Malayalam cinema has always been on slippery ground when trying (really hard!) to creatively and politically translate the ‘drug experience’ on screen.
They have either clubbed it with one of the seven deadly sins or made it a symbol of irreverence and hippie culture. One of the early instances when drug use crept into a cinema was in 1975, with the song Hridayathin Romanjam. Later, a Prem Nazir starrer Vijayanum Veeranum (1979) had the audacity to pen the lyrics of a song with Marijuana (Marijuana Virinju Vannal). Years later, in 2013, the same song was used in Kili Poyi, one of the first stoner movies in Malayalam cinema.
“During the 80s and 90s in Indian cinema, it was linked to the hippie culture, where Goa was the epicentre of dope and foreign drug dealers. It was deemed a social evil back then. It’s only in Honey Bee and Kili Poyi that they show it as being used for recreation. Kili Poyi is the first stoner film in Malayalam and it remains a favourite. Check out how they show the interval block by bringing in Marijuana Virinju from the Prem Nazir movie. Filmmakers should stop moralising it in movies,” says journalist Krishna Kumar.
“In old cinema, they showed the assumptions — it is bad, only villains used it. But in Kili Poyi, we tried to keep it as realistic as possible. There was no attempt to criminalise the act, it was something that ordinary folks did and showed the follies and mishaps because of that. From the first day reactions, we knew we had hit the nail on the head. It was never shown as a drug promotional film. Don’t create paranoia in society. Be real, don’t make it a moral science class,” says Vivek Ranjit, co-writer of Kili Poyi.
Here, we look at some of the prominent films depicting the use of intoxicants and drugs.
Irakal (1985) is probably the earliest instance of a realistic depiction of drug use on celluloid. The film is shown through the eyes of Baby (Ganesh Kumar), who is constantly on weed. Years of repressed fury and frustration about the corruption and immorality in his own family have turned him into a hardened criminal — his first instinct is always to kill and his eyes are disturbingly still. The scenes where he does drugs in the backdrop of red neon lights and how he tries to kill a fellow student in that intoxicated state are downright eerie.
Boeing Boeing (1985): If Irakal showed us the dark, morbid side of drug addiction, Priyadarshan showed it in a lighter vein — a lazy screenplay writer’s shortcut to supposed edginess. That’s why his writer OP Olassa weaves a cock and bull story to his editor. “Ithu oru neenda katha oru neenda neenda neenda neenda katha,” he declares unrolling an unbelievably long scroll of paper. Reading it, he guarantees, will make women cry, men furious, and children cry. As he struggles to figure out what the editor wants, he experiments with a slew of genres – contemporary, abstract, postmodern. He admits to having tried to write while stoned. And then to prove this point, he breaks into a sudden piece of “literary brilliance” — “In this marijuana induced world Bhishma and Yudhishthira are smoking beedis, Guruvayurappan has a cold and the epics have blended with Changampuzha’s Ramanan.”
Season (1989): Ahead of its times, Padmarajan takes us into the underbelly of drug peddling in Kovalam in the early 80s, a trade which has links to sources in Goa. It also introduces us to one of the stereotypes associated with drugs in cinema — the foreign drug peddler. Here, he brings a European, Fabian, who lures two local young men with money to bring him brown sugar and eventually ends up in jail.
Pranamam (1986):A woman journalist is kidnapped by a bunch of unruly college boys for publishing photos of them taking drugs. They imprison her in a house, torture and inject her with drugs. Considering the time the film was made in, Bharathan showed no restraint in portraying the violent side of drug addiction. Though she helps them find the path of redemption, the film ends on a tragic note.
Irupatham Noottandu (1987): Sagar alias Jackie runs a clandestine gold smuggling business for a minister’s son. Things turn sour between them when his partner decides to smuggle narcotics. “Narcotics is dirty business. It kills people and I won’t let you do it,” warns Jackie to Shekaran Kutty and that leaves us with no doubt regarding the image of drugs in society.
Utharam (1989): Journalist Balu is trying to unravel the mystery behind the suicide of writer Saleena. There is a scene where they show a few North-Eastern boys on weed attempting to rape her and her friends as a possible reason behind her pregnancy. The racist stereotype of people from the North East as drug addicts cannot be missed.
Charithram (1989): Raju (Rahman) the brother of Philips Manavalan (Mammootty) is shown to be a product of the rebellious 80s — fascination for drugs, sex and hard rock. And it all leads to his morbid end.
Johnnie Walker (1992): Set in 90s Bangalore, then wrongly represented as a thriving city for illegal drug deals and perpetually stoned college students, Jayaraj enhances the stereotypes through the film. So, you are transported to a college, where the drug mafia has taken over a section of college kids, laces their drinks with drugs and traps them into illegal activities.
Amritam Gamaya (1987): Dr PK Haridas injects drugs to battle years of guilt and trauma for being responsible for the death of a student he ragged in college.
Mudra (1989): This film is about a reform school which houses everyone from hardcore criminals to drug peddlers. When the boys agree to smuggle drugs, the movie lets us know that for them it is going to be the point of no return.
Thilakkam (2003):This time, Jayaraj, like Priyan, tries to club weed with creativity. The film has the protagonist (Dileep) smoking weed and breaking into English poetry, prompting his stupefied brother-in-law to remark — “Veruthey schooli poyi englishu padichu. Ithu valicha mathiyayirunnu.”
Puthiya Niyamam (2016): This revenge thriller about a married woman who is gangraped by the boys in her locality showed us what is wrong with the depiction of drugs in cinema. The hackneyed theory is that those on drugs sport unruly hair and beard, wear Bob Marley T-shirts and rape women.
Action Hero Biju (2016): Where a Bob Marley poster prompts a cop to immediately put marijuana into picture and unearth a major drug deal.
Nee-Naa (2015):Neena, the tipsy alcoholic who finds various ways to get high, always ending up smoking weed.
Big B (2007):Tony, the light-eyed, auburn-haired villain seems to be on some perpetual high and stoned foreign women are always seen around him.
Idukki Gold (2013): Five middle-aged men meet after years and feed on each other about their lives, their fights, how they smoked up together and left behind a strong bond of friendship. Though the film was panned for its overemphasis on the usage of marijuana, the end note was about getting high on friendship and not drugs.
Kili Poyi (2013): The first stoner movie in Malayalam cinema, it’s about two ad professionals who head to Goa and get embroiled in a cocktail of cocaine, sex and drug peddlers.
Media analyst Shankar Pillai puts things into perspective when he says, “Cinema never mentions hard drugs. In fact, they don’t really categorise them. It’s obvious that they don’t do any homework here. We are always given the impression that it’s weed. No one talks about the ill effects of chemical drugs. The real deal about drug overdose is never shown. Then again, not all drugs are addictive. There is also a tendency to associate it with a mental disorder. Clubbing it with creativity is a felony. And the recurring theme with drugs is always parental neglect.”