As the clock struck 12 on the night of 9 October, Rabia Khan sent Nafisa, her eldest daughter, her fifth message of the day: “I heard you say, ‘Happy birthday, mom. I love you’.” The Khan women — Rabia, Nafisa, Kavita and Karishma — had always been big on birthdays, but since Nafisa’s 25th in February, it had seemed as though the season of celebration had passed forever.
On 3 June, Nafisa Khan — better known to her fans as Jiah, also the name of her onscreen character in Ram Gopal Varma’s Nishabd — was found hanging from the ceiling fan of her apartment in Juhu, Mumbai. Subsequent post-mortem reports and a six-page letter discovered by Jiah’s sister among her belongings established suicide as the cause of death. In Mumbai, where tales of struggle are fetishised as much as success, the story of another “insecure starlet” ending her life is usually just another tragic footnote in the ongoing drama of Mumbai’s hypercompetitive film industry.
Four months later, an apparently closed chapter has been reopened. Rabia’s lawyer Dinesh Tiwari has alleged that Jiah was strangled to death by a belt before she was hanged, and has petitioned the Supreme Court to hand her case over to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). More details, as a result of an independent forensic analysis, have emerged: there were deeper lesions on Jiah’s neck at the time of her death, separate from those caused by the muslin dupatta she allegedly hung herself with. She would also have needed a stool to hang herself from the fan in her bedroom, but no such piece of furniture was available anywhere in her home. In the pictures of her daughter’s body that Rabia released this week, Jiah’s eyes and tongue do not protrude from her face, as is usually the case in deaths caused by hanging.
In fact, Jiah was never quite the struggler she was made out to be in death. She had starred in two blockbusters by the age of 25 — Ghajini and Housefull had both done spectacularly well at the box office — and even her debut film Nishabd, panned for its gratuitous romance between an ageing Amitabh Bachchan and a Lolita-esque Jiah, had earned her great reviews. Rabia, on the other hand, had seen only moderate success as an actor in Mumbai, and had chosen to abandon her flailing career and move to London years ago. The object of Jiah’s affection, 22-yearold Suraj Pancholi (son of actor Aditya Pancholi) was also looking to make his own break in Bollywood. “For a young wannabe, it is never advisable to enter the limelight with a partner already on their arm,” says film historian and former editor of Filmfare Rauf Ahmed. “If Suraj was about to make his debut in a film produced by Salman Khan, one could see why he might want to appear ‘available’ to potential female fans.”
In London this February, Rabia, who had noticed a lack of colour in her daughter’s cheeks, asked her if it was Mumbai’s rat race getting to her. When Jiah shook her head, her eyes still filled with tears, Rabia pressed further. “I know you are in love, but you do not look happy. Is it because of Suraj?” Jiah broke down in response, and Rabia called Kavita and Karishma into the room for support. “Home is where you come to heal your wounds,” she said, “when you are done battling the world outside.”
In the days that followed, Jiah reportedly returned to her former self, taking walks in Hyde Park, window-shopping at Harrods and taking selfies with her sisters. “I love London, mama,” she confessed to Rabia, “I want to live here for a while.” Once she was done with her pending projects, Jiah had discussed living between London and Mumbai, possibly running a boutique on the side. This carefully planned future had once included marrying Suraj, but after Jiah confessed about her lover’s abusive behaviour and his family’s disapproval of their relationship, her own sisters advised her to seek some space. “Of the 10 times he would call her in a day, she would pick up maybe twice. She was learning to let go,” Rabia told reporters in an interview after her daughter’s death.
The emotional note Jiah left behind revealed details of her tempestuous and unhappy affair with Suraj, quite different from this period of calm. Apart from revealing Jiah’s deep emotional isolation, her letter also accused Suraj of being abusive, hitting Jiah, humiliating her in front of his friends, cheating on her, and, on one occasion, forcing her to get an abortion. “After all the pain, the rape, the abuse, the torture I have seen previously, I didn’t deserve this,” Jiah had written. While it was unclear whether it was Suraj who was responsible for this torture, for Rabia he had “caused” her daughter’s death with his errant ways. Before he could ever test his fate as a Bollywood hero, Jiah’s note had turned him into a villain.
Suraj was taken into police custody on 11 June to be granted bail only on 2 July, despite repeated attempts by his father to bring him home. Today, his name is inextricably linked with the woman he was trying so hard to shake off.
It was around this time when Suraj received bail that Rabia, heartbroken by her daughter’s death and the details she had just learnt about Jiah’s tormented life, began to seek fresh legal counsel. Tiwari was roped into the case. “As we examined the case critically, we grew more and more certain that this was not a case of suicide,” he told TEHELKA. “Jiah’s note made no mention of ending her life, but only of ending her career of 10 years, which fit in perfectly with her plans to move back to London.”
Since Tiwari has lodged a petition with the Supreme Court, cctv footage of Jiah entering her apartment on the day of her death has also been released to the press: a grainy, 10-second video where she walks into the building in a tracksuit and glances shyly at the camera. “We will undoubtedly use this footage to establish our case; that is not the face of a depressed or suicidal woman,” Tiwari argues. Apart from reopening the investigation, he has also alleged foul play; he is demanding that the CBI examine the call records of both Suraj’s father and Additional Commissioner of Police Vishwas Nangre Patil, who was in charge of investigating Jiah’s death.
Since the death of her eldest daughter, Rabia has begun to learn something about the travails of a life lived in the spotlight. Shortly after Jiah’s ‘suicide note’ went public, she found that the same people who had written Jiah off as a “struggler” were now questioning Rabia’s parenting skills and her ability to provide her daughters with a stable home environment. “What has Rabia Khan taught her daughter?” demanded a particularly vitriolic editorial.
With the recent news, the clamour around the Khans has only increased. Over the phone on her birthday, Rabia says she is not yet prepared to reconstruct the details of her daughter’s life for me. “All I can say is that I want her to have justice,” she says, before passing the phone to her lawyer. Justice will take a month at least, Tiwari assures us. Meanwhile, as Amitabh Bachchan sang in his paean to a young Jiah in Nishabd, “rozaana jiye, rozaana mare…” (everyday we live, everyday we die).