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Star dust and drug busts: What's new about this NCB-fuelled action on substance abuse in Bollywood?

Party drugs are not uncommon in Bollywood, nor are high profile arrests. What is new is a desire to ensure a more egalitarian and nationalistic film industry that sells a fresh narrative to the world.

Published: 24th October 2021 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 24th October 2021 07:16 AM   |  A+A-

Aryan Khan with father Shah Rukh Khan

Her eyes are glazed. Her manner distracted. Her bank accounts are frozen. She is in therapy. Her father, a doctor, can’t find a job. One month in Mumbai’s Byculla Jail on charges of supplying drugs to Sushant Singh Rajput has reduced her to a shadow of her once-ebullient self.

That’s what prison can do to people. Actor Shah Rukh Khan’s son, Aryan, with time at Arthur Road Jail in Mumbai, has promised to make the Narcotics Control Bureau’s (NCB) Sameer Wankhede proud of him once he gets out. His script may play out differently from Rhea. Already director Ram Gopal Varma has predicted that he will become a super-duper star, though so far the young man has shown no interest in an acting career, and the talk so far has been of writing or directing.

Model Munmum Dhamecha and wannabe actor Arbaaz Merchantt were arrested with Aryan Khan. Stars and their entourages are often mirrored by their children who attract all sorts of glamour-seekers and fortune-hunters.

But beyond the individual impact, Aryan’s arrest has forever blown the lid off Bollywood’s biggest open secret, the widespread use of party drugs. It is something IRS officer Wankhede has been tracking since last year when news broke of the late actor Rajput’s rumoured drug use during the investigation of his death. The Enforcement Directorate called in the NCB and they tracked celebrity WhatsApp chats to question several actors such as Deepika Padukone, Shraddha Kapoor, Sara Ali Khan, and Rakul Preet Singh, as well as many associates of Rajput.

Several others have been picked up in the ongoing investigation, including actor Armaan Kohli, comedienne Bharti Singh, and the brother of actor Arjun Rampal’s partner Gabriella Demetriades. Rampal, along with his model wife Mehr Jesia, was once a member of Shah Rukh and Gauri Khan’s exclusive party set. Several people have gone on record to speak of the party drugs in use in Bollywood, without naming names. Prime among them is actor Kangana Ranaut, who said on Twitter last year: “If NCB enters Bullywood many A listers will be behind bars if blood tests are conducted.

Many shocking revelations will happen.” She had also requested Ranveer Singh, Ranbir Kapoor, Ayan Mukerji and Vicky Kaushal to take blood tests to bust rumours that they are cocaine addicts. She also spoke in an interview of a co-star who was hospitalised because of a drug overdose. “At that time, his girlfriend, who was a foreigner, used to be there with him. Every night there used to be parties and drugs used to flow like water.” She has even quite helpfully explained the drug nexus: stars, hoteliers, and club owners who get them what is needed.

Darkened Windows, Discreet Bodyguards
It’s a world of supercars with darkened windows, discreet bodyguards, parties that start at restaurants and clubs, and end up at private homes—and drivers who know everything. Not everyone is invited. In fact, an invite to these parties is as difficult to score as an invitation to Koffee with Karan, producer-director Karan Johar’s chat show.

It also explains the entourages stars usually have. Given the extent of social media and prevalence of paparazzi, the users cannot be the procurers or even the facilitators. It is inconceivable that actor Fardeen Khan would withdraw money from an ATM himself to buy cocaine, as he allegedly did in 2001. That is where secretaries—now called managers—sometimes step in. Sanjay Dutt’s former secretary Kaleem Khan was supposed to perform this role till he was dismissed by Manyata when she married the actor.

Addiction is not new to the industry. Geeta Dutt, Guru Dutt, and Meena Kumari have romanced the bottle and succumbed to it. Cannabis came into the industry with the advent of graduates from the Film and Television Institute of India and the alternative art movement. Naseeruddin Shah was a self-confessed user of ganja and even wrote about it in his memoir. It was the seventies, there was a new generation taking over the film industry, and drugs were commonly used to enhance one’s consciousness.

Hard drugs like cocaine came into the industry around the new millennium as a new generation of restaurateurs and club owners flourished. It reached its apex with the rise of the Indian Premier League in 2007 and the after-parties where betting, drugs, and women were presented as lifestyle options, a complete new liberalised way of living. Indians were changing, losing their inhibitions, travelling the globe, watching drug use being normalised in Hindi movies and streaming service shows such as Breaking Bad and Narcos.

Rhea Chakraborty and her brother Showik were said to be supplying drugs to Sushant Singh Rajput, a tipping point for NCB’s inquiry into Bollywood, which then called a series of high profile stars for questioning last year

At one level what is happening with Aryan Khan and his famous parents is a national spectacle, their lives hung out to dry for everyone to see and judge. Aryan’s Instagram is being combed for any clues, his pictures used without attribution, and sometimes even context. A weekend get-together at a residential university, on campus, or off, can look like a decadent bacchanal. 

Open to Adventure, Pleasure

At another level, Aryan’s is the story of every family. How much parental control can be exercised in a world where youngsters are no longer afraid of risks? They are open to adventure and their appetite for pleasure has also risen. In a certain privileged class they believe misfortunes happen only to other people.

Fardeen Khan’s arrest in 2001 and Sanjay Dutt’s continued drug use twinned with possession of an AK-47 saw two contrasting styles of parental handling. Feroz Khan let the law take its course with his son, while Sunil Dutt reached out to every politician of note.

But the new narrative around privilege has brought this elitism and exclusivity crashing down to earth. The old has shattered and nothing new has replaced it as yet. Not merely cinema but human behaviour itself has changed. Will stars draw audiences into theatres to share in the collective experience again? Starting with Ranaut’s constant attacks on nepotism, added to which is the uncertainty around work and life caused by Covid, and Bollywood is not what it was. Parties too are no longer in fashion, given how a video posted by Johar of a do he hosted in 2019 was the subject of vicious attack by former Shiromani Akali Dal MLA Manjinder Singh Sirsa who tweeted it with the hashtag #UdtaBollywood, a reference to Udta Punjab (2016), a Bollywood movie that explored addiction in Punjab and linked it to Punjabi pop music. Johar hasn’t hosted many parties since then, and if he has, he has chosen a safe post-party photo-op instead of a video.

How does such a scared Bollywood tell stories to a damaged world? Especially with the threat of policing, of its lifestyle as well as its content? Shah Rukh’s stardom has been especially vulnerable. His last film, Zero (2018), was a resounding flop. What was meant to be a year-long hiatus from films to reassess and read scripts, extended into a three-year break because of Covid. His son’s arrest comes at a difficult time when he had resumed shooting, for Yash Raj Films’ Pathan and Atlee’s untitled action film with Nayanthara. The idea was to focus on his career after three years out of the spotlight.   

Father in Decline, Son in Trouble

A star in decline is not a pretty sight. But while there is a certain schadenfreude about it, there are also those whose heart goes to a still-beloved hero, who is seen as being victimised by the state. There may have been an outcry on social media on Shah Rukh’s endorsement of BYJU’S, the education app, but equally there is an outpouring of sympathy for a father in peril because of his son. 

It is a story of an individual versus the state. But it is also a story of the Centre versus the state, with the Nationalist Congress Party minister Nawab Malik calling the NCB raid fake, citing the inclusion of outsiders in the rave party case. The NCB has dismissed his allegations describing them as probable prejudice because his son-in-law has been arrested in a drug raid and is currently out on bail.

NCB Zonal Director Wankhede has had a history of following the rulebook. The 2008 batch IRS officer was earlier posted with Customs at Mumbai airport where he often made news, either for stalling the entry of the World Cup trophy in 2011 because customs duty was not paid on it, or for holding singer Mika Singh in 2013 for foreign currency. Since becoming Zonal Director of NCB, Aryan’s arrest from a Mumbai-Goa cruise, where a two-day rave party had been organised, has been Wankhede’s most high profile. Wankhede has often complained of interference in his work, whether it was an attack on him and his team in Goregaon area last year, or it is his recent complaint, complete with CCTV footage, that he was being followed by Mumbai policemen.

Wankhede has served as Deputy Commissioner of the Air Intelligence Unit, Additional SP of the National Investigation Agency, and Joint Commissioner of the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence, before joining NCB. He has been quoted as saying that people should choose their heroes wisely, go for real achievers rather than celebrities. “He doesn’t fear anyone,” says a veteran crime reporter from Mumbai. “It will help him in building an independent reputation like former IAS officer Amit Khare.” He believes Wankhede has been able to understand the nexus between the stars, the restaurateurs, event organisers, and drug suppliers. He says sometimes the clout of the suppliers is such that they can actually have the stars attend their parties as unofficial celebrity ambassadors of a certain kind of lifestyle.  

Bollywood private parties are usually sanitised for public consumption but in 2019 Karan Johar released a video of his A-list pals on social media, which was snapped up hungrily for clues of drug use

Brickbats and Bouquets for the Star

The big question is not merely Aryan’s future but also that of his superstar father whose fans have come out in support, whether it is outside his Mumbai home Mannat or online. It has reminded people why they fell in love with the actor with hair like a bear as producer NN Sippy once described it. As for his son, there are already stories that have transformed him from a member of the elite star children club to taekwondo champ, football enthusiast, and even a sort-of-singer. But Shah Rukh has stayed away from making a spectacle of himself, as Sunil Dutt and Salim Khan had to do to ensure immunity for their sons.

He has maintained his silence, as has his wife, though photographers have not been averse to sharing a video of her sobbing in the car while her son was in NCB custody. He has neither claimed to be a victim nor has he set himself up as a martyr. Despite suggestions that he is being targeted because of his faith and his ideology—a meeting with strategic analyst Prashant Kishor in the aftermath of the West Bengal elections is being cited as a red rag for the establishment—he has kept his own counsel.

It is a trying time for the family—as it would be for any family—and trolls have made it worse by sharing a video out of context where Shah Rukh is telling Simi Garewal that he will allow Aryan, then all of two years old, to do whatever he wanted, including drugs. His daughter Suhana, usually an eager Instagrammer, right now studying in New York, has turned off the comments section of her social media app. She is all set to star in Zoya Akhtar’s web series, an Indianised version of Archie’s comic, starring not one, not two, but three star kids: Suhana, Agastya Nanda (grandson of Amitabh Bachchan) and Khushi Kapoor (daughter of Boney Kapoor and the late Sridevi). Some things in Bollywood don’t change, cringingly so.

There are stories of an emotional video call with their son and a money order of `4,500 for him. No family can remain untouched by such a tragedy. No young man can remain unscathed by such an experience. Aryan can either go downhill from here, not learning from his run-in with the law like Sanjay Dutt, who finally used Rajkumar Hirani’s Sanju (2018) to whitewash his image. Or he can learn from his mistake and put his life in order, distancing himself from the entourages that gravitate around people with money and fame.

A look at the young men and young women arrested along with him indicate the kind of people it can be—Arbaaz Seth Merchantt is a friend whose Instagram features mostly himself in various pouty poses, either against the Dubai skyline or with his posse (which includes Ahaan Pandey, actor Chunky Pandey’s nephew); Munmun Dhamecha, a Delhi model whose photos in Dubai are routinely tagged with Aryan and Shah Rukh Khan’s names and whose selfies abound with pictures of Arjun Rampal, Guru Randhawa, Suyash Rai; Mohak Jaswal, a Delhi-based party 

boy with a family restaurant business; Gomit Chopra, a hair stylist and make-up professional; Nupur Satija, a designer; and Ismeet Singh and Vikrant Chhoker of whom much is not known. Aryan is a graduate in Fine Arts, Cinematic Arts, Film and Television Production from the School of Cinematic Arts, University of Southern California. Though he has acted briefly as a child, as the very young Shah Rukh in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001) and a young footballer in Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna (2006) in a scene that was deleted, he has shown no interest in acting, preferring to use his time returning from university to listen to scripts and consider stories for direction.  Perhaps it is time he used his education and entitlement for good, for himself and his famous father.

DARKNESS VISIBLE  

Udta Punjab (2016)
Alia Bhatt plays a Bihari migrant whose dreams of playing national-level hockey are shattered and gets caught up in addiction in Punjab—contrasted with Bauria’s story is that of pop star Tommy, played by Shahid Kapoor, whose cocaine addiction is reflected in his lyrics. It has searing performances from both Alia and Shahid, and shows every bit of ugliness that can descend on addicts.

Hare Rama Hare Krishna (1971)
Jasbir becomes Janice in this family drama as Dev Anand’s character tries to save his sister from blowing her life up in smoke. ‘Dum Maaro Dum’ becomes an anthem repeated many years later in Rohan Sippy’s 2011 film of the same name, set in Goa.

Naya Nasha (1973)
The sweet and saintly Nanda in perhaps the most daring role of her career plays a posh drug addict who refuses rehabilitation. The consequences are painful to watch.

Janbaaz (1986)
The first time Indian audiences are introduced to drug addiction onscreen in an intense fashion that too with Sridevi portraying a junkie. She staggers through a hallucinatory nightmare with swirling waves and crawling arachnids portraying an addict to perfection. 

Dev.D (2009)
Anurag Kashyap replaces drinks with drugs and updates Devdas for the new millennium, giving 
Abhay Deol, the aimless Dev, the defining role of his career



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