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How Indian Cinema Boosted Whiskey Consumption

When we think of the words alcohol and Bollywood (or Hindi cinema, for the more serious aficionado) in combination, we usually picture drunkards and alcoholics, criminals, villains, manipulative vamps, heartbreak, tragedy, or slapstick comedy. The portrayal of alcohol as a substance and drinking as a motif in Hindi films (most Indian films across languages, really) largely hewed to a morality derived from the India of the 1950s and 1960s: it’s a “social evil.” The conflation of alcohol and alcoholism is among the oldest tropes in Indian cinema. Remember Devdas? Alcohol, heartbreak, rudderless protagonist – the trifecta. 

Read More: Alcohol: The When, Where & How 

That belief has changed over time. Our popular culture reflects millennial attitudes that are far removed from the old school of thought that views alcohol as bottled evil. Today’s Bollywood embraces the laidback lifestyle of millennials who like to wind up the week with a party and is itself unabashed about having a good time. Abhi toh party shuru hui hai, indeed.”

A research study published in 2020 in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry and on the (US) National Library of Medicine website assessed 150 Hindi films for the “extent and pattern of depiction of alcohol in Bollywood movies” and to analyze the trends in portrayal of alcohol over three decades: 1961–1970; 1981–1990; and 2001–2010. (Yes, there really are research studies on the attitudes toward alcohol in Indian films.)

They concluded that “Decade three… had the most proportion of scenes set in clubs, bars, discotheques, or restaurants; scenes with characters of “positive” shade depicting alcohol use, and the scenes portraying heroines with alcohol use… There is an increasing trend toward alcohol depiction by positive characters for fun and relaxation.”

And what was the most common type of alcohol? “The most common alcohol depicted was spirits alone, such as whiskey or vodka.” (75.1%)” 

Whisky, specifically the Indian penchant for Scotch, has been a recurring theme in Bollywood. The golden spirit is loaded with symbolism: sophistication, style, understated but elegant wealth, high status. Whether villain, hero, or the girl’s father, only the coolest ones drank whisky and did it with flair. The country/village folk drink country liquor, the city kids drink beer, the women drink wine, and the foreigners drink cocktails, but the antagonist and protagonist have a taste for the good stuff. The implicit association was not lost on Indian audiences: the main men drink whisky.

This, of course, harks back to colonial times and hangovers. The Brits, who ran India, drank whisky, and the people who took over from them inherited the social mores as well as a love for single malt. As one writer noted, “For a brown-skinned working-class man, drinking whisky began to stand as a sign of progress and success.”

The Bollywood actor Johnny Walker (real name Badruddin Kazi), the man featured in the classic song Yeh Hai Mumbai Meri Jaan, was given that moniker by Guru Dutt. The filmmaker was impressed by his role as a drunkard in the film 1951 Baazi and named him after the popular scotch whisky; that name was meant as a compliment. The brand VAT69, a scotch-blended whisky, was a regular feature in the movies throughout the 1970s as the drink of choice for the main villain, who was inevitably a stylish, rich, conniving, worthy, but ultimately immoral rival. Think of Ajit as Loin in any 70s film—he may have been evil, but he certainly was impressive. Amitabh Bachchan’s character in the film Deewar also turns to a bottle of VAT69 as he deliberates going over to the bad side. The association with onscreen badassery was sealed in that moment for an entire generation.   

Given this “positive” association that whisky enjoys as an upper-class drink and status symbol, it is not surprising that India is among the largest whisky markets in the world. It is also the reason we have countless desi versions of this daru—we can’t get enough of it. No wonder, then, that we, collectively, helped ourselves to 136 million bottles of whisky in 2021 alone (in per capita consumption terms, our population ensures that we’re way down the list). Some years ago, Daniel Leahy, Global Director of Johnnie Walker Content Creation, claimed that Johnnie Walker was the “leader in imported Scotch whisky” in the Indian market and enjoyed a 56 percent market share!

Today, as millennial attitudes undo the shackles of older social constraints, the young people of urban India have no qualms about living the good life. Many Hindi films these days have a song or two depictingparty scenes where the hero and heroine unwind with a drink and do not turn into evil incarnate. Some would call that progress; others would call it déclassé, if not outright degeneracy. As the debate continues, so does, it appears, India’s and Bollywood’s love of whisky.

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