The runaway success of Kabir Singh, a remake of the Telugu blockbuster Arjun Reddy has once again opened up the debate on how filmmakers are abandoning all caution and promoting alcoholism, misogyny and toxic masculinity. Post Arjun Reddy’s pan-India impact, the Telugu industry in particular is receiving a lot of flak for glorifying alcoholism and drug abuse.
Drinking is the new hip and a hero is one who takes his buddies to a bar and orders alcohol with a lot of swag. This is what our Telugu films have come down to and our youngsters are lapping up such cinema, moans Chalapathi Rao, Scientist (Retd), Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru.
“This is particularly disturbing since we see a lot of pre-teens trying to imitate the steps of the celluloid hero. Arjun Reddy, a colossal hit film hit rock bottom. Our youngsters are getting influenced into thinking such behaviour is the way forward,” he says.
Arjun Reddy, starring Vijay Deverakonda as the hero who embraces alcohol and drugs after a setback in love, released in 2017 and the Hindi remake Kabir Singh, in June this year. However, the debate on glorifying substance abuse and being an agent of bad influence on impressionable youngsters has not died down at all.
Padma Ramesh, Head of Department, Film Studies, Annapurna International School of Film and Media, Hyderabad, says, “On the contrary, my students constantly argue with me saying what is shown in films is happening in real life too and it is happening in colleges all over. And, Telugu cinema is in the eye of a storm for such portrayal.”
The story of a hero turning into an alcoholic due to ‘love failure’, as is quaintly referred to in popular parlance, first hit the cinemas in 1936 when Devdas released. Based on Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s novel, the story of a rich man unable to get the girl he loves and therefore dissolving into endless sorrow and taking to drinking became a cult classic, even though consumption of alcohol was a complete no-no for the large middle class.
In movies today, the hero’s act of drinking is socially acceptable and not a taboo anymore. Rao feels the trend started in early 2000, in Telugu movies, always larger than life and over-the-top. “And partying, with alcohol, is always the focus of the young hero and his friends,” he rues.
Padma concedes that alcohol is flowing free on celluloid. “In some ways, it is like the reverse gear,” she says. “A lot of youngsters are getting tempted because they see Arjun Reddy, they see him as ‘a class topper, someone from a solid family but look at how he handles failures; it’s cool, it’s all a sign of being a man; in the eyes of your girl you can do everything, including do drugs, but he is the good guy, he gets the girl in the end.’
We should not condone such behaviour, we should not reward a guy for doing the wrong things. This is irresponsible filmmaking and many in the Telugu industry agree that the wrong kind of message goes out to the youth when you glorify irresponsible behaviour,” she adds.
“The trend of casual drinking among the young is growing and our cinema should not do anything to glorify it,” she adds.
Interestingly, in colloquial Telugu, alcohol is referred to as mandhu, which translates as medicine, says Uma Vangal, Visiting Professor of Film, Kenyon College, Ohio, USA, and Adjunct Faculty at Asian College of Journalism, Chennai.
“As a state, it feels that alcohol is an answer to all problems and you cannot blame filmmakers alone,” she adds. Vangal also points to the fact that status of alcohol consumption has been bumped up.
“Look at the matrimonial websites. A number of young women profess to be social drinkers and would like the bridegroom to be likewise. A couple of decades ago, hardly 20 in a class of 100 would drink or smoke. Today, at least 80 in a class of 100 have smoked, or tasted alcohol,” she points out.
“Films are reflecting only what is happening in society and it is unfair to put all the onus of responsible cinema on just filmmakers and actors,” she feels. “While there is no justification for the kind of stuff Arjun Reddy does, it is also very restrictive to tell a filmmaker not to show the hero having a drink, because it is not the baddies alone who are having a drink.
If you are talking of reining in bad behaviour projection, then bring in restriction across all media, including news hour talk shows and the prime time serials where someone is poisoning a family member or a competitor, and all the children in the household watching TV are exposed to such behaviour,” she says.
Today, it is not only the labour class and the upper crust that is consuming alcohol. With the influx of western business cultures, a number of youngsters are part of luncheons where business deals are done over beer and whiskey.
Drinking is the new normal for many youngsters, say experts. “In the 1980s, when a number of women from the economically weaker sections said that the men drank liquor and abused them physically, the then Chief Minister NT Rama Rao brought in prohibition, even though it was a great revenue generator for the state,” points out Padma.
Rao is of the firm opinion that Telugu cinema, once known for good movies is now degenerating into one that promotes the idea that drinking is cool, it is the sign of a guy being a man, and that could influence a number of impressionable youngsters into thinking that it is the only way to handle a problem.
“Arjun Reddy stresses on his competence while drunk and really does not show his downfall as much as his resurgence. You send all kinds of wrong messages when you project such behaviour as heroism,” he says.
In all fairness, the days when only the Bollywood baddies Ajith and Mona Darling were shown as drinking and smoking went out of the frame when heroes like Amitabh Bachchan were shown as indulging in similar activities.
In the era of ‘my life, my terms,’ boundaries tend to keep shifting. Vangal feels that while films do have a power to influence a few people, it is a fallacy to think that a film changes every viewer.
“Very few youngsters will be open to being influenced in a wrong manner and the ones who do go down that road would have taken that path regardless of what is running in cinema halls,” she adds.
Brinda K, a 30-year old techie says alcohol is as much a part of her peer group’s conversation as food, clothes and career goals. “Anyone who knows his cocktails – or knows to craft an unusual one – is appreciated by us, that’s all. And, such a person is likely to be added to many WhatsApp groups,” she adds with a smile.
“Our generation works hard, parties often, travels frequently. Whether it is a new cinema or a new smartphone, we know how to assess if it will work for us or not,” she adds.
The debate on hyper/toxic masculinity and aggression is not a new one. When Dabangg released in September 2010, its box office success led a lot of analysis on aggression and how or why the youngsters felt an affiliation towards such a hero.
“That is because more and more films have been hitting the realistic mode. Even a Rajinikanth dies in a film (Kaala). Audiences are okay with that and not the larger-than-life hero,” Vangal opines.
Padma too feels that the Telugu cinema demographic is an interesting mix of family drama and those featuring Prabhaas, Junior NTR (his Janata Garage is an example) and Deverakonda, aimed at college students.
“The appeal of old heroes is very limited these days. However, when you romanticise drugs and drinking, it is problematic, because these films are not seen only by those who watch cinema as an escape from their poverty-ridden lives, but also by those who go to multiplexes in a mall. What is there in such a film to get a ‘wow’ reaction from the audience?” she demands.
Youngsters however say with the arrival of streaming platforms, exposure to all forms of abuse is just another ‘fact on the web’ and not something everyone rushes to embrace.
“I agree that movies often mimic our daily life. However, just like technology, movies can change your personality if not consumed right. A lot of debate rages around depiction of alcohol in cinemas,” says 29-year-old urban designer Prashanth Raju, a movie buff.
“There is a huge uproar over Arjun Reddy. Some television channels even reported the exact number of bottles used in the film, which was really bizarre. When I walked out of the theatre, I was blown away with the writing and the craft of storytelling. The alcohol depiction was part of the characterisation and it worked for me in that context. That’s all. Nobody rushes to a hero. Also, there have been movies that have shown far fewer scenes containing alcohol and we have said how such scenes do not fit in, since they do not add up to the progression of the story arc.
New-age directors like Tharun Bhascker, Swaroop RSJ and Vivek have brought back the emphasis on strong narration and storytelling. With the emergence of character-driven cinema, the focus on alcohol would hopefully fizzle out,” he adds.