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When the grass isn’t so green

While Hindi cinema is growing bolder with each passing year, one topic that directors and writers have shied away from so far is drug abuse. But even that is set to change with Abhishek Chaubey's film Udta Punjab (2016).

Shriram Iyengar

Early Hindi films steered clear of negative influences. A cigarette or the occasional bottle of alcohol only served to accentuate the villainy of a negative character, with these 'Western' traits being seen as bad influences.

That changed with PC Barua's Devdas (1933). When Devdas is deprived of Paro's love, he seeks refuge in drink. The steady abuse of alcohol leads him inexorably to tragedy. Such was the grip of this tale on the popular imagination that for a long time it became fashionable for jilted lover-boys to hit the bottle.

Drugs arrived on screen in a big way with Dev Anand’s Hare Rama Hare Krishna (1971). With the sexy Zeenat Aman swaying to RD Burman's mesmerising 'Dum maaro dum' amid copious amounts of smoke, Indian fans were introduced to the effects of marijuana. Made at a time when hippie culture was on the rise, Hare Rama Hare Krishna used the drug scene as a backdrop to the tale of a brother’s search for his lost sister. It won Zeenat Aman the Filmfare award for Best Supporting Actress as well as an identity as the industry’s hippest girl.

In 2011, Rohan Sippy used the song's title to name his film about the growing drug mafia in Goa. But neither the film nor its title track had the chutzpah of Zeenat Aman. 


Another film on separated siblings trapped in the drug trade was Ramanand Sagar's Charas (1976). This time, it was Dharmendra fighting the drug kingpin Ajit. The film was remembered more for the charming Dharam-Hema pair than for its plotline. The title, though, remained synonymous with the illicit drug trade and, decades later, Tigmanshu Dhulia used it for his second film, revolving around the same topic. Charas (2004) featured Irrfan Khan and Jimmy Shergill, who had played the lead roles in Tigmanshu Dhulia's hit debut Haasil (2003), and touched on the issue of drugs as a means to exercise power in gang wars.

However, filmmakers generally shied away from showing drug abuse as anything but a personal tragedy. So there was the sensuous Sridevi dying of an overdose in Feroz Khan's Jaanbaz (1986). In the cult classic Jalwa (1987), Naseeruddin Shah’s character avenges his brother by taking on a drug cartel. In most films, drugs were a plaything of the rich and the young. The reality in Indian society, however, was different. There was a growing epidemic of drug abuse in the middle and lower middle classes.

Anurag Kashyap’s debut film Paanch (2003) was a devastating, honest take on the drawbacks of drugs as a means of escape. The story about five members of a rock band, neither rich nor adult, who are drawn into a self-destructive spiral of drugs and murder, found its road to the theatres blocked by the censors. Kashyap, though, stuck with the theme through films like Dev.D (2009) and Gangs of Wasseypur (2012). The latter covered a largely ignored aspect of the growing drug abuse in the hinterland and became a cult classic with its doped version of Michael Corleone, Faizal (Nawazuddin Siddique), having his moments of epiphany under a thick marijuana-induced haze.

Films like Dev.D and Shaitan (2011) were remarkable in their approach to the issue for another reason. These dark films featured stark portrayals of addicts writhing in their inability to escape their craving.  These characters do not belong to the upper class nor are they vile criminals. They are common, misled individuals trapped in a haze of their own making. However, being commercial ventures, the films tended to bury the issue under the emotional baggage of the characters. Moreover, they failed to point out the extent of social damage inflicted by the drug problem.

The trailer of Abhishek Chaubey's Udta Punjab (2016) shows a similarly stark world filled with diverse characters. A rock star, a migrant labourer, a doctor and a policeman cross paths in drug-infested Punjab. In a recent interview, the film’s lead actor Shahid Kapoor said, “It is an issue that needs to be addressed... It's a real issue for parents and children.” It might also be the first instance of the problem being shown on a larger, social scale.