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How Hindi cinema promotes unabashed, unapologetic glamorization of gambling

By Bharat Dogra 

There was an intense debate in a recent GST Council meeting on how various forms of gambling should be taxed. However we will be taking a very narrow view if we consider gambling mainly in the context of revenue, as its social impacts are more important.
While there is widespread agreement on checking illegal forms of gambling and strong police action against this is considered desirable, this outlook often changes in the context of legal forms of gambling which is often not just supported officially in the name of earning revenue and boosting tourism, but it is—with its casinos and horse races—often also glamorized. This is surprising as several of the adverse social impacts (including several people getting addicted to gambling and in the process getting ruined) are no less severe in the context of legal forms of gambling. In fact some of the big centers of gambling have experienced a spurt of several criminal activities despite gambling itself being a legal activity here. Despite this, support unfortunately has been forthcoming from several sides for legalizing several illegal forms of gambling. Such support has even been extended sometimes to betting relating to sports events, despite very adverse likely impacts associated with this.
While various forms of gambling have existed in society since ancient times, there has always been a strong social current of opposing this as highly undesirable. But glamorization of gambling, particularly casinos, has led to breaking this resistance.
There have been several reviews of how popular films in the USA and Europe have promoted gambling in both obvious and subtle ways, but this issue has not received much attention in the context of Indian cinema. However here too, in much the same way, we find that several films have promoted gambling by presenting a highly glamorized version of gambling generally and more particularly of casino culture. Another form of gambling which has been often glamorized in Hindi commercial cinema relates to horse racing.
One form that promotion of gambling takes relates to a very popular hero being presented as a very skilled gambler who wins all the time and becomes very rich in this way, entering the world of big riches and glamour. The fact that there is at least as much, probably more, chance of being ruined by gambling is not allowed to disturb this success story of the hero (although this may be mentioned in the context of lesser characters). If someone wins so consistently in real life in gambling, he is likely to be cheating but not so in Hindi cinema. In fact here our hero the constant winner is not a cheater himself but very good at catching those who cheat and can bash them up as well.
What is more the attractive hero is shown in such attractive settings in casinos, in the company of very beautiful dancers and consuming very expensive liquor, being the envy and attraction of everyone for his confidence and success, that several impressionable youth may easily get a strong heady feeling that this indeed is the great life.
In the beginning of a super-hit film ‘The Great Gambler’ Amitabh Bachchan is shown as seeking the blessings from a portrait of his parents before departing for his daily round of gambling! When his sister admonishes him for this, he tells her that after all this is my livelihood and what is wrong in seeking blessings of parents for success in livelihood.
Any guilty feelings having been got rid of at the very beginning, Amitabh reaches a lowly roadside joint where he straightaway starts his winning spree. When one other gambler tries to cheat, Amitabh bashes him immediately. A big gangster who has keenly observed his winning ways then invites him to gamble on his behalf in high circle casino, and in a day our hero is transformed into the world of high glamour and great riches. He keeps winning consistently here too, all the time maintaining his confidence and adjusts easily to the new world of expensive hotels, clubs and swimming pools. But as Hindi films unlike western ones also need to provide some moral escape also for the hero, the story then develops to somehow get him involved in some ‘patriotic’ act as well. Before the story ends, however, the audience has spent a lot of time in casinos not just of India but of other countries as well.
In another film 'Hasinon Ka Devta' there is a much discussed scene in which the hero Sanjay Khan, in a very attractive setting of a casino of course, again and again collects the spoils and when other gamblers try to cheat, he bashes all of them with the strength of a champion wrestler and boxer both combined. In Nehle Pe Dehla, another hit film, again gambling is presented in a very attractive way with most leading characters seen to be involved in this.
In an older film like 'Shri 420', (incidentally a very good film for various reasons), however, the moral issues had to be stronger. Here when the hero played by Raj Kapoor, shown as an honest struggling man, is picked up by a very rich person for his special skills with cards and taken to a club for gambling, his inner voice keeps yearning for a return to honest ways. Here the contrast between the evil represented by the rich world’s gambling (despite all its glitter) and the hero’s earlier struggles for a honest livelihood are much stronger, and the overall ‘message’ of the viewer is likely to be more in favor of the ‘honest’ world as represented by the teacher Vidya ( the heroine played by Nargis), as opposed to Maya, the club dancer ( played by Nadira).
However with the forces of idealism becoming much weaker in Hindi cinema with the passage of time, reflecting the wider trends in Indian society, the tendency for more unabashed, unapologetic glamorization of gambling and casino culture became more pronounced. The gambling here is accompanied by endless smoking and drinking as well, together with cabarets and club dances, and even criminals can be seen lurking all around; yet all this is presented in terms of attractive, glamorous life which appeals much to those seeking sensation and thrills.
The real task from a social point of view is to present the ruin brought out by gambling, most of all by the peculiar addictiveness of gambling, in the lives of many households, so as to serve as a warning. However this task has been increasingly neglected in the pursuit of more and more glamor and sensation by commercial cinema. In the process of glamorization, the sensation, the thrills that attract gamblers are exaggerated even more in the world of movies and TV programs which imitate them. This glamorization must be avoided, and there should be more efforts to tell the story of those who have suffered much from their addictiveness to gambling.
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The writer has been involved with several social movements. Recent books of the writer include ‘A Day in 2071’, ‘Navjeevan’ and ‘When the Two Streams Met'

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