HE WAS A highly rated 1995 batch Indian Police Service officer and had won the President’s Police Medal for rescuing a family by eliminating two top terrorists in Doda, Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) in 2004. Brought to head the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB), Chandigarh in 2007, he regularly made headlines for drug seizures along the Pakistan border with the Border Security Force. Somewhere down the line, the officer of law became a drug smuggler and in 2019 Saji Mohan was sentenced to 15 years in jail by a Mumbai court for pilfering and selling drugs from seized quantities kept at malkhanas in Chandigarh and Jammu 2007 onwards.
Does that sound like a movie script where the hero turns into a villain? Well, it soon will be the basis of a webseries being written by veteran TV and print journalist Chandramohan Puppala, who also worked on Black Friday (2004), written by his former colleague and old friend S Hussain Zaidi and directed by Anurag Kashyap.
Siphoning off from major hauls is just one of the ways drugs have become widely available in urban, upper middle-class India, finding their way from engineering colleges to housing societies, cruise ships to farmhouses, fashion week after-parties to beach raves. In the 1980s, says Meeran Borwankar, former director general of the National Crime Records Bureau, drugs were used either by the very poor or the uber rich. Liberalisation changed the landscape, but by the time India hit the new millennium, drugs had become a lifestyle choice.
And like all lifestyles, this too has a subculture, which includes music, movies and TV shows. Punjabi pop by singers such as Yo Yo Honey Singh became part of the surrogate advertising; movies such as Dev.D (2009) and Gangs of Wasseypur (2012) normalised drug-taking; and international shows such as Breaking Bad and Narcos even made it cool with celebrity admirers who raved about the anti-heroes. I remember Shah Rukh Khan once talking about synchronising the simultaneous viewing of the finale of Breaking Bad with his son who was in England at that time. It was a cultural moment and clearly something he wanted to share as a storyteller.
Punjabi films such as Rehmataan (2012), Mirza: The Untold Story (2012), Rahe Chardi Kala Punjab Di (2012), Kabaddi Once Again (2012) and Anhey Ghorhey Da Daan (2011) portrayed the rise of the drug culture in the state. A new, more adventurous young Indian was coming of age who no longer thought twice before experimenting with drugs and sex. Not every user became an addict, though addiction rose across metropolitan India and blighted a generation in Punjab.
High-profile arrests such as that of Fardeen Khan in 2001 with 9 g of cocaine made news occasionally only for everyone to lapse into a resigned acceptance of the growing drug use. One reason, as Puppala points out, is that the case changes from the raid, to the arrest, to the remand and finally to the presentation of the accused in court. In the case of Fardeen, a Mumbai sessions court framed charges against him 10 years later for attempting to buy cocaine, dropping the graver charge of possessing over 2 g of the drug that carried a maximum punishment of 10 years in jail.
A lot changed in the new millennium. The Indian Premier League began in 2008 and soon its after-parties became the focus of this new culture, with members of betting syndicates who doubled up as drug dealers posing with celebrities and models. The hospitality industry emerged as a hotspot with bouncers and publicists also acting as facilitators. The party pill replaced the party shot as a way of greeting. The market for drugs was being created and Bollywood celebrities became the brand envoys.
Drugs emerged as performance enhancers on TV sets with 18-hour workdays for daily soaps requiring superhuman levels of freshness and robustness. Actors such as Ranbir Kapoor spoke openly of having experimented with marijuana in film school even as Thiruvananthapuram MP Shashi Tharoor asked for cannabis to be legalised, in what he said was a logical decision for the “land of bhang”.
It took actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s tragic death by suicide in 2020 to make drug use part of the national conversation again. The Enforcement Directorate requested NCB to join the probe after its financial inquiry found that drugs were supplied to Rajput and his girlfriend Rhea Chakraborty. Chakraborty was arrested by NCB for procuring drugs for Rajput and it soon widened into a larger probe into drug use in the film industry. Actors such as Deepika Padukone, Sara Ali Khan, Shraddha Kapoor, Rakulpreet Singh and Arjun Rampal made their way to the NCB office in Mumbai to explain their WhatsApp chats and mentions. In their cases, as in the case of Aryan, the process may well be the punishment.
Clearly, NCB has made headway in its case against the industry quietly and steadily with its technical surveillance. It has made some high-profile arrests, including of Bigg Boss contestant Armaan Kohli and the brother of actor Arjun Rampal’s girlfriend Gabriella Demetriades. Rampal and his former wife Mehr were once members of the elite group of friends around Shah Rukh Khan.
But it’s the arrest of Shah Rukh’s son Aryan that is the NCB’s most high-profile yet. Every lifestyle requires an ambassador and clearly the cruise-ship party seems to have found its VIP in Aryan, who was there by all accounts as a special invitee. No drugs were found on him but the court of public opinion is cruel. Every scrap of evidence is being summoned to suggest that Bollywood is a haven for drugs, including an interview Shah Rukh gave to Simi Garewal 22 years ago joking about how he would allow his son the liberty to “run after girls and smoke as much as he wants”. He could even “do drugs”, he had said.
How useful are these raids? Borwankar says they put a leash on the reckless spirit of youthful adventure and have a desirable though limited effect. Generally NCB concentrates on high-value hauls, she says.
But if Bollywood is being made an example of it’s because these stars have enormous influence. What Rajput’s death showed was that the gap between the haves and the have-nots in the industry may be inordinately wide, but there is now zero tolerance for this hierarchy determined by the accident of birth. Star children have Instagram followers who outnumber even those for established stars. Many of them regularly post updates of parties with friends, flaunting expensive brands, while also simultaneously picking up a cause—it could be skin colour for Shah Rukh’s daughter Suhana or mental health for Amitabh Bachchan’s granddaughter Navya Naveli Nanda.
Like all lifestyles, drug use too has a subculture, which includes music, movies and TV shows. Punjabi pop by singers such as Yo Yo Honey Singh became part of the surrogate advertising
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When actor Kangana Ranaut went on record to question Bollywood’s nepotism in an episode of Koffee with Karan in 2017, she sounded the death knell for Bollywood star children. As she put it in a later interview, “You say Sushant is psychotic, neurotic, that he is an addict. But you find Sanjay Dutt’s addiction very cute.” The 2018 movie Sanju which whitewashed the actor’s drug abuse, his possession of an AK-56 from an arms haul meant to create terror in Mumbai and his sexual conquests, directed by one of Bollywood’s finest directors, Rajkumar Hirani, was the lowest point in this exercise to rewrite Dutt’s past.
But Kangana questioned that privilege, that entitlement and that false sense of security. There were other voices which wanted to put Bollywood in its place. Punjab MLA Manjinder Singh Sirsa questioned a video of a house party circulated by the host, director Karan Johar, which seemed to suggest that everyone featured in it was high. His hashtag, “#UdtaBollywood”, after the 2016 movie about drug addiction in Punjab, soon trended on social media. Singer Hard Kaur talked about how cocaine had replaced ganja. “The ones that stay together snort together,” she claimed.
The taboo around party drugs is eroding even as the news media questions its use—that reveals the disconnect between two Indias: the privileged, upmarket India consumes drugs; the middle-class news media from the heartland disapproves. And the drug control agencies use that gap to try users in the public domain.