Going Up In Smoke
Trust Indian bureaucracy to come up laughable laws, demand the impossible, especially when it comes to moving images whether on the big or the small screen, domestic or international. Banning channels that show adult material. Films or programmes that show soft porn is understandable, but surely not editing out scenes from both Indian and foreign films that have already hit the screens. The latest the Ministry of Health’s to stop, delete or obliterate scenes that show characters smoking, as if it is on-screen smoking that is responsible for one-fourth of this country’s billion-plus population taking to the cancer stick, and its removal would result in people giving up the habit. As if smoking and tobacco did not exist before the Lumiere Brothers.
And rightly so, the film industry is once again up in arms. Reportedly, a representation made through three current Bollywood trouble-shooters, Mahesh Bhatt, Javed Akhtar and Ritesh Sidwani to the Minister for Information & Broadcasting, Ambika Soni failed to elicit any positive response, provoking the irrepressible Bhatt to comment: “The government does not treat us as equals. They talk down to us, which tantamount to violation of free speech. We are not a bunch of uncivilised kids who’re not aware of their responsibility. And that’s why we did agree on putting a disclaimer at the beginning of the movie, but putting it in every scene totally destroys our creative freedom.” Apparently, the matter has been taken to the court, forcing an adamant ministry to bring the law ministry on board, and the health ministry to take a second look.
Most recent releases have been adhering to the Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products Act 2003/4 whereby it is mandatory to carry a disclaimer about the hazards of smoking. Every film with a smoking scene has been carrying a 20-second message, but it surely is impractical to place an audio featuring the actor to have an anti-smoking message, or blurring the image altogether. Most socially conscious film makers have been seen to generally avoid smoking scenes. But it is totally against freedom of expression, and an impractical demand, more so when it comes to old, especially black and white films where a hero, a vamp or a villain are shown to be indulging in the act and smoking is an important ingredient in the progression of a scene or the entire narrative process. How does one blur and edit out these from films where even the negatives have been destroyed.
Scenes with Ashok Kumar in Kismet, Nadira with a cigarette holder in Shri 420, Motilal in Devdas, Guru Dutt sucking at a pipe in Kaagaz ke Phool, Dev Anand smoking a cigar in Hum Dono, Amitabh Bachchan smoking bidi in Coolie and Deewar, to site just a few examples
Leading film stars are often seen in public service announcement denouncing use of tobacco, and harmful effects of smoking Anurag Kashyap even made a super flop, No Smoking in 2007 with John Abraham is the protagonist. There is a scene in Aamir Khan’s Ghajini which has a scene where the camera pans across a ‘No Smoking’ notice when she observes some anti-social elements blowing smoke at poeples’ faces, and says “Yahan smoking allowed nahin hai.”
Actor and the new UNICEF ambassador, Aamir Khan too has come out against the dictat. Speaking to a newspaper recently, the star is reported to have said: “I have never advocated smoking. That is why I have stayed away from doing any cigarette advertisements. However, it is rather unfortunate and unreasonable that we are asking for cigarette smoking to be ‘justified’ in our cinema. If I am making a historical with Sir Winston Churchill, whose trademark was his cigar, then I can hardly disturb the frame with a disclaimer or a ticker saying ‘smoking kills’. Also, if I show Churchill without his cigar, I am not being true to my subject. Not showing my character the way he was is not only curbing my own creative freedom as a film maker, I am also being dishonest with my audience. The audience will most certainly object to my disturbing the frame with a public service message playing, even if it is against the backdrop. I am totally in favour of having a disclaimer where you warn public about the perils of smoking. I don’t even mind recording a small separate clip saying how the use of tobacco/cigarettes is harmful. But I am not in favour of anyone interfering with the creative process of my film.”
Smoking in public is a punishable offence, yet how many law enforcement agents have been able to nab the offenders. Selling tobacco to those under 18 is a cognizable offence, but then how many outlets have been booked. Why governments the world over have shied away from banning the manufacture of cigarettes and tobacco products. Smoking and chewing tobacco is banned in state and central government offices, yet indoor puffing from the senior to class 1V employees goes on, tobacco-spit bathroom windows, walls and doors tells a different story, and the apathy of the law enforcers to put their own house in order. A visit to the floors housing health ministry’s offices is a pathetic story. But there is still no ban on tobacco products.
Besides, what else will the government attribute to cinema’s negative influence? And what to extent banning and censoring will prevent social ills in society? For decades kissing on the screen had been taboo, did lovers not kiss? Is there any survey to show whether its depiction on screen has had a negative or positive aspect. Road rage has never been a part of cinema, yet its indulgence is on the increase. Even road accidents on screen are a part of the narrative. Drunken driving has also not been a part of films. So also are kidnapping, rapes, and other social crimes. In fact, Indian cinema has never glorified crime and in fact the lesson has always been it never pays. It depicts reformation. Will film makers be asked to put such disclaimers on other scenes of criminal activity or social evils? Will that be a solution? Or as Aamir Khan rightly said: “Murder is illegal, but we show murder on screen. We don’t have disclaimers for it.”
By Suresh Kohli