When India's health minister, Anbumani Ramadoss, declared last month that Bollywood actors should be banned from drinking alcohol on screen, he was roundly condemned as censorious. Trivial, too, said his critics, who urged Dr. Ramadoss to focus on more pressing matters, such as India's disastrous shortage of doctors, nurses, and hospitals.
But there was a serious point behind Ramadoss's suggestion. As India's economy booms and its cities fill with bars and nightclubs, more Indians are drinking more alcohol at an ever younger age. In a society in which drinking is still tinged with shame, the Indian Alcohol Policy Alliance, a nongovernmental organization, maintains that this higher rate of alcohol consumption is excessive, leading to road accidents and domestic violence.
"Actors drinking on screen will encourage youngsters to take up the habit. Scenes depicting alcohol consumption in films need to immediately stop," said Ramadoss, who had earlier called for a Bollywood smoking ban.
M. Abbas, president of the Indian Medical Association, disagrees. "We need to encourage drinking in moderation, not ban drinking altogether," he says. "Alcohol is not like tobacco."
Ironically, the government appears to have encouraged India's burgeoning drinking culture by encouraging new and lucrative wineries – a point not lost on Amitabh Bachan, India's biggest film star. The actor confronted the health minister on his blog.
"Mr. Ramadoss, the government is taking pride in the increased production of alcohol, you are wanting actors to stop drinking scenes because they encourage alcoholism," he wrote. "Tell me how are you expecting [to promote] the consumption of this enhanced wine production in the land?"
For Raghav Arora, a software consultant in Delhi, the suggestion is "ignorant. Does he think if we don't see drinking in Hindi films we won't see it in American films and on the Internet?" he asks, adding that his all-time favorite movie was "Sharaabi," or "Alcoholic."