No Smoking

Reviewed By Abhishek Bandekar
Posted 10/30/07 17:58:32

"Get High On This"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

‘To Do Is To Be’ ‘To Be Is To Do’ ‘Dobe Dobe Do!’ Bollywood films don’t begin with quotes by Plato and Socrates and follow it up with Frank Sinatra. No Smoking does. And it’s not because the film’s trying to be different and cool. It’s for a reason. Anurag Kashyap, at the very outset, warns you of the existential nature of the film to follow. If you are too dense to grasp that, it’s your fault. Maybe you’re in the wrong movie hall. Or maybe I’m being arrogant and No Smoking has been made in the wrong industry and wrong country. Or maybe, Anurag Kashyap has slyly gestured his critics and the tame Bollywood industry a massive ‘up-yours!’ disguised as a film.

Whatever it is, No Smoking surely grabs your attention and doesn’t let go for its entire running time. At the end of it though(as an insanely sexy Bipasha Basu gyrates to the impossibly sexier Phoonkh De(Puff It)), it seems that ‘attention’ is merely what Anurag Kashyap is after. But is that a bad thing when you’ve been treated to such a mind-bending experience? Not since Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem For A Dream have I seen such a ‘rush’ of hallucinatory imagery.

Most critics have complained about not understanding what No Smoking is all about. It’s certainly not a public service message against smoking, although it’s clever how Kashyap has led the censors to believe so and get them to pass excessive amounts of smoking minus any cuts. So what is it about? It has John Abraham as Just K- a chain smoker who, at the insistence of his wife Anjali(Ayesha Takia) and friend Abbas(Ranvir Shorey) enlists the services offered by a Guru Ghantaal Shri Shri Shri Baba Bengali Sealdeh Waala( played with menacing glee by Paresh Rawal) to rid him of his smoking habit. Would it have made any difference though if it had been porn, alcohol or tele-tubbies instead of cigarettes that Just K was addicted to? Cigarettes are only a red herring, a placebo pill that enables the bizarre script a base around which the narrative gleefully freewheels. Ridding K of his smoking is the least of the film’s concerns. What the film is concerned about is the cost he will have to pay for it. And therein lays the film’s existential dilemma.

Although the film’s basic premise is loosely based on Stephen King’s Quitters Inc.(which was adapted to the screen as a short in Cat’s Eye), No Smoking has more similarities to Franz Kafka’s The Trial. Not very unlike the protagonist of The Trial, Josef K., Just K is made to pay for his inability to accept his guilt. The question then is- does that inability make one less of a human being? Are we supposed to conform to society’s laws to be accepted as human beings?

The price K pays for quitting his social deviance(smoking) is much more graver than an otherwise death from smoking. Baba Bengali cuts off the fingers of his clients, fills the lungs of their relatives with cigarette smoke till they die and hacks their spouses to death. What then is bizarre? The world you live in or the world you create? As Jean Paul Sartre said of Josef K., and by extension of all conforming humanity- ‘He does not know his judges, scarcely even his lawyers; he does not know what he is charged with, yet he knows that he is considered guilty; judgment is continually put off. His external situation may appear brilliant, but the interminable trial invisibly wastes him away, and it happens eventually … that men seize him, carry him off on the pretense that he has lost his case, and murder him.’

No Smoking is at its heart an anarchist film. It wants you to question the established conventions and the compromises you’ve made to follow them. Are they worth it? Is it worth dying an old man with a life behind you full of compromises or die an early one doing always exactly what you wanted. The bargain is simple if you’ve attained clarity. What’s the harm in doing what you want? This is where Kashyap’s Just K goes from being Josef K. to Kashyap himself. If you take away the cigarettes, No Smoking is an autobiographical film. Kashyap is Just K, trying to make his kind of films in a world that makes him feel guilty for doing that. But if he chooses to make the compromise, what’s the price gonna be? A dead existence, minus the self- the soul. “Aatma hai to shareer eeshwar hai, warna sab nashwar hai!”("The soul is everything; without the soul you're nothing")

By merging the personal with the public, Kashyap commits the mistake that most surrealists did(leading to the movement’s death)- allowing private and personal visions to colour your work. But then what work isn’t personal at some subconscious level? Is it coincidence that Just K’s friend who initiates him into smoking is an Abbas Tyrewala who proclaims, “Maqbool, Main Hoon Na!”(Both films written by Tyrewala)? Is it coincidence that Just K’s wife and secretary are the same(Kashyap’s wife is also his editor)? This merging however stops the film from being completely Kafkaesque as Kafka never let his characters be refletions of his life.

Even if one were to dismiss all the events as rubbish(Kafka and surrealism aren’t everybody’s cup of tea, especially when served together), there is still so much cinematic genuis at work here that is being criminally overlooked. Apart from the superlative cinematography(sepia has never looked this good before), the film employs Godard’s jump cuts and Welles’ lightning mix sound editing techniques. As if that weren’t enough, Kashyap indulges in comic book bubbles even.

Yes, the film has pacing issues. Yes, it does go off on unnecessary tangents at times(the Joy Fernandes sequence is a chore to sit through). But which Indian movie in recent memory has mixed Kafka with King, surrealism with existentialism, Lost with The Departed, Adnan Sami with Bob Fosse, Dil Se’s Ae Ajnabi with Dean Martin’s L’ Amore and so on? That’s one heady mix to get high on. Indulgent? You bet it is. But oh, what would I not give for such indulgence. Perhaps my soul even! Now, ain’t that a bargain Baba Bengali would love to oversee.

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