1 August 2016

Everything is Illuminated

This week's Mirror column:

Are there more stoners on the Hindi film screen? A short history of filmi drugs, from old-fashioned to uber-cool  

Nawazuddin Siddiqui's Faisal in GoW is one of Anurag Kashyap's many pot-smoking protagonists
Earlier this year, we had much brouhaha about showing drug use on screen, in the context of Abhishek Chaubey's Udta Punjab. Producer Anurag Kashyap came out swinging against the CBFC, and when Udta Punjab finally released (with just one cut), many people, including myself, noted that its tragic portrait of drug-addled youth and a corrupt state couldn't possibly be seen as encouraging drugs.

The week after Udta, Kashyap released another film, this one directed by himself. Raman Raghav 2.0 was publicised as a portrait of a serial killer. Which it is. But it is equally a portrait of a killer cop, played by Masaan actor Vicky Kaushal. And drugs are crucial to Raghav's character: driving his violence, while also providing a crutch that helps him live with its effects. The introductory nightclub sequence, cut to Varun Grover's marvelous lyrical wordplay about qatl-e-aam, has a psychedelic quality that could rival any of Udta's blazingly coked-up scenes. And unlike in Udta, these scenes in RR2.0 aren't swaddled in a thick layer of anti-drugs messaging. But no-one batted an eyelid.

Not that I wanted them to. Kaushal's coke-fuelled murderous cop can't possibly be perceived a dangerous role model. But there is no doubt that this is a different sort of character from the sort that Hindi movies used to allow in the drug-consuming department.

Through the '70s and '80s,
drugs were what the villain's evil empire was built on, along with illicit daru and adulterated dawai. An occasional hero might take on a drug cartel, sometimes for a personal reason: Charas (1976) had Dharmendra falling for Hema Malini's hapless drug mule; Janbaaz (1986) had Feroz Khan avenging the drugged death of his girlfriend (Sridevi); the sparky Jalwa (1987) had Naseeruddin Shah as a cop fighting brown sugar traffickers after his younger brother died injecting it.

Very few Hindi films had protagonists who used drugs. If they did, you knew they had to die for their sins: the
hippie Janice/Jasbir of Hare Rama Hare Krishna (1971), icon of cool though Zeenat Aman and 'Dum Maro Dum' made her, had to commit suicide for shame. That strand of moral comeuppance is still around: think of Madhur Bhandarkar's Fashion (2008), in which Kangana Ranaut's reigning supermodel Shonali loses her job and later her life to her addiction, although heroine Meghna (Priyanka Chopra) is allowed to reform herself. And as late as 2011, we had a film like Dum Maro Dum rejigging the old Hindi film villain, with Aditya Pancholi as the white-suited Lorsa Biscuita, whose benevolent industrialist is a front for secret druglord.
Abhay Deol in Kashyap's Dev D (2009) drowns his sorrows in drink and drugs
More recently, though, marijuana-smokers have begun to appear on the Hindi film screen. Anurag Kashyap might have heralded the change, with dopehead heroes as dissimilar as Abhay Deol's Dev D and Nawazuddin Siddiqui's Faisal (in Gangs of Wasseypur 2). He also possibly gave us Hindi cinema's first female smoker-up: Jesse Randhawa's sari-wearing college lecturer in Gulaal, who lights up while laughing about her “bahut buri aadat”.

The new comfort-level with stoners has opened up space for a film like Go Goa Gone, a silly but funny comedy in which a Goa rave produces an outbreak of zombies. Even in a film as harrowing as Udta, the relaxing effect of drugs is allowed a moment: a syringe planted in Diljit Dosanjh's neck brings down his guard enough to voice his feelings to Kareena Kapoor. But the good-drug vs bad-drug line remains zealously guarded. Kashyap himself seems to recognize more serious drug use as part of a dark, dystopic inner world: in his unreleased first film Paanch (2003), for instance, to which the teenage-gang-gone-wrong in Bejoy Nambiar's Shaitan (2011) paid homage. Even last week's shallow and annoying M Cream, which centres on four rich Delhi brats setting out for the hills in search of a legendary hash—and ostensibly finding themselves, crafts its single moment of drama around Imaad Shah's charsi hero Figaro preventing his silly friend Maggie from shooting up.

The idea of marijuana as harmless and happy-making is making its way into the cool new family film: Shandaar turns not eating meat on Tuesdays into an extended gag involving magic mushrooms, while Kapoor and Sons has a grandfather (Rishi Kapoor) sharing a joint with his warring grandsons.
Jesse Randhawa as Anuja in Gulaal (2009) may have been Hindi cinema's first female pot-smoker
But any conversation about drug consumption in Hindi films should really include the narcotic that Indian civilization has sanctioned since time immemorial: bhang. Unlike cannabis rolled into cigarettes, whose popularity comes via a firang route, bhang is made by grinding cannabis leaves into paste and eaten (see Shrilal Shukla's classic novel Raag Darbaari for a paean to the process). Sometimes mixed into sweets (or milky thandai on Holi), bhang is not just socially licensed but ritually encouraged. And while they may be new to dope-smoking, our films have always treated bhang as a gentle inducement to hilarity. think of Rajesh Khanna and Mumtaz singing Jai Jai Shiv Shankar as they careen down temple steps, or Amitabh Bachchan breaking into the rambunctious Khaike Paan Banaraswala in Don, or my all-time favourite: the bhang pakodas in Angoor which make Aruna Irani amorously giggly and Deven Verma imagine a toad to accompany his rendition of Preetam Aan Milo.

Unfortunately, barring 2012's charming Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana (in which the family in question isn't exactly 'cool', but the script's use of cannabis undeniably is), bhang seems to have exited the Hindi film universe. Maybe the cool people think it's too old-fashoned. Around the 2011 release of Don 2, Shah Rukh Khan was asked if he enjoys bhang on Holi. “Apart from smoking,” said SRK, “aur koi buri aadat abhi tak nahi hai mujh mein.” As someone who is a fan of its entirely legal (and smokeless) joys, I must confess to being devastated. 

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