Smoking the peace pipe

In a scene in Kapoor & Sons, Dadu (Rishi Kapoor) chances upon what looks like a rolled cigarette. The mischief in his eyes, however, suggests otherwise. He may have just turned 90 and barely survived a heart attack, but this retired army officer hasn’t lost the appetite to have some fun, especially around his grandsons. In the next scene, as the lights go off in the rest of the Kapoor household after the day’s share of bickering, he and his grandsons get stoned inside the softly lit room. Not only does the ‘rolled cigarette’ bring about a good end to a bad day, it also dissolves bitter sibling rivalry as the brothers laugh themselves to sleep.

Rishi Kapoor's character smokes up in 'Kapoor and Sons'.

It is hardly the first time that the use of cannabis (hashish or marijuana) has been shown in Hindi mainstream cinema, but this moment is special. Far from being shown as a symbol of upper class hippie culture or as an addictive drug for criminals, here, the cannabis consumers are urban middle-class protagonists in a Karan Johar-produced ‘family’ film, taking a few puffs to feel good about themselves. They don’t make a big deal of it. Much like the film’s progressive depiction of homosexuality, cannabis is treated in a casual, matter-of-fact way. This doesn’t come as a surprise at a time when Hindi mainstream cinema is growing up, leaving behind its stereotypes and prejudices and reflecting the truth of the times.

Last year, the country’s first ‘Legalise Marijuana’ meet was organised in Bengaluru, and an online petition on the same is being shared on social media. Thanks to the legalisation of cannabis in several states in the U.S. and to the Internet, there is more awareness as well as conversations on the the plant’s medicinal value. Meanwhile, Hindi cinema has also been loosening up. The Blueberry Hunt, Shaitan, Go Goa Gone, Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana and almost all of Anurag Kashyap’s films demonstrate how cannabis is no longer demonised. We can also expect something along similar lines in the upcoming Udta Punjab, starring Kareena Kapoor, Shahid Kapur and Alia Bhatt, a drug drama set in Punjab.

Bejoy Nambiar writer-director Shaitan says, “There’s a culture of ‘smoking up’ among today’s youth and it’s becoming more and more relevant in our movies.” Nature activist Amit Tida, who is making a documentary on the cannabis community in India and the plant’s medicinal value, says films can go a long way in freeing people of their misconceptions about it. “As filmmakers, we should have a responsibility towards something that has the power to give relief to cancer patients,” he says.

Social acceptance

Cannabis may have its moments in Hindi cinema, but it is still far from being accepted in the mainstream, says Krishna D.K., co-director of Go Goa Gone, a film about two marijuana-loving youngsters’ misadventures in Goa. The film is perhaps the only Hindi stoner comedy, a popular genre in Hollywood. “It [marijuana] is being used all around us, but it’s still illegal and not completely socially accepted either, outside of some circles. As filmmakers, we do have some responsibility to not cross the line and end up promoting cannabis, or for that matter, alcohol, while we maintain the authenticity of the characters that were created to give a snapshot of today’s urban youth and their attitudes,” says Krishna. The film also has a song titled Babaji ki Booty, a tongue-in-cheek allusion to marijuana’s ancient Indian origins.

An image from 'Go, Goa, Gone'

A substance whose relative harmlessness to alcohol and tobacco is being debated, cannabis finds itself in a strange in-between position. It is not as socially acceptable as alcohol and it doesn’t fall in the same category of hard drugs such as cocaine and heroin — although it is clubbed together with the latter according to the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, 1985.

The Central Board of Film Certification doesn’t seem to have a problem with cannabis smoking as long as it is not shown as something that triggers violence or is portrayed in an encouraging manner. Filmmakers, in the more mainstream films, are cautious about showing it as discreetly as possible even as they smartly weave it in as a small, but important, detail — Shah’s character in Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara rolls a joint while he is talking to his estranged son after many years, for instance. Or in Bejoy Nambiar’s Shaitan, the character played by Gulshan Devaiah offers a joint to Kalki Koechlin in a boring party they have been forced to attend because of their respective parents. He asks her, “Joint account khologe?” which Nambiar says he thought would be a “nice way to introduce two characters” in a film about a bunch of hedonistic youngsters.

Despite films such as Dev D and Gangs of Wasseypur having shown brazen pot-smoking, ironically, two films titled Charas were the most stereotypical in their depiction of the cannabis. While the 1976 Dharmendra starrer used the name as a representation of all drugs, Tigmanshu Dhulia’s 2004 film got trapped in the ‘illicit smuggling of drugs’ angle. The latter was a serious film with a somewhat hilarious tagline: ‘A Joint Effort’. And of course the most famous of all, Zeenat Aman's portrayal of a wild child who smokes weed with hippie groupies and dances to Western music in Hare Rama Hare Krishna(1971).

'Dev D' showed some brazen pot smoking.

Given its tricky relation with the Censor Board, whenever cannabis has been used thematically, its implications have always been indirect. For instance, in Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana, the secret recipe to a family special chicken dish (around which the whole plot revolves) turns out to be cannabis. The director, Sameer Sharma, who describes it as a “Yash Raj film plus marijuana”, used it as a clever subversive tool to the regular family drama, much like Kapoor & Sons. The film was given a U/A certificate. Incidentally, The Blueberry Hunt features Shah not as a marijuana user but a farmer. Anup Kurian, the director, says: “Though the film is essentially about a man and his crop, it underlines the fact that marijuana is not an evil drug as portrayed in our films. It’s a naturally occurring plant that has high medicinal value for high blood pressure, and also works as a painkiller without any side effects.”

Bhang and alcohol

Most filmmakers agree that until 15 years ago, it would have been difficult to feature casual use of cannabis in films. Historically, Bollywood reflected society’s prejudiced and ignorant views on it. On the other hand, bhang, another form of cannabis, is legal and its traditional usage in Hinduism has been celebrated. “Bhang has featured many times in Hindi film songs such as Jai Jai Shiv Shankar or Khaike Paan Banaraswala. But smoking cannabis has been shown to be done either by gangsters or in an addictive, titillating sort of a way, never as something for relaxation,” says director Sudhir Mishra. His film Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi had a scene where a joint is being passed around in a room. The only old Hindi film that he remembers depicting the ‘normal’ use of marijuana is Pradeep Kishen’s In Which Annie Gives it Those Ones. The film, written by Arundhati Roy, was made for Doordarshan. According to film scholar Ashish Rajadhyaksha, “Cannabis is still an underground subculture in mainstream Hinduism despite having its roots in it.”

An image from 'Gangs of Wasseypur'.

There is also a notion that alcohol works much better in terms of cinematic symbolism. “Hindi cinema’s presiding poison has always been alcohol,” says Ketan Mehta, whose Holi is one of the few 1980s movies that had shown casual marijuana use. Agrees documentary filmmaker Spandan Banerjee, “We know that a drunk man behaves a certain way. Compared to that, marijuana, for most people, has little physical manifestations. That’s because there has been no precedence,” says Banerjee, whose production company is called Overdose Films. He likens the uncomfortable silence around it to viewing a commercial on sanitary pads on television with one’s family: “Everybody knows about it, a substantial number of people use it. But few want to talk about it.”

The most vocal advocate

Naseeruddin Shah is arguably the most vocal advocate of cannabis in Hindi film industry — although a large number of filmmakers and actors use it, few are ready to go on record. Shah, who famously wrote in his autobiography, about how he thinks marijuana has made him “more intelligent”, gave us an exclusive.

“Showing cannabis use in Hindi films hasn't changed or increased. I guess a few more youngsters who smoke are making films now. It's just that since so many white skinned people came to India to smoke it, it suddenly became cool and was no longer considered only a "dhobiyon ka nasha". Maybe the discovery that it's also actually present in their own homes has made the tight asses of our industry a little more accepting. Considering the film industry's propensity for the bottle, it's not surprising marijuana wasn't considered classy enough. Also, I guess it's tough writing song after song about how comforting it is to ingest! While a student, I was in fact repeatedly cautioned that I'd get no work in the industry if it was discovered I smoke! In India, where it has been smoked for thousands of years, peddling it is illegal, consuming it isn't. And the much more harmful alcohol is not considered a hard drug! In The Blueberry Hunt, I am a grower not a user.

Naseeruddin Shah in 'The Blueberry Hunt'.

I've never bothered to hide the fact that in real life, I am a user and I've never shied away from admitting it and if that invites repercussion- so be it. My outspoken opinions were also going to get me into trouble, but one can’t keep worrying about the many things that can get you into trouble. None of my films have had censor trouble because of the marijuana connection (you can't censor a scene because an actor looks stoned!) but have had all sorts of other trouble for equally ridiculous reasons. I don't suppose our lawmakers will ever let it be legalised here though it’s more profitable to keep it illegal. The kickbacks must be phenomenal.”

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Printable version | Nov 26, 2020 12:39:02 AM |

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