I20 years have passed since the alcoholic bath Devdas was released on July 12, 2002. The plot of this iconic Bollywood film was based on a book of the same name by great Bengali author Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay. The tragic love story of Dev and Paro, played by beloved Shah Rukh Khan and former Miss World Aishwarya Rai, has been acclaimed by the masses and even screened at the Cannes Film Festival. But the film renewed for the new generation the old toxic Indian problem of looking at alcoholism through the prism of romantic loss, not the problem it is.
Devdas’ story crystallizes this cultural pathology. In our day-to-day life, we often equate someone going through heartbreak or their unhealthy drinking as a Devdas.
Indians do not treat alcoholism as a mental health and addiction problem. In all of our literature, movies, music, and performing arts, alcoholics get a free pass. And it’s not limited to songs or a few movies. Indori Ishqa web series written by Kunal Marathe, also deals with a modern Devdas (played by Ritvik Sahore), where rejection by a love interest means drowning in alcohol and destroying one’s career and other relationships.
Also read: Devdas: The tragic hero act that made KL Saigal a household name
The glorification syndrome
Of Devdas and Sharabi (1984) to Amar Akbar Anthony (1977) and Namak Haram (1973), Bollywood glorified alcoholism as something that testifies to unrequited love, social disenchantment, poetic angst and machismo. It is romanticized as a coping mechanism or offered as comic relief. By Amitabh Bachchan swaying like a leaf in Namak Halalsong from (1982) Thodi si jo pee lee hai at Chote Chote ankle of Sonu Ke Titu Ki Sweety (2018), in one way or another, the traditional Indian entertainment industry has made alcohol an indispensable part of both joyous celebration and painful desire.
Of being used as a medium for teary-eyed Aamir Khan or Shah Rukh Khan trying to prove their affection for their female love in films such as Hindustani Raja Where Devdas, alcohol is now more of a party item. The fame of Honey Singh and other pop-Punjabi music like Char Bottle Vodka and Daru Desi led party playlists to become an amalgam of lyrics on shots and pegs. These songs also took a feminist angle, whether Zara Sa Jhoom Loon Main of Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge Where Lat Lag Gayee of Race 2Bollywood has created a safe space where even women can drink, but only at parties.
The women who drank in Hindi films were of course morally corrupt or evil vampires. They didn’t have the luxury of heartbreak and public sympathy. Drunk women are rarely romanticized by male heroes. They don’t even hold their hair. Of course, the number of Indian men reciting and articulating the Harivansh Rai Bachchan Madhushala lines at drunken parties were the thing for North Indian men in the 1980s and 1990s. From Ghalib to Bachchan, the journey to maikhana and madhushala (or your local theka) can be a spiritual, political and revolutionary act.
As for the males, the alcoholic storylines either end in fatal liver disease manifested by constant vomiting and disturbing family members surrounding the protagonist. Otherwise, a mysterious epiphany makes them realize the danger and let go of the addiction when they reunite with their lover as in Kabir Singh or Dev starting a new life with Chanda in Developer D. Usually, however, there isn’t really a rehabilitation process, or what there is in real life. Often, clouds of smoke that had previously been proven to be justified now suggest mental anguish as they billow over the protagonist’s face.
Read also: Why Bimal Roy’s Devdas remains the first among equals
Another update is planned
Lately we have seen Kabir Singh and Aashiqui 2 portray what might be called modern Devdas, with their disturbing validation – through alcoholism – of the idea of violence against women. “He was just heartbroken”, “she broke his heart, she deserved it” – such statements are used to justify acts of violence. Even though they try to show it’s wrong in the end, somewhere along the way, the aestheticization of alcohol – and alcoholism – won over the public.
Now is the time to change the narrative of alcohol in Indian cinema as well. A small text warning at the bottom of the screen during drinking scenes is as effective as having none. The most essential thing to do is isolate the vodka bottles from the idea of being a man who feels pain but is too bound by patriarchal society to grieve and sanely deal with his problems.
This dark love-boyish trope has gone too far for too long, influenced too many real people, and ruined too many relationships. Audiences and filmmakers alike must realize that 20 years later, watching Shah Rukh Khan die in the name of love when the real reason for his death is alcoholism will no longer be enough.
Our popular crop plots need an upgrade. If your friend goes into trouble, don’t justify it in the name of a broken heart, give him the number of a therapist and a sympathetic neighborhood rehab center.
Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)