, there is a lot to laugh about several aspects of Chakraborty’s vilification, such as when her text message saying “Imma bounce" (millennial slang for I’m going to bounce/take off) was interpreted as her intention to bounce cheques.


In the brouhaha of this week, and the many messages of support for Chakraborty, film-maker Nikhil Dwivedi’s tweet saying that he looks forward to working with Chakraborty when all of this is over, really stood out for me. Believing that this will be over matters. The intention to create a better collective future matters.

The writer tweets at @aninditaghose.

  • FIRST PUBLISHED
    11.09.2020 | 11:06 AM IST

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