Gully Boy: Ranveer Singh's pot smoking protagonist marks a change in Bollywood's portrayal of cannabis
In Gully Boy, Zoya Akhtar isn’t saying what’s good or bad, vis a vis Ranveer Singh's pot smoking Murad. it’s just what it is.
In Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy, it’s established in multiple scenes that Murad doesn’t drink, but he gets his highs from other things. And in real life, we all know someone like that, don’t we? Cannabis has long found itself in this strange twilight zone, not just in India but also in many parts of the world. While still not as socially acceptable as alcohol to the larger mainstream, it is a recreational substance that has existed long before hard chemistry took over. And if films mirror the society we live in, it’s interesting then to look at how our filmmakers have treated something that’s pretty much been a constant in our culture.
Right at the beginning of the film, Murad’s friend hands him a small disc that’s clearly hash, but refers to it as chocolate. And then in multiple scenes, you see him rolling, sharing a joint with friends, with a girl he’s just met, or smoking a quick one before putting an all-nighter on driver duty. In each one of these scenes, the focus is not on his smoking up, but on the larger narrative of the film. The joint being passed around is treated as just another aspect of daily life in the world the film is set in, without any over-the-top affectations. But has it always been this way?
Turn back the clock to 1971, when the world was dropping acid and our biggest contribution to the pop culture of those times was Dev Anand’s Hare Rama Hare Krishna. Our Indian portrayal of the psychedelic scene was a ‘wayward’ sister smoking a chillum and cavorting ‘shamelessly’ in the company of Westerners, while her disapproving brother looked on. For most Indians in the 1970s and '80s, that one scene defined everything that was wrong with drugs, and gently nudged cannabis into the same class of substances as heroin and coke.
Cannabis was demonised as an influence of the West, something that upper class pseudo-westerners did, and that’s the perception that has stayed for decades. What’s so hypocritical about this, then is the number of movies where bhaang is shown as a fun thing to do. Same plant, same leaves, same stuff but prepared by your friendly neighbourhood halwai. A decade after what Zeenat Aman did in 'Dum Maaro Dum' was ‘not okay’, Bachchan drinking bhaang, singing 'Rang Barse' and hitting on someone else’s wife was apparently ‘okay’.
It’s not so much about the subtle narrative being pushed through all those years, it’s more about the mindset of an industry making those films. ‘Judgmental’ was not yet a part of our parlance and it was accepted behaviour to shove one’s own moral compass onto an audience. If cannabis were to be treated as a symbol of the industry’s mental age, then it would be safe to say we’re growing up. Increasingly, mainstream Hindi films are shying away from making a big deal about things like drugs, unless they form an integral part of the story. There are people smoking up right through Gangs of Wasseypur, while Naseeruddin Shah’s character in Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara rolls one while having a relaxed chat with his son. The two milieus couldn’t be more different, representing two different Indias, but the weed is incidental, forming a part of the setting and the scene. And if we’re finally being authentic, it’s also great that the powers-that-be are finally mature enough to not censor out things based on personal likes and dislikes.
This is a small part of the larger maturing that Hindi films are going through with how we show and talk about sex, sexuality and relationships, one where a filmmaker sets out to tell a story without having to use that canvas to preach. In Gully Boy as well, the filmmaker isn’t saying what’s good or bad, it’s just what it is. You see the dichotomy of Murad getting angry with his friend Moin for getting kids involved in his drug trade, while it's normal for him to roll up and smoke himself. A film should reflect a character's life without censoring or demonising anything, and paint a larger picture for the viewer to take home.
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