High and high – a short history of movies under the influence

Between Bollywood and world cinema, filmmakers have explored the lure of drugs and the narcotics trade.

The June 17 release of Abhishek Chaubey’s drug trade drama Udta Punjab is a reminder of the many occasions on which Hindi filmmakers have tackled the drug menace.

The 1970s saw several drug-themed movies such as Hari Dutt’s Naya Nasha (1973), Ramanand Sagar’s Jalte Badan (1973), Dev Anand’s Hare Rama Hare Krishna (1975), and Sagar’s Charas (1976). These are finger-wagging tales that warn of Western culture causing huge holes in the Indian moral fabric. Among these, Charas and Hare Rama Hare Krishna were major blockbusters, with Charas spicing up the war against drugs through glamourous leads (Dharmendra and Hema Malini), exotic locations (Malta) and hit songs.


If the ’80s saw the well-made Jalwa (1987) by Pankuj Parashar, the ’90s saw sporadic movies dealing with the subject, but only one of them is noteworthy: Mahesh Bhatt’s Bangkok Hilton rip-off Gumrah (1993), starring Sridevi, Sanjay Dutt and Anupam Kher. The new millennium saw Tigmanshu Dhulia’s Charas (2004), while Rohan Sippy’s Dum Maaro Dum (2011) once again stereotyped Goa as a drug haven.

World cinema too has tackled the themes of addiction and distribution. Quitting (2001), directed by Zhang Yang, is based on the drug-fuelled life of popular Chinese actor Jia Hongsheng, who plays himself. Though he appears to have recovered and was trying to make his way back into the movies, Jia Hongsheng committed suicide in 2010.


Matthew Vaugh’s Layer Cake (2004) delves deep inside the world of a drug dealer, played by Daniel Craig. Although the movie romanticises the drug trade, it doesn’t camouflage the paranoia of Craig’s character. This theme was previously explored by Nicolas Winding Refn in Pusher (1996), starring Mads Mikkelsen and Kim Bodnia (remember him from Delhi Belly?) and exploring the travails of a drug dealer involved in a botched consignment.


Derek Yee’s Protege (2007) is an underrated gem from Hong Kong that stars Daniel Wu and Andy Lau. Wu plays an undercover officer who works for drug baron Andy Lau and becomes increasingly drawn into his boss’s world. Chosen as a potential leader of the business, Wu gets involved with an addict and her daughter. Protege takes its cue from Donnie Brasco (1997) and Infernal Affairs (2002).

A spectacular follow-up to Protege is Johnnie To’s Drug War (2012). Relying on an incarcerated drug lord’s tip-off, a crusading police officer fights hard to end a drug ring.


The Mexican narcotics industry is the focus of Heli (2013). Amat Escalante’s movie, about 17-year-old Heli who gets dragged along with his family into a drug deal, won the best director award at the Cannes Film Festival in 2013. Heli spotlights the woes of the common people of Mexico who are caught between drug barons and security forces, which is also the theme of Traffic (2000) and Sicario (2015).


Drug movies usually depict the inter-linked orbits of drug dealers, law enforcement officials and drug addicts. In William Friedkin’s still-revered The French Connection (1971), these worlds collide as a policeman (Gene Hackman) confronts his nemesis, a drug dealer (Fernando Rey). Bullets fly and aesthetically brilliant car chases unfold until the cataclysmic finale, which is still one of the best in the category.

‘The French Connection’.
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