Drinking in Hindi Cinema Is Loaded with Symbolism

Girl-gone-bad, villains and comedians are among those who picked up a glass of liquor; no one in Hindi films drinks just for leisure

Shahrukh Khan in a scene from Devdas. Credit: YouTube

Shahrukh Khan in a scene from Devdas. Credit: YouTube

In popular Hindi cinema, a bottle of liquor is almost always loaded with symbolism. Depending on the context in which it is placed, drinking can signify evil, moral depravity or a slide into a personal hell. It can also be used evoke laughter, since it makes the drinker do funny and stupid things. If the on-screen character lifting that glass to the mouth is a woman, the viewer gets a frisson of excitement, because it is almost certain she is a good girl gone astray. Rarely is drinking casual, a lifestyle choice with no subtext or in-your-face moralising.

Whenever a bottle is picked up and poured into a glass (usually in close up), the viewer knows there is a message in it. So when, in Vicky Donor, the two ladies, Mrs Arora and Bijji, sit down after a difficult day for an evening drink or three, it was immediately seen as a breakthrough moment. Mrs Arora is Bijji’s daughter-in-law and theirs is a relationship based on mutual bickering and bitching, but come evening, and the whisky comes out. The small-scale war continues, but now it is a bit more good-natured and the candid confessions are lubricated with alcohol.

Never before were women from middle-class backgrounds shown drinking and that too so informally, with no moral baggage associated with it. There have been occasions when sophisticated, upper-class women have held a glass, usually in a party scene, like in Raat Aur Din, a tale of a woman (Nargis) and her family dealing with her schizophrenia, or in Waqt, where a Rani Sahiba, soon to be a victim of a robbery, elegantly puts down her wine glass when invited to dance.

Hindi filmmakers loved doing those club and party songs where posh people gathered to listen to jazz, rock and roll, pop and whatever else may have been the craze of the moment. Set designers came up with outlandish Arabesque or Oriental themes, costumiers let their imaginations run wild and music directors looked all over the world for inspiration. But, shorn of these details, it was much the same each time: dancing on the floor, waiters flitting about and in the background, expressionless, uniformly dull and standing immobile, junior artists holding a glass in hand. Whether it was a party or a night club, a bar was a must-have, with its array of colourful bottles, most prominent of them being that one brand that Hindi filmi villains simply loved—Vat 69.

But while the extras in the background could imbibe, the virtuous heroine couldn’t and if she did, it could only mean she had been provoked or had fallen into bad company. A classic example is Intequaam, about a simple girl (Sadhna) who is accused of stealing a valuable piece of jewellery by the father of her boyfriend. Thrown into jail, she comes out vowing revenge and humiliates their family publicly, by knocking back drink upon drink and swaying to ‘Kaise rahoon chupke maine pee li, chahe hosh abhi tak hai baki, aur zara si de de saqi.’ The obliging ‘saqi’ is Helen, a cabaret dancer, who too, not unsurprisingly, has her own glass of wine. (The song is also famous for being a rare LataMangeshkar number—she normally left such songs to her more adventurous sister Asha.)

The girl-gone-bad trope was big in the 1960s, as more and more films set among the upper crust were made. The 1950s were all about the proletariat, the downtrodden or the seedy underworld, but come the 1960s, and with black-and-white giving way to glorious Eastman colour, the movies became more glamorous, more frothy and more frivolous, often reflecting the lifestyles of the upper classes. The one exception was Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam, which was released in 1962 but had a strong 1950s feel to it; for one thing it was made in black-and-white, but the story, set among the decaying zamindari system, was decidedly old-fashioned. Meena Kumari was brilliant as the neglected Chhoti Bahu who, to entice her wayward husband, takes to drink, gradually sliding into an alcoholic stupor, only to be further rejected by her husband who finds her morals unworthy of a woman of her class. Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam is of course a classic, raised to great heights by the performers, the music and the subtlety of the story itself and is atypical of what was to come in the rest of the decade.

With the advent of colour and keeping pace with an India shedding its colonial hang-ups and embracing fun and frivolity, Bombay producers of the 1960s discovered the vales of Kashmir and not soon after, the mountains of Switzerland and the cobbled stone streets of Paris. Now stories were not about indigent poets or taxi drivers but about rich scions with a lot of jaidad to their name. Their lifestyles included much socialising and club-going and naturally alcohol played a big role in it. The hero was more often than not a model youth, with no vices except perhaps flirting and stalking, but all those around him, whether the elders, friends and obviously the villain, drank with abandon. The messaging was fairly obvious — drinking per se was not a problem, but it was not meant for anyone wanting to lead a pure, virtuous life.

The conflation of alcohol and alcoholism is an old trick in Hindi cinema, drawn no doubt from the country’s social value system. Indians don’t, or are not supposed to, drink just for enjoyment. Drinking is against Indian culture and brought into the country by foreign invaders. There may be references to som ras in Indian mythology, but that was a pleasure reserved for the gods; mere mortals were supposed to lead a pious life. Whenever humans strayed, they paid a heavy price for it.

An early film, Brandy ki Botal (1939—also made simultaneously in Marathi), scripted by the witty Marathi writer Acharya Atre, told the story of a man who sets out to find a bottle of brandy and comes across all kinds of characters, among them regular drinkers. That was the period of films with a social reformist agenda. Widow remarriage, communal harmony, women’s education—Shantaram and others were committed to using the medium to propagate such causes. Occasionally, a sub-text about the evils of colonialism used to be slipped in.

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In the Fearless Nadia series, produced by the Wadia brothers, who made it a point to slip in a social homily or two, the bad guys were usually shown sitting around in bars. Nadia herself, playing a wayward twin in Muqabla, is given to drinking and is shown as a girl of ‘easy virtue’ though in the end she redeems herself by saving her sister’s life. In Hindi films then and for a long time after, death was the only redemption for someone gone astray.

In the 1950s, when a breed of young directors — Raj Kapoor, Guru Dutt, Raj Khosla, Vijay Anand — started making urban-centric films, it was almost de rigeur to have a scene in a low-rent bar, complete with dancing girl and gamblers. Drinking, however, had to be shown mostly by implication — Bombay, where these films were conceived and made, was under strict Prohibition and censors frowned at even screen representations of alcohol. This continued, in one way or the other, till much later — in a cabaret scene in Jewel Thief (1967), the hero, Dev Anand, walks down the stairs to a basement level night club and props himself up at the bar, where a sign clearly announces, ‘For Permit Holders Only.’

Not that there was no drinking, but it was portrayed either as comedy—the innumerable drunken scenes by Johnny Walker or as tragedy, of which the most well known example is Devdas, based on the 1917 novel by Sharat Chandra Chattopadhyay.

Several versions of Devdas in different languages have been made. From the 1930s to the early noughties, the film, with its maudlin and defeatist theme, has found favour not just with directors but also audiences—almost all versions have been hits. There are many ways to interpret the novel, which the author himself was not happy with.

Though it is not a direct commentary or critique of the more stifling conventions of the time, it draws upon the social mores of the period in which it is based. Devdas is a zamindar who just cannot find it in him to break the shackles of his class and marry the girl he loves. He runs away and takes refuge in drink. In Calcutta, he is introduced to the city’s richest and most beautiful prostitute Chandramukhi, but insults her because of her profession. Both, the noble and golden-hearted Chandramukhi, and his childhood sweetheart, Paro, are props to the weak-willed Devdas, whose broken heart is at the centre of the story. Despite the degradation thanks to his alcoholism, the notion of taking to drink because of lost love acquired a glamorous patina among lovelorn Indian youth. Dilip Kumar at least brought enormous depth to the role and the scenes showing him in a gutter would be a warning to anyone considering drinking too much alcohol; in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s modern take, the dazzling sets, sarees and actors pushed the drinking part into the background. This version was not about boozing, which was more or less seen as a fun activity—it was about song and dance by the two female leads.

An essay excerpted from House Spirit: Drinking in India, an soon to be released anthology on drinking, edited by Palash Krishna Mehrotra and published by Speaking Tree.