All Smoke And No Fire?

The other day I was watching a popular debate programme on a news channel. The panel comprised a well-known filmmaker, a health ministry member and someone else who I can't recollect. After much fanfare, the host began : Is the ban on smoking in films justified?

I swtiched off the TV because I had my answer already: No!

Let me explain. The issue here is the visual of someone smoking. The problem isn't the cigarettes, it's the visual. Never mind if the man (or woman) onscreen is smoking an empty roll of paper - what the audience sees is someone smoking, which, according to the health ministry, could be a harmful influence on the viewer. The person who came up with the idea of this ban seems to have conveniently forgotten that cinema came to India in 1895, when the Lumiere brothers' first film was screened in Bombay. This was way after the arrival of the British, who made smoking a commonplace appearance and perhaps a status symbol. It wouldn't be too far-fetched to say that some of our countrymen were smoking long before the British arrived. India was primarily an agricultural country and one of the largest producers of tobacco in the world long before any smoking was shown in films a la Ramgopal Varma's Company. Does the accusation imply that people in India began smoking only after the movies came in?

How can the rise in health issues related to smoking be attributed totally to films? The Indian Tobacco Company was established long ago and even in the 70s, Gold Flake was a household name even among non-smokers. This was due to the invasion of the press. With magazines flourishing, ITC found a big place to showcase its cigarette brands. Even after the ban on print advertisements in the present day, ITC makes its presence felt through apparel brands and stationery. So why blame films and actors alone?

The Health Minister has expressed concerns that showing actors smoking onscreen can be a harmful influence on youngsters who idolise them. This may be true, but the fact remains that cinema is, like any other art, about illusion. What is shown on screen is not real. The actors portray fictitious characters, who resemble or respresent someone we know. They do not, and cannot, become the people they play, for obvious reasons - too much emotional and mental involvement in an art form that so closely imitates life is dangerous. People who die onscreen are not really dead, are they? In the same way, those who smoke onscreen are simply portraying fictitious characters. How do we know they are actually smoking? There are young conscientious actors who employ alternate methods - like Kirsten Dunst, who says that she smokes fake cigarettes which do not contain any tobacco, and Natalie Portman, who tried it once and found it "disgusting". Indian actor Aamir Khan opines that cigarettes should be allowed in films provided they do not glorify the character. (click here for Khan's statement in the Indian Express.)

It is for the viewers to understand that all that is being shown in a film is strictly representational and need not be real. If the viewers are smart enough to understand that actors who portray dead people aren't really dead, they simply have to apply the same principle to smoking. Unfortunately, most young viewers do not understand that even the hero can have shades of grey, that smoking can be one of his vices. If cigarettes are a bad influence, we can say the same about fraud, theft, rape, adultery and violence. They can also be harmful influences on viewers - so do we ban their depiction completely? In that case, we can also argue that portrayal of poverty, socio-economic crimes, death, etc. should be banned because viewers would be emotionally traumatised. Next, we'll be banning films altogether, and that can have serious consequences in an economy that produces the largest number of films per annum.

It is impossible not to show people smoking, atleast in some films. In Hollywood, the fake cigarettes are used, which do not contain tobacco and give out only smoke. This is a healthier way to show a character who smokes, without having to eliminate the existence of such a character altogether and limit the film's possibilities. The only way to prevent depiction of smoking in films is to ban it altogether by criminalising it - which is easier said than done in a country which is the world's second largest producer of tobacco.

This brings to mind another problem - the absence of a rating system instead of an overzealous censor board. A decent rating system could be used to categorise films as 'R' if they have nudity, drug use, extremely foul language or potentially offensive content (including possible racism/ communalism/ political propaganda etc.) Smoking could also be included in this category. This will ensure selective viewing without having to compromise on creativity. (Click here for relevant article on 'R' rating smoking in Hollywood.)

Just think ... cigarettes have revolutionised cinema in more ways than one. Smoking has been an integral part of film for decades - there are characters in our stories that would never have been the same without their tobacco addiction. Conjure up in your mind images of the arrogant lord puffing on a hookah while the courtesan flits her eyelashes at him ... a hippie Zeenat Aman with flowers in her hair and a cigarette in her hand. Can you imagine Amitabh Bachchan as the angry young man without his cigarettes? Amjad "Gabbar Singh" Khan shouting tera kya hoga kaaliya without a cigarette dangling from his mouth? Randeep Hooda glaring into the camera minus the smoke swirling from his nostrils? Juhi Chawla and Sanjay Suri sharing a forbidden smoke years before his homosexuality, and eventually his HIV affliction, is discovered?

And if cigarettes didn't exist, what would Rajnikanth stylishly toss into the air and catch in his mouth? Salad?


Agent Knight said...

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Hey shubz!

This was an interesting and informative blog... keep writing more...