A study released in April of this year claimed that Indian adolescents aged 12-16 exposed to alcohol consumption in films were nearly three times more likely to drink than their peers who did not watch Bollywood movies. While this study most likely pertains to the movies released in the industry today, I would venture to say that the origins of this trend can be traced back to films from the Golden Era of Bollywood cinema. Indeed, the consumption of alcohol has been glorified on India’s silver screen for decades, especially through portrayal of sharaab (alcohol) songs in films. Here, I’ve compiled a list of my five favorite male and female sharaab numbers from the Golden Era–let’s take a closer look at these examples to examine how the consumption of alcohol has been portrayed cinematically and its implications on Indian culture.
“Girls Just Want To Have Fun”
In Bollywood’s earliest days, drinking alcohol in films was portrayed as a strictly masculine activity, à la Devdas and other Bollywood heroes who have famously drowned their sorrows in liquor. In contrast, the idealized image of the traditional Indian woman did not permit the depiction of female alcohol consumption in the media. This trend began to change in the 60s when films depicted heroines and female actresses playing roles in which they partook in the consumption of the Devil’s nectar, just like their male counterparts. As you can see below, the contexts in which female characters drink vary from film to film: alcohol has been used by the women of Bollywood as a coping mechanism, a means of revenge, or just a way to have a good time.
na jaao saiyaa.n (Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam, 1962): In this film based on a Bengali novel by Bimal Mitra, Meena Kumari gives one of her career’s best performances as Chhoti Bahu. Chhoti Bahu is married to young zamii.ndar (played by Rehman), who neglects his wife at home in order to take part in debauchery at local brothels on a nightly basis. In desperate need of her unfaithful husband’s companionship, she decides to take up drinking in order to keep him away from those pesky courtesans at night. In this heartbreaking song sung by Geeta Dutt, Chhoti Bahu drunkenly entreats her husband to stay at home and spend the night with her. In a truly unfortunate example of art mimicing real life, both Geeta and Meena would succumb to alcoholism as a way to cope with their unhappy marriages in the coming years. For those of you who enjoy this song, be sure to check out Hemant Kumar’s Bengali version of the same tune: “olir katha shune.”
piike hum tum jo chale aaye hai.n (Gumnaam, 1965): This film (reviewed by us here) is a suspense thriller loosely based on the Agatha Christie novel And Then There Were None. The story revolves around seven vacationers who find themselves on a remote island in the middle of nowhere after a plane crash. One by one, they are murdered off and the big question is, of course: whodunnit? In the midst of all this tension, two of the vacationers, Miss Kitty (played by Helen) and Asha (played by Nanda), decide to loosen up and have some fun with a few drinks. In this comical duet sung by Asha Bhonsle and Usha Mangeshkar, the two actresses appear to be having the time of their lives in a drunken stupor on screen. I mean, who wouldn’t be having a good time if they were getting drunk with Helen?
aao huzuur tum ko (Kismat, 1968): This Asha-OP Nayyar collaboration is an all-time classic from the soundtrack of Kismat (along with “kajraa muhabbatvaalaa“). The film’s narrative is so outrageous that it’s not even worth summarizing here, but this song is picturized on the actress Babita, who is the mother of Karisma and Kareena Kapoor. Babita never managed to gain much success as a heroine, and that’s not surprising given that it’s unclear whether she is drunk or undergoing eplipetic fits in this particular scene. She certainly does make a statement though and manages to embarass the hero Biswajeet with her public intoxication at this party. Regardless of the picturization, Asha Bhonsle adds all the right expressions here to make this an unforgettable sharaab number on the basis of the song alone. Her vocal control in the extended introduction (“ham se raushan hai chaa.nd aur taare...”) before the song’s first stanza is especially commendable.
kaise rahuu.n chup (Inteqaam, 1969): Inteqaam is an entertaining (but occaisionally illogical) thriller that stars Sadhana as a woman who seeks revenge against her former boss because he framed her for a theft that she did not commit. As part of her elaborate plan for revenge, she intends to marry her boss’s son (played by Sanjay Khan) and bring shame to his entire family by revealing that the new bahu is, in fact, a convicted criminal! In this song, Sadhana further embarasses her boss’s family by acting extremely intoxicated under the influence of alcohol at a public gathering. (Technically, this might not be considered a genuine sharaab song because Sadhana is putting on a facade of being drunk without actually consuming, but I liked this song too much to pass up putting it on the list.) This soundtrack composed by Laxmikant-Pyarelal is particularly memorable today because it casts a different light on Lata Mangeshkar, who was considered to be staunchly conservative and traditional in her playback output. Lata surprises us all by agreeing to sing two sizzling cabaret numbers in addition to this drinking song for the film–listen to her nail those hiccups during the interludes!
piyaa tuu ab to aajaa (Caravan, 1971): Asha Bhonsle and R.D. Burman come together to produce one of their biggest musical hits together with this classic item number from Caravan. Asha’s performance here solidified her status as the queen of cabaret singing in Hindi cinema. Furthermore, Helen’s portrayal of a nightclub dancer on screen during this song is considered the quintessential Bollywood cabaret performance. Helen’s dance moves are completely outrageous here but she makes it work somehow (see Mrs. 55’s step-by-step breakdown here). Given the ridiculousness of the situation here, you can’t really blame Helen for the heavy drinking…it certainly doesn’t stop her from completely owning the stage during her performance!
“Alcohol May Be Man’s Worst Enemy…”
Unlike their female counterparts, the men of Bollywood cinema have been imbibing alcohol since the industry’s earliest days. The most popular context for male drinking in Hindi films occurs when the hero resigns himself to heavy drinking in order to drown his sorrows, usually caused by woman-related heartbreak. While female characters are often stigmatized for their drinking and public intoxication, it is more acceptable for men of the silver screen to use alcohol consumption to deal with their grief. Other contexts where actors are depicted consuming alcohol include scenes of male-male bonding (bromances, anyone?) and seduction of heroines and courtesans. Though Bollywood has glamorized the consumption of alcohol for both genders, the effect is far more pronounced for males, as evident in the examples I’ve selected below.
mujhe duniyaavaalo sharaabii na samjho (Leader, 1964): Even though its soundtrack is full of gems like “tere husn kii kyaa tariif karuu.n” and “ek shahanshah ne banvaa ke ek hasii.n taaj mahal,” Leader is one mess of a film starring Dilip Kumar and Vijayantimala. Dilip Kumar stars as a law graduate and aspiring political revolutionary who falls in love with a princess (played by Vijyantimala). The script has so many holes that it’s difficult to discern the overall message of this film, but there are some scenes of comic relief between Vijayantimala and Dilip Kumar that are worth remembering. By far, however, the main attraction here is the soundtrack composed by Naushad. In this particular number, an intoxicated Dilip Kumar claims that he has been forced to take up drinking to grapple with society’s evils.
din Dhal jaaye (Guide, 1965): Where do I even begin with the praise for Vijay Anand’s Guide? Mrs. 55 and I both love everything about this film: the unique story written by R.K. Narayan, the stellar performances by Dev Anand and Waheeda Rehman, and of course, the unforgettable soundtrack composed by S.D. Burman. Each and every song from this film is an absolute gem. In this particular Rafi solo picturized on Dev Anand, the hero drowns his sorrows about lost love in alcohol. The melancholic expression that pervades throughout this scene is enhanced by the beautifully crafted lyrics and tune.
chuu lene do naazuk ho.nTho.n ko (Kaajal, 1965): With this Rafi number penned by Sahir Ludhianvi and composed by Ravi, Raaj Kumar tries to get Meena Kumari, his on-screen shaadi-shudhaa (virtuous) wife, to come to the dark side by having a drink. Alcohol glorification occurs is at its finest in these lyrics: it is referred to as “mubarak cheez,” or a blessed thing. Meena Kumari excels, as usual, at looking incredibly uncomfortable and disturbed by Raaj Kumar’s advances in this scene.
jo unkii tamanna hai barbad ho jaa (Inteqaam, 1969): This film certainly features a lot of alcohol consumption on screen. In addition to the drunk Lata number discussed above, this Rafi solo from Inteqaam is picturized on Sanjay Khan as he laments being a mere object in Sadhana’s plans for revenge. Rajinder Krishan’s lyrics are exquisite in their ability to capture the essence of being deceived in love.
yeh jo muhabbat hai (Kati Patang, 1970): Directed by Shakti Samanta, this film features an evergreen soundtrack composed by R.D. Burman. This particular number sung by Kishore Kumar is one of Bollywood’s most treasured drinking songs, and it features a handsome and bitter Rajesh Khanna drinking the night away because he was stood up at the altar by his wife-to-be. Asha Parekh watches from a distance, not yet aware of the fact that she is the woman responsible for his heartache.