MUMBAI — One of India’s most-loved beauty queens has been in the eye of a social media storm recently.
Sushmita Sen, the first Indian to win the Miss Universe title in 1994, has made a career as a successful Bollywood actress.
The 46-year-old, who has starred in around three dozen films, was most recently seen playing the lead in a critically-acclaimed and popular web series called Aarya.
Often described as smart, witty and intelligent, Sen has won a number of prestigious cinema awards and is widely regarded as a “woman of substance”.
But all her achievements seemed to have been forgotten since Thursday night, when Lalit Modi – a 58-year-old businessman and founder of the Indian Premier League (IPL), the world’s richest cricket competition – announced on social media that he was in a relationship with Sen, opening the floodgates to crass and misogynistic jokes.
Modi, too, is a public personality – the architect of the wildly successful IPL hit the headlines a decade back after the BCCI, India’s cricket board, accused him of financial irregularities and suspended him. Mr Modi, who has always denied the allegations against him, has been living in London for the past decade.
Sharing a bunch of romantic photographs from their recent vacations in Maldives and the Italian island of Sardinia, he initially described Sen as his “better half” and then – after that set off rumors of marriage – edited it to read “my better looking partner”.
Modi, who lost his wife of nearly three decades to cancer in 2018, said his relationship with Sen was “a new beginning, a new life finally” and that he was “over the moon”.
Overnight, the internet went into overdrive – his post went viral, it was picked up by news websites and congratulatory messages began pouring in.
The trolls too came in droves – highlighting their age gap, criticising Modi for his appearance, calling him a “fugitive”, and mocking him for tagging Sen incorrectly on Twitter.
But the nastiest of commentary was reserved for the actress – her name trended on social media, with many calling her “greedy” and a “gold digger” who was dating Modi because of his money.
Her critics included Bangladeshi author-activist Taslima Nasrin, who wondered why Sen was now spending time with “a very unattractive person” – “because the man is very rich? So was she sold to money?”
“This sort of commentary is very problematic,” says Namita Bhandare, author and gender editor for news website Article 14.
“What happens in a relationship between consenting adults is no-one else’s business so trolling and value judgements are troubling. But it’s also bad news for all women, because it shows how easy it is to slip into this pattern of heaping indignities on women, pointing fingers at her.”
The attention the relationship is getting was not entirely unexpected, considering Sen is a celebrity whose every move is tracked by fans and the press.
She has often made news for her “unconventional” life choices – at 24, just a few years after winning the Miss Universe crown, she adopted a daughter as a single mother, and a few years later, a second girl. Sen regularly posts photos with her daughters.
She has also never hidden her relationships – over the years, she’s dated fellow actors and, most recently, model Rohman Shawl with whom she broke up last year.
But as Ms Bhandare points out, news of her dates were so far restricted to tabloids and gossip columns, and Mr Modi may not have anticipated the interest their liaison would generate in India.
“He set the ball rolling with his tweet on Thursday night. But he’s been leading a low-key life in London, and the whole attention has been on her, everyone is talking about her.”
Sen has also received a lot of support on social media, with many pointing out that in the past, she dated men who had little money and that no-one called these men gold-diggers.
But with the inordinate scrutiny and commentary about their relationship continuing – memes and jokes questioning her motives are being shared not just on social media but also passed around on WhatsApp – Sen responded on Sunday night with an Instagram post.
“It’s heartbreaking to see just how miserable & unhappy the world around us is becoming,” she wrote.
“The friends I never had & the acquaintances I’ve never met…. all sharing their grand opinions & deep knowledge of my life & character… monetising the ‘Gold Digger’ all the way!!! Ah these geniuses!!!”
To those claiming that she was dating Mr Modi for his money, the actress – who once endorsed a line of diamond jewellery and is reported to be worth an estimated $10m herself – wrote an apt reminder:
It’s a response that has won her much applause in India.
“The WhatsApp jokes and the comments are disgusting and they’re perpetrating the traditional notion that it’s okay to make fun of women,” Ms Bhandare says.
“But she has responded with so much maturity and grace. She has sent her love to those who’ve supported her and also wished well to those who don’t.” — BBC