How drug abuse emerged as common central theme of shows in 2021, from Aranyak to Mare of Easttown

As their impact grows across the spectrum, stories that highlight the growing menace of prescription drug abuse will inspire more interesting content in the years to come.

Archita Kashyap December 17, 2021 14:37:58 IST
How drug abuse emerged as common central theme of shows in 2021, from Aranyak to Mare of Easttown

Raveena Tandon in Aranyak

Aranyak, Raveena Tandon's new cop drama on Netflix India, utilises an undertone of drug trade and abuse in its speedy, fast-paced story. Leopard-man, serial killings, and corruption drive its multiple twists and turns; but drugs mark out characters as well as key motives in this thriller.

Rohan Sippy, who has co-written (with Charudutt Acharya) and co-produced the show (with Sidharth Roy Kapur), is no stranger to tales of drugs. His film, Dum Maaro Dum (2011), was amongst the first to identify rising drug abuse in Goa, the party capital of India.

The series depends on tropes like drugs that can lead to crimes against women; but their presence is not in your face in this story. They are the underbelly-defining errors in judgment for privileged kids, and life-altering, damaging influence on a mother. They are also planned as a big draw for an upcoming holiday resort in the hills. And a drug lord holds the key to the ultimate secret.

Aranyak pins down a common truth in India’s party circuit today — there is very little fun to be had for many folk without banned substances like Quaaludes, meth, and prescription drugs. In using drugs to define erratic behavior for its characters, it underlines their recurring presence in our country’s social life. 

The role of drugs in defining entertaining web series has expanded in this year. 2021 saw some powerful stories highlighting the fact that rampant and continuous drug abuse, especially of the prescription kind, has altered the social fabric in many places. Their impact on the US is in focus in Dopesick and American Rust.  

Danny Strong, actor, producer, and writer of Dopesick, made it his mission to blow the lid off opioid abuse across the US, especially in small working class towns where the drug, Oxycontin, wreaked havoc for nearly 20 years. Strong has researched and targeted the cold-profit motive that drove making and selling this drug for the Sackler Family, owners of Purdue Pharma. Sponsors for expensive art across the world’s leading museums, the family has faced congressional hearings and legal investigations. But no one has gone to jail. And Oxycontin is still available, albeit with tougher stricter legislation. The journey, from being marketed and consumed as miracle pain cure by labour from mines and farms to becoming marked out in the media and medical fraternity as dangerously addictive, has been slow and painful. It is littered with corruption of government agencies, and of those that died by using the drug. Strong’s show, with stars Michael Keaton, Rosario Dawson, Micheal Stuhlburg, John Hoogenaker, and Peter Saarsgard, wears a tone of outrage and anger from start to finish. Opioids are prescription drugs. They are also more addictive than cocaine and heroin. And it was left to a fiction series to tell the world this ugly truth. 

American Rust, a drama starring Jeff Daniels and Maura Tierney, uses economic despair, unemployment, and an unaddressed opioid addiction in the country’s rust belt to show how a society and its young can fall apart. Dan Futterman (writer of Capote, The Looming Tower) uses the convenient availability of opioids to make his story easy to relate with.

Watching this series reminds one of Mare of Easttown, where the theme of opioid consumption and addiction marked choices made by its characters generously. The drugs that Mare’s (Kate Winslet) son falls for are not hard, but an extension of pain and anxiety management. His girlfriend, an addict and a mother, cannot kick off her addiction despite seeking treatment.

These shows make a relevant point that has echoed in quality American journalism for nearly a decade. Addicts of prescription drugs and opioids are not necessarily seeking a high.

They fall prey to treatment by doctors, or they pop one because it is so easy to get, and get hooked on for life. It is a widespread social malaise, and not isolated instances of youth-fuelled addiction. 

Beyond well-executed, powerfully narrated web series, Netflix had released a sole father’s struggle to bring his dead son to justice in 2020. The Pharmacist shone a light on just how widespread use and abuse of Oxycontin had become in the US. It told a sordid tale of profits over people. Perhaps it inspired writers to take a closer look at changing ground realities of drug abuse. 

Here in India, those that can afford them abuse prescription drugs. In Udta Punjab (2016), a rare film that took a hard look at drug use, the doctor’s character (Kareena Kapoor Khan) chides a police officer (Diljit Dosanjh) that very strong medicines, used to treat cancer and terminal pain, is being consumed at parties. Recently, High, a web series on MXPlayer, focused on the market-altering impact of a single miracle pill on the drug trade in our country. 

Prescription drugs have entered the party circuit in India some time ago. In fact, opioids are now regulated a lot more loosely in our country. Raids on parties of rich and famous by government agencies almost always find stashes of opioids and similar prescription drugs. In fact, Purdue Pharma sells a popular opioid binubebrofen in India under its global subsidiary and Indian joint venture Modi-Mundipharma. Pain clinics proliferate in metro cities. Their increased use by doctors and patients has made it a lot easier to catch hold of these drugs by lucrative illegal means. 

The changing nature of drug consumption has gotten us some great viewing this year. As their impact grows across the spectrum, from buyers, users, sellers, and law enforcers, stories that highlight the growing menace of prescription drug abuse will inspire more interesting content in the years to come. 

Archita Kashyap is an experienced journalist and writer on film, music, and pop culture. She has handled entertainment content for broadcast news and digital platforms over 15 years. 

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