BOMBAY TIMES EXCLUSIVE
In his first exclusive interview after being acquitted in the Jiah Khan suicide case on Friday, actor Sooraj Pancholi (30), reflects upon his decade-long trial coming to an end, his hopeful present and what lies ahead for him. In this conversation with us, the actor drops his guard like never before. Excerpts…
After 10 years you were declared not guilty by the Special CBI Court in the Jiah Khan case where you were accused of abetment to suicide. What are your feelings, today?
It’s a huge weight off my shoulders. These past 10 years, even when I was in a relationship, I couldn’t give it my hundred per cent because my future was uncertain. I can now plan my life. No matter what you have in life, peace is what you need the most, beyond fame, money and success. I have not been at peace for the past 10 years. Every night before I slept, I thought about this. As I woke up, I thought about it and this happened to not just me, but my father (Aditya Pancholi), mother (Zarina Wahab) and sister (Sana). I am yet to come to terms with the fact that it is over. I am still getting used to me being a free man. It hasn’t sunk in yet.
Today, how do you remember Jiah Khan and the relationship you two shared?
I sent a friend request to Jiah on Facebook. She was a beautiful girl and had done a few films. She reverted about a year later and we became friends. I was in a relationship with Jiah for only five months and I didn’t know the magnitude of what she was going through. She needed love not from her boyfriend, but her family too. She wanted them to support and understand her. Jiah had a lot of pressure to support her family- two younger stepsisters, mother and her partner. She was the only earning member and she wasn’t getting the kind of work that would help her in doing so. I didn’t know the gravity of the situation then as a 20-year-old, but I had informed her mother about her depression and that she needed help. Back then, there wasn’t much awareness about mental health. She didn’t have that emotional support from them. She only had me. When I had initially met Jiah and we weren’t in a relationship, she had tried to slit her hand wanting to end her life in 2012. I had called Rabiaji in London, and she told me she will be in Mumbai on the next flight, but she didn’t show up for months. Was this a normal parent-child relationship? I was there for her and during that time, we fell in love. She was a wonderful person but my love for her wasn’t enough. She needed familial love. There’s so much I could have said in court, but I didn’t because I want the family to have peace, but accusing me is not the way. The court has observed that the suicide letter presented as Jiah’s was not written by her and was submitted to the police days after it was given to the media. The judgement copy states, ‘The circumstances create serious suspicion regarding the actual author of the said letter.’
All these years, did you feel ostracised or judged by people even before the courts gave their verdict? How did you deal with it?
From the moment I stepped out of my house to the time I got back, I felt trapped, breathless, and judged every day. Especially in showbiz, perception is everything. At any event, I was the last person to reach and the first to leave. Even when they were probably not judging me, I felt that way. There was this constant pressure, a feeling that people don’t want to be around me or seen with me and that is the worst feeling ever… the thought of being unwanted. When this happened to me, I was not a part of the industry. I was accused in 2013 and my first film came out in 2015. I did sense a bit of hesitation and hostility. I was removed from projects. The films that I was working on were stopped midway. Every time I tried to move on, some fake reports in the media and vicious online trolling held me back.
At one point you even went black on social media to register your outrage.
I was so fed up. Baseless accusations and bizarre conspiracy theories connected me to the death of Disha Salian (celebrity manager), which I had nothing to do with! When you are in the dirt, it’s easy to put some more dirt on you. It was horrible! I don’t speak about my problems to anyone. I don’t share my inner turmoil even with my parents because I don’t want them to suffer. On Friday, after a decade I looked my parents in the eye. We wouldn’t speak about this case (Jiah Khan) in the house. I would discuss it with my lawyers, but never with my family. My mother wanted to accompany me to court for the verdict, so you saw her there. My sister stayed with my father at home. For 10 years, I went to the court alone. I didn’t want them to see what I was facing in court or going through in life. I don’t vent, I have trained myself to be this way. The only time I cried was when I entered my house after the acquittal. That was closure for me.
Despite the verdict, a certain section might continue to troll you. How do you feel about that?
I must make this clear. Eight years ago, as an accused, I had a right to be discharged based on insufficient evidence against me, but my family and I opted to undergo trial. It was my decision to face trial. I had a discharge order from the Bombay HC, but I wanted the truth to come out. Had I been discharged, people would have assumed that I got away because I am ‘influential’. I am sure people even today might think that Sooraj got away, but I did not. I have hardly spoken about this case in the media, so it was easy for people to think that I was the bad guy. I want people to go through my judgement letter. It has all the details. They can then decide for themselves.
Your proximity to Salman Khan is often spoken about. Tell us more.
Salman Khan is not a friend of my father or mother. Of course, they know each other as they all work in the same industry. I was an AD on Ek Tha Tiger and he had told me that he will produce my first film. I was accused in 2013 two years before that film (Hero) came out, and he still produced that film and stood by me. He has done more than anyone else for me, but I know my limits and I won’t exploit that bond. I have met him a hundred times, but never for work. He was the first person I messaged as soon as I left the court. He had told me, ‘Sooraj, if you know in your heart that you haven’t done anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about.’ I knocked on everyone’s door for work in these last 10 years. Corporates and studios didn’t want to work with someone who had travel restrictions and a sword dangling over his head. They wanted me to have a clean chit first. I feel reborn now and I am ready to work.
Rabia Khan has maintained that her child was murdered and abetment to suicide was a wrong charge. Are you
ready to continue with your fight?
This is no longer about justice but harassment. I just want her to leave me alone. There is no revenge to take
from me. I have done nothing wrong. Baseless allegations were made against me, and nothing was proved in court except that I was in a relationship with her. She could have walked out of it. The mother just wants to take the guilt off her shoulders and put it on someone else. She needs a person to be blamed so that she feels at peace. Jiah didn’t have a father. She met him once when she was a baby. Her mother moved houses, Jiah came to Mumbai at 16 to become an actor and she had been supporting her family financially since then. No other person was investigated except for me because I was her boyfriend. Is being in a relationship or loving somebody a crime? As a 20-year-old boy, I tried to help Jiah as much as I could. There’s nothing more that I could have done. Today, I am 10 years older and aware about mental health. I could have strived harder to save her had it happened now.