As I saw the trailer of Udta Punjab – a Bollywood first to deal with substance abuse head on – I was taken back to my initial viewing of Trainspotting. There are few movies which have dealt with the subject matter of drugs as thoroughly as the Danny Boyle production. Most movies talking about narcotics are either stoner flicks with recycled Cheech & Chong jokes or kaleidoscopic extravaganzas causing seizures in anyone above forty-five. Trainspotting was a rarity; its dapper soundtrack and often surreal imagery gave it the accessibility of a music-video but the astonishing dialogue made you actually care for the lost souls it depicted.
Of course, it helped that the film was based on Irvine Welsh’s sophisticatedly nihilistic novel of the same name. The book had the characters play musical chairs with their internal monologues and was also special because it introduced readers to Welsh’s curious Scottish English writing with a phonetic dialect. It was something akin to the Nadsat argot of A Clockwork Orange; both books (and films) were also similar in that they illustrated the common adventures of drug-addled youth.
The film is replete with scenes that show the fatalism of addiction but always with a garnish of humour. The end result is that while it puts viewers off heroin by showing its effects, it strangely also manages to glamorize the substance by showing the characters in constant pursuit of it. Regardless of their psychedelic portfolio, viewers would find it hard to shirk off the nihilism that the film evokes.
The very opening monologue is a mockery of modern life with its passive-aggressive suggestion to “Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family…. But why would I want to do a thing like that? I chose not to choose life: I chose something else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you’ve got heroin?”
There are certain tropes to drug depiction in cinema. Cocaine use is always shown in a jittery fast-forward (Goodfellas). Acid or DMT will be a surreal light-show like Diwali on steroids (Enter the Void). Marijuana use will be a smoky, slowmo episode with characters in pursuit of the perfect hamburger. Only heroin use, which has no hallucinogenic pretentions, can be depicted with hyperreal camerawork and bathroom lighting.
A movie like Trainspotting that portrays junkies would be incomplete without showing the intravenous ritual. Hollywood’s attempt to do justice to it in The Basketball Diaries saw them face America’s tough censorship laws but Britain had no such hang-ups. While both films show the users boil their product, only Trainspotting got away with showing the ritual in its entirety…warts and all.
It is bound to make trypanophobics (needles; you’re welcome) squeamish as syringe after syringe is loaded up and drained into some poor bastard. There is a voyeurism to the whole thing as one is suddenly privy to an act that normal people with their SUVs and mortgages and Employee of the Month bonuses are completely aloof from.
Perhaps the only flight of fancy that Boyle allowed himself was the surreal scene in which the protagonist Mark Renton is in urgent need of a loo. When he relieves himself in ‘The Worst Toilet in Scotland’, he realizes to his horror that the suppositories he had administered earlier are now down the drain. What follows is a scene of surreal turpitude that isn’t for those with a weak stomach.
Trainspotting remains one of my favourite films despite – or perhaps because of – its no-holds-barred approach. It helped make the visceral take a tangible form in its characters. Through the gaucheries and eventual comeuppance of Mark Renton, the viewer’s voyeurism is finally rewarded with the hope that sometimes it is better to choose life than chase an imagined panacea.