Smoke, sip, swerve: Poonam Saxena on status symbols in Hindi films

It’s hard to keep track of what is seen as a status symbol these days. Take whisky. Blended Scotch whisky lost out to the single malt, which, I’m told, has now been supplanted by Japanese whisky. In the time it’s taken me to write this, there may already be a new whisky to lust after.

Even back in the day, when anything imported was a status symbol, some items were more desirable than others.

By the 1960s, Bollywood films had thrown off the earnest idealism of the 1950s. With the coming of colour, heroes and heroines became intent on the good life. They drove flashy cars, cavorted at hill stations, danced in nightclubs and wore fashionable clothes.

There were many status symbols associated with an affluent lifestyle in those years, some of which spilled over to the 1970s. Here are just three; they were all-pervasive and wildly popular, both on screen and off it. And yes, they were all imported.

The Impala: The car that caught everyone’s imagination. Its most famous outing on screen was in Haathi Mere Saathi (1971), in the song Chal Chal Chal Mere Saathi, where four lumbering elephants push Tanuja’s dashing red convertible, which has shockingly stalled. The hero (Rajesh Khanna) mockingly refers to it as a “khatara”, but Tanuja, with her smart orange pantsuit and white driving gloves (not to mention the car), is obviously a rich young miss.

A less well-known but even more telling example is the song, Meri Lottery Lagne Wali Hai from Holi Aaye Re (1970), featuring comedian Rajendranath. If he wins the lottery (which is in the range of 4 to 5 lakh), he sings gaily, he will buy an Impala. This is how the lyrics go: “Caron mein car chuni hai, car chuni Impala, Impala mein tujhe bithakar ghoomega dilwala”. This General Motors car, introduced in 1958, became a hit with Bollywood stars offscreen too. Meena Kumari was reportedly one of the first to buy one; Rajesh Khanna too zipped around Bombay in his Chevrolet Impala.

Vat 69 Scotch whisky had a starring role, alongside Amitabh Bachchan, in Sharaabi (1984).
Vat 69 Scotch whisky had a starring role, alongside Amitabh Bachchan, in Sharaabi (1984).

Vat 69: This legendary dark green bottle of Scotch whisky, with its narrow neck and red seal, has perhaps had more appearances in Hindi films than any other alcoholic beverage. Since drinking was still considered an undesirable, vaguely sinful activity, Vat 69 was most often shown as the beloved tipple of a range of villains, from Ajit to Pran to Ranjit. Sometimes it popped up in surprising settings. In the 1969 film Mahal, the heroine Asha Parekh is celebrating her birthday and there is a proper bar counter where Vat 69 is given pride of place. In the 1973 film Yaadon ki Baarat, as Zeenat Aman sings Chura Liya Hai Tumne at a party in her house, the familiar wide-bodied bottle is prominently displayed at the bar. This blended whisky cast its spell way into the ’70s. In Don (1978), it’s Amitabh Bachchan’s drink of choice, as it is in Deewar (1975).

555 cigarettes: This was before smoking became a frightful sin. The cigarette to flaunt was 555 State Express. They were imported from the UK. Rajesh Khanna smoked them. So did Rajendra Kumar, and the writer Saadat Hasan Manto. Satyajit Ray is supposed to have carried a tin of 555 with him. In Scene 75, Hindi novelist and screenwriter Rahi Masoom Raza’s darkly satirical 1977 novel about the Hindi film industry, there is a hilarious interaction around a tin of 555. Upcoming screenwriter Ramnath takes out a tin while he’s on a house-hunting expedition. The broker, Manchandani, who has just graduated from beedis to Charminars, is mightily impressed. It is the first time in his life that he has been in such close proximity to a tin of 555. When Ramnath offers him one, he immediately becomes focused on finishing it as soon as possible so that he can smoke another. But Ramnath catches on and swiftly puts the tin back in his pocket, much to Manchandani’s chagrin.

It’s hard to say why that particular car, whisky or cigarette became more coveted than other imported brands. That particular alchemy is something no one can fathom even today.

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