We get high on cinema

Amitabh Bachchan in 'Amar Akbar Anthony'. Illustration: Satwik Gade  

The rash of state-enforced prohibition has, in recent times, proved contagious, with state after state, from Kerala to Bihar to Tamil Nadu, becoming the newest advocates of alcohol abstinence. In India, the public discourse around alcohol consumption has in large parts revolved around seeing it as a social evil, from which the people need to be rescued by a nanny state on overdrive. There is little or no exploration of policy alternatives to prohibition that acknowledge and address the problems arising from addiction without entirely spoiling the party for moderate and responsible imbibers of “the invisible spirit”.

Pop cultural — and particularly cinematic — allusions to alcohol, too, occasionally take the moral, um, ‘high ground’, associating it with the Fall of Man, so to speak, or portraying it as a social evil. But, equally, the jolly drunken hero is celebrated on celluloid from time to time, suggesting that the tolerance level for tipplers is at least moderately higher on film than in the real world.

Any exploration of the representation of liquor in Indian cinema must begin with adaptations of Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s 1917 novel Devdas. The tragic tale of the protagonist who, unable to be with the love of his life Paro, finds solace in alcohol and the arms of the courtesan Chandramukhi has been told and retold numerous times on screen. Beginning with Naresh Mitra’s silent 1928 version to Sudhir Mishra’s upcoming flipping of the narrative as Dasdev, it’s a narrative that has set the bar high.

Chattopadhyay’s text has been adapted by several of India’s film industries. In Hindi, the character has been played by actors as diverse as K.L. Saigal, Dilip Kumar, Shah Rukh Khan and Abhay Deol, and in Bengali by P.C. Barua, Soumitra Chatterjee and Prasenjit Chatterjee. Akkineni Nageswara Rao played Devdas in a Telugu/ Tamil bilingual, while Ghattameni Krishna tackled the role in a Telugu adaptation and Venu Nagavally in a Malayalam version. Beyond India, there have been a brace of Pakistani and Bangladeshi adaptations. All these renditions serve as cautionary tales, denouncing archaic societal practices but without romanticising alcohol — which is seen as an ultimately doomed panacea for thwarted love.

And, yet, Indian cinema clearly loves its alcoholic heroes like Guru Dutt in Pyaasa, Akkineni in the Telugu Premabhishekam and Kamal Haasan in its Tamil remake Vaazhve Maayam, Uttam Kumar in the Bengali Nishi Padma and Rajesh Khanna in its Hindi remake Amar Prem, and Anjan Dutt in the Bengali Ranjana Ami Ar Ashbo Na, to name a few. And quite remarkably for films made in what were considered more traditional times, even female leads were depicted as being partial to Bacchus’ best: Meena Kumari in Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam, Sadhana in Intaqam, Rupa Ganguly in Maya Bazaar, Rituparna Sengupta in Mahasangram and Swastika Mukherjee in Take One.

I.V. Sasi highlighted alcohol as a social problem in his 1982 Malayalam film Ee Nadu, where he depicts the deaths of thousands of innocent people who consume spurious arrack. Similarly, Arun Roy depicts the 2011 Bengal hooch tragedy in the 2016 Bengali film Cholai. While Sasi’s film was political, Roy plays it black and treats the whole fiasco, the deaths, the bureaucracy and the general incompetence of the political system as a satire.

In Makarand Mane’s Marathi film Ringan (2015), Shashank Shende plays a farmer who, already reeling from the death of his wife, sees his land being repossessed by the bank, and all his worldly goods stolen; he turns to alcohol when his little boy stops speaking with him.

Another Malayalam film, G. Marthandan’s 2016 hit Paavada, initially plays the protagonists’ (Prithviraj Sukumaran, Anoop Menon) alcoholism for laughs, but we realise the extent of their problem only when they are checked into detox and distil their own urine to drink as an alcohol substitute.

In Guru Prasad’s Kannada satire Eddelu Manjunatha (2009), Jaggesh plays an alcoholic wastrel whose wife aborts their baby because she is the sole breadwinner and cannot take on the extra burden of bringing up a child and looking after her husband. And in Ritwik Ghatak’s Jukti Takko Aar Gappo (1974), he plays an incurable alcoholic intellectual whose wife leaves him because of his habit.

While alcohol may be associated with doom and gloom in many films, there is also the comedic drunk who keeps things light and peppy. Keshto Mukherjee and Johnny Walker have done more than their share in this department, while Dharmendra’s antics (as Veeru in Sholay) atop a water tank belong in the annals of top comic scenes. Amitabh Bachchan played several memorable roles as a drunk, including hilarious turns in Amar Akbar Anthony and Naseeb, a raging alcoholic in Sharaabi, and an alcoholic with an edge in Shamitabh. Elsewhere, one of Mohanlal’s funniest roles is playing an alcoholic in No. 20 Madras Mail and one of Rajinikanth’s early roles was as a drunk in Anthuleni Katha. In Kapurush, the great Satyajit Ray gave the world the Bengali word for ‘cheers’: ‘ullash’. Nowadays, of course, Akshay Kumar swaggers around on a boat holding what looks like a Bloody Mary in The Shaukeens, mouthing ‘Haan main alcoholic hoon, Hoon toh hoon to main kya karoon, Yes Imma party freakin’ crazy’.

A good example of alcoholism tackled in short films is Manoj Dawra’s The Alcoholic, set in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and centred on a young woman who gets her first taste of liquor after she graduates with distinction. Her affair with the bottle begins innocuously with beer, but she soon graduates to swigging vodka from hip flasks and passing out at job interviews. She reaches a stage where she is drinking all day, with hands not steady enough to light cigarettes. She only comes to, so to speak, when a friend tries to take sexual advantage of her on her birthday.

At the other end of the spectrum, Mallika Sherawat downs shot after shot in Ugly Aur Pagli while happily mouthing the lyrics to ‘Main Talli Ho Gayi’; there are several party anthems celebrating alcohol, including ‘Tipsy Ho Gai’ from Dilliwali Zaalim Girlfriend and Kapil Kumar Hadda and Millind Gaba’s ‘Main Hoon Talli’.

Indian cinema has romanced the ‘drinking songs’ over many years. In Bollywood alone, from the iconic ‘Jai Jai Shiv Shankar’ in Aap Ki Kasam to ‘Raat Bhar Jaam Se’ from Tridev, from Kaajal ‘Mujhe Duniyawalon Sharaabi Na Samjho’ in Leader to ‘Zara Sa Jhoom Loo Main’ from Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, from ‘Chaar Botal Vodka’ from Ragini MMS 2 to ‘Daaru Desi’ from Cocktail, the list is endless.

In other words, the discourse on alcohol in Indian filmdom isn’t quite as monochromatically depressing as the offline narrative suggests, if one were to interpret only the public policy that shapes enforced prohibition. Sure, some movies take a polemical view and portray alcoholism as an unmitigated social evil (which it doubtless is in a certain context), but for every one of those drowning-in-drink depictions, there is a more fun-laced alternative storyline where the clink of glass against glass conveys a convivial sharing of momentary merriment. Let’s raise a toast to that diversity of delineation.

Naman Ramachandran is a journalist and author of Rajinikanth: The Definitive Biography.

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Printable version | Jun 18, 2021 6:11:58 PM |

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