If there’s one thing we can all agree on as fellow consumers of alcoholic beverages, it is that a whiff of a certain drink can bring back distinct memories, irrespective of how drunk you were at the time. For us, it’s the familiar burn of Old Monk, hardly dulled by the Coke and ice accompanying it, the warmth of a looming Kingfisher tower at Totos, or the slight tang of Sangria — all peppered with conversation, bar snacks and pure ruckus as the night progresses.
Similarly, for many whiskey lovers in India, back in the 60s and 70s there was a certain bottle of booze that collectively seeped into their memories — Vat 69, a Scotch blended whiskey, first made in 1882 under the flagship of William Sanderson & Son Ltd. Now under Diageo, VAT 69 back then rose to stardom in our homeland because of its recurring appearances in some of Bollywood’s best ‘masala’ movies, featuring the likes of Ajit, Pran, Prem Chopra and Rehman.
These movies had quite a bit in common; from the high-drama fight sequences and the evocation of ‘Mona Darling’ to the villains’ perennial bar, stocked with foreign brands like Passport, Dewar and Black Label. However, it was the presence of a bottle of VAT 69, that undisputedly cemented the villain’s reputation as a true son of hell. This blingy green bottle with its large-lettered label was always picked up by the antagonist’s sidekick, who then fixed his ‘baas’ a drink. What followed this ritual was a display of carefully curated garish rings, as the villain grabbed the amber liquid filled glass and with a loud clink uttered the heavily rehearsed ‘chee-ars’. Even Amitabh Bachchan immortalised VAT69 when it became the favourite drink of his character Don (1978) as well as in the unforgettable scene in Deewar (1975) where he sips the drink as he contemplates his future as a smuggler.
Calling VAT 69 the ‘ambassador of the arch-villain’ in Bollywood, journalist and novelist Sidharth Bhatia, (who has also written an essay about the iconic Hindi film villain for Time Out) looks at the liquor as much more than just set paraphernalia. “(It was) the scotch that symbolised, both the aspirations of a closed economy and not the elitism of it, because people did not know their Glenfiddich from their Chivas and in the confusion, VAT69 stood out….” says Bhatia in this essay by Sayandeb Chowdhury.
Echoing Bhatia’s thoughts, Delhi based whiskey connoisseur Sandeep Arora couldn’t agree more, that VAT 69 represented a bygone era of simplicity. “It was an aspirational brand, a Scotch picked up by an aunt or uncle who went to ‘Englaand’, ‘Caneda’ or ‘Haang Kaang’. It was carried back home with a lot of pride. After the bottle was drained of its contents, people used it as a flower vase or poured cheaper whiskey into the bottle and pretended to have served you the real thing. Life was simpler then, you drank your whiskey and you ate your food,” he confesses in an interview with the Hindustan Times.
From the late 90s onwards, with the liberalisation of the Indian economy, VAT 69 began to lose high ground when blissful ignorance and inaccessibility to foreign liquors became a footnote of the past. The ‘whiskey drinking nation’ that India is often referred to as, could now experiment with dragon fruit infused vodkas, became more curious about wines and also caught up with the single-malt trend.
So where does VAT 69 stand today in Bollywood? It doesn’t, because as Sayandeb Chowdhury says it’s bottled in a time when, “Villains wore gold rings, resided in psychedelic dens of unnamed estates, flirted with mini-skirted molls, danced with a bare-bellied Helen and were guarded by bald minions in red suits.” None the less, even after having vanished from Indian cinema, VAT 69 has immortalised itself as a fierce cultural association, in the archives of Bollywood.
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