Sunday, September 11, 2011

No Smoking: A Rebel Without a Cause


"Jab bhi ciggaret jalti hai. Main jalta hoon."
[When I light a cigarette, I get lit, too.]
-Gulzar, “Jab Bhi Ciggaret” from No Smoking

"Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar."
-attributed to Sigmund Freud

The story of No Smoking starts in the middle, with the release of Black Friday, a film finished in 2004 but not given a general release until early 2007 after production of No Smoking was already well underway. Black Friday was, for all intents and purposes, Anurag Kashyap’s introduction to Bollywood. The film wasn’t a blockbuster by any means but it earned rave reviews from critics for its gritty naturalism, complex narrative, and directorial objectivity - and for a film about the terror attacks of 1993, in an industry apt to sensationalize, that is no small feat. Black Friday was nothing at all like the film that followed it into theaters a mere seven months later.



The idea for No Smoking had been rattling around in Anurag Kashyap’s mind for eight years before he finally had the influences and resources to put it on film. It was not an easy sell, as Anurag himself relates in an entertaining blog post: “I met [Producer] Boney Kapoor, narrated him the incomplete idea which was then called Cigarette Smoking is Injurious to Health. He point blank, told me, ‘Go back to the planet you came from.’ Everyone thought it was weird, but none of them knew irreverence.”

Two people who did understand irreverence were Vishal Bhardwaj, then in the middle of making Omkara, and John Abraham, then riding high with Water, his internationally acclaimed film with Deepa Mehta. With a producer and a hero, the film could proceed. Everything else could fall into place later.

After an initial burst of media interest centered on the possible casting of John’s then girlfriend Bipasha Basu as the heroine when the film was announced in 2006, the media was mostly quiet on No Smoking - most likely because Anurag Kashyap is not the type to send pre-written stories about on set antics to all the major gossip outlets.* It’s not until the fall of 2007, after the first promos are released that the media begins to generate a narrative for No Smoking. That narrative is centered on three assumptions about the film - 1) that it will “give an anti-smoking message in an entertaining way,”** 2) that “hunky” John Abraham will doing bold scenes,*** and 3) Bipasha Basu will be doing a sexy item song. Add to that the acclaim for the realism of Black Friday and it’s not unreasonable to assume that audiences walked into theaters on October 26, 2007 expecting to see a dark, sexy and somewhat realistic film with a comedic no smoking message - perhaps something along the lines of The Hangover.


No Smoking begins somewhere in the middle. K (John Abraham) is a wealthy and successful man who lives with his gorgeous wife Anjali (Ayesha Takia) in an ultrasleek high-rise apartment in Mumbai. K is vain, self-absorbed, and a chronic chain smoker. As the film opens, we see him dawdling with a cigarette in the bath, contemplating a reoccurring dream. He is in a snowy plain, racing towards a bathtub. He dives in. Meanwhile Anjali flits about the apartment trying to get things ready for a dinner party. Anjali wants to leave K; K can’t get it up anymore.

K has a friend named Abbas Tyrewala (Ranvir Shorey). Abbas has a perm, a bad squint, and wears a hearing aid. Abbas used to smoke, too; K and Abbas used to smoke together. One day K is standing around outside a restaurant smoking when Abbas walks by. K gets mad when Abbas refuses to join him for a cigarette and tries to force him. “I love my wife!” Abbas yells, as he falls to the ground. Abbas offers help if K ever wants to quit smoking. He knows a guy - Baba Bengali.


Anjali leaves K. K takes Abbas up on the offer to quit smoking, thinking maybe if he quits, if he does something for her, Anjali will come back. To get to Baba Bengali, K heads to a dusty warehouse in an old part of town. He passes by ladies in burquas and men in ratty dhotis, heading further and further into the bowels of the building. The air seems heavy and reality stretches thin. In this part of town, K becomes क (‘ka’).
Baba Bengali (Paresh Rawal) finally emerges and he has the air of a religious charlatan. Baba Bengali threatens K with doom and gloom if he does not quit smoking. K’s brother is in the hospital with a serious lung ailment, 30% of which, according to Baba Bengali, is K’s fault. K is coerced into signing onto the program. The fee is astronomical.

Driving home, K is fuming. K doesn’t want to quit smoking. He lights up and his car immediately crashes. The impact damaged K’s hearing. K needs a hearing aid.


The film gets increasingly dream-like. Conspirators lurk around every corner, following K where ever he goes, watching to make sure he never takes a drag. K’s friend Alex (Joy Fernandes) comes to town. Alex now trades in Cuban cigars. Echoing the scene with Abbas earlier in the film, Alex tries to get K to take a drag. Anjali disappears and the police blame K.

K knows that its Baba Bengali but Baba Bengali evaporates like smoke. K is taken in by the police. K tries to prove it wasn’t him by deliberately smoking in front of the police, telling them that he will get a phone call about something bad as soon as he lights up. K’s brother commits suicide.

K wakes up in a grungy room. He’s in a Russian military outpost. He escapes outside into a snowy plain and spies a bathtub in the distance. K dives into it.

K turns up in some sort of prison cell filled with other men. Their clothes are filthy but K is in luck. It’s shower day. They line up and head to the showers. The floor goes up in smoke.

One of the other prisoners shows K a window where he can see himself. His body, minus a soul but still dressed nicely, is in the hospital ward. Anjali shows up to take him home. His doctor, the double of Baba Bengali, assures her that K is all cured now and will improve with time.

The film ends with K phoning a friend, telling him he knows a great way to quit smoking.

The film is phenomenal; it is not, however, a dark, sexy and realistic film with a comedic no smoking message. The critics were merciless.


If this is the much touted noir genre of filmmaking, then two hours of this is enough for me. John Abraham said in an interview to rediff.com that No Smoking will give rise to a new genre of filmmaking. Sure it will and that genre will have this one film.

- Prithviraj Hegde in a no star review for Rediff.

Indulgent to the point of alienating his audience, director Anurag Kashyap steals the premise of No Smoking from a segment in the 1985 film Cat's Eye, adapted from Stephen King's anthology of fear stories.

- Rajeev Masand, who goes the extra mile by alleging that the film was not only terrible but also a copy.

The charges against No Smoking could be boiled down into one main complaint: the film was incomprehensible and, therefore, boring and worthless. Audiences agreed and the film swiftly left the cinema halls.

It’s very clear why No Smoking flopped, the film is the perfect case study in the foiled expectations that arise when an uncompromisingly artistic film is sent through the mainstream Bollywood marketing machine and into multiplexes. A film that might have been gotten cult acclaim with a small release, ends up disappointing thousands of more casual film goers.

There is a sharp divide between those films that are genuinely artistic in vision and those that are aimed at the broader educated audience. Films like Udaan, which Anurag Kashyap produced in 2010, or Luck by Chance, Johnny Gaddar, Oye Lucky Lucky Oye, Dhobi Ghat, etc. are not meant for mainstream consumption but they conform to a certain set of expectations of the Indian “non-mainstream” film - no songs, story that affirms the upper class audience’s values, muted acting, Hollywood-style invisible camera, and very plain costumes and sets. No Smoking took all these conventions and shoved them out the window.


[The line? "Nobody tells me what to do." A reference to The Wild One perhaps?]

Like Freud’s cigar, No Smoking can mean anything or nothing. Why is Abbas Tyrewala named Abbas Tyrewala? Why are there so many doubles? What is the purpose of the cross-dressing item song? If I had to venture my guesses, it would be because, in order, a) it was funny b) to add a level of surrealism and c) Jesse Randhawa looks super sexy in a tuxedo. Things like these, when added slowly to the film, build up an dreamlike atmosphere and let the audience sink fully into the alternate universe of the film. If viewers can accept one slightly odd thing, it lowers their resistance to accepting something ever odder down the road and before they know it, they are following K as he dives into a bathtub and some sort of purgatorial prison for souls. Of course, if the audience is not willing to accept that first odd thing, then they will grow increasingly frustrated and bored, eventually emerging from the theater to write a haranguing zero star review.


As somebody who accepted (and was very entertained by) all the oddities of No Smoking with an open heart, I do think there are quite a few interesting philosophical ideas woven into the film. K’s relationship with cigarettes has some very homoerotic undertones. K is prevented from having sex with his wife by a coughing fit brought on by smoking. Abbas, K’s former smoking buddy, can’t smoke anymore because he loves his wife. A flashback reveals Abbas and K gleefully smoking in a bathroom together and when caught by Abbas’s father, he immediately assumes they are engaging in homosexual behavior. And the the cigar that Alex tries to force in K’s mouth is uncomfortably phallic. The smoking, the true nature of the soul, has to be severed if K is going to have a ‘normal’ life with his wife.

But smoking can also be read as any impulse we have that is not acceptable to mainstream values - including smoking. And the Baba Bengali plan is essentially social policing taken to the extreme; everybody is a potential spy; every private behavior affects the community. Once you sign the social contract, every action reflects not on you but on those around you - a stark visualization of the concept of ‘losing face,’ i.e. a girl gets pregnant outside of marriage and her parents suffer. Is it better to conform and live life with a part of your soul buried or to be shivering outside on the side of the highway, smoking alone? Is it selfish to continue with behavior that isn’t accepted by others or is it selfish of them to not accept you as you are? These are the questions explored in No Smoking. The answers are left up to the audience.


[Club Bob Fosse... nice. He would have loved it.]

Along with the philosophical aspects, the visual aspects of No Smoking are extremely appealing - and I don’t just mean John Abraham in those wonderful bathtub scenes. Each frame just seems saturated with color and packed full of interesting things to look at. Certain parts of the film are almost collage-like in feel, combining techniques from comic books, silent film, and Yash Raj films to add a different flavor here or there. Baba Bengali’s office had a creepy David Lynch feel, everything was just a little bit off - even K’s name. K’s apartment was all glossy haired perfection and rose-petal filled bathtubs.**** A swank nightclub could have been taken from the sets of an old Ashok Kumar film. And a potentially tragic suicide sequence is set to music reminiscent of an old Charlie Chaplin film.

The mash-up of tones feels like Anurag playing with the medium of film itself. After all, every film is fantasy - even those ‘realistic’ ones - Anurag just makes it explicit.

I haven’t mentioned the performances yet but, needless to say, they were all excellent. I don’t think I’ve seen John Abraham do better work than he does here. As K, John is the anchor of the film and we see him go from the glossy-haired, vapid playboy of the first frames to a really self-aware and soulful guy and then to a vacant-eyed drone. And John does it all with aplomb. It’s an intelligent performance and one that deserves to be recognized. I think anybody who doubts his ability to turn out good work needs to see the ending sequence as K is being led off into the showers or the sequence at the police station where he is tensely waiting for the phone to ring or on stage with Alex trying a shove a cigar in his mouth.

Ayesha Takia is wonderful (naturally) as Anjali and hilarious as “Annie,” the secretary. We really see Anjali’s hurt feelings and can see how much K’s indifference to her burns. The scene in the bed, where K tries to get it on with her but can’t, is particularly crushing. Ranveer Shorey is excellent as Abbas Tyrewala but then when is he not. Only Ranveer alone knows why he chose the perm and the squint but the result is really disconcerting. Abbas could have been comic relief or a nothing role but there are scenes were he gets some real pathos and others where he has a cold menace to him. It makes me wonder why Ranveer doesn’t get more and juicier roles.***** Paresh Rawal was the best kind of mundane villain as Baba Bengali - he understands that creepy corporate behavior is scarier than huge vamping for the camera. (And a word of praise for Jesse Randhawa’s amazing item song. Girl set the screen on fire!)

All in all, I really think No Smoking deserves to be pulled from the ashtray of Bollywood history and given another chance with audiences that know what they are getting into. Forget the zero star reviews from people mad that they weren’t seeing an easily digestible satire or those who got caught up in the hype about John’s abs. Watch the film for what it is and decide for yourself if the cigar is really just a cigar.


* For which we are all grateful. I hate those things.
** http://www.apunkachoice.com/scoop/bollywood/20060705-5.html
**** Referencing that infamous Shahrukh Khan Lux advertisement?
***** Of course, if I was the casting director of Bollywood, we’d have Ranveer Shorey, Jimmy Shergil, Deepka Dobriyal, Pitobash, and all these guys in lead roles all the time...

15 comments:

martoufmarty said...

I loved this movie. It's weird, thought out, and well executed. It's a shame that so many people couldn't see that. I wish these kind of films were more wildly accepted.

Sure, I love my song and dance romances, but sometimes you need a movie that will blow you away and make you think.

Kaitlyn said...

I thought they said it was based on the Stephen King story - man pays people to help him quit smoking, they make him quit by torturing him and his family. Though it's nowhere near as dark and trippy as this. And the one in Cat's Eye is just pathetic.

A positive review could say, "Using the Stephen King short story as a jumping point, Kashyap creates a ..."

I enjoyed it.

Moimeme said...

I haven't finished reading your review, but just wanted to mention two things. Anurag Kashyap's first movie was Paanch, which has still not been released in India because it could not get a censor certificate. But it was shown in some film festivals abroad. Black Friday, too, was shown in film festivals abroad before it got released in India. The reason for the delay in its release was that, since it deals with the terrorist attack of 1993, it could not be released while the trials of people charged in the bomb blasts were still ongoing. And finally, the film Black Friday was based on a book of the same name written by a Mumbai journalist who did extensive research on the case for several years, pulling together police reports, official court testimony, interviews, etc. So the credit for the factual nature and evenhandedness of the film must go, I think, to the author of the book more than to Anurag, though I agree he could have messed it up and didn't.

Moimeme said...

OK, I've now finished reading your review and can comment on the review and the film. I have still not seen this, but it does sound interesting. I have read two kinds of reviews of it on the net (not from professionals) -- either people rave about it, or they just can't get into it and dismiss it as self-indulgence carried too far. These latter are people who like "alternative films" and like Anurag Kashyap.

I don't know if you ever read the Passion for Cinema blog, which was originally started by Anurag, around the time that this film was in production and released. From discussions on that blog (including several posts by Anurag himself), I gather that the film is really a chronicle of Anurag's struggles in Bollywood to make the kinds of films he wants to make. Hence your summing up of:

"Is it better to conform and live life with a part of your soul buried or to be shivering outside on the side of the highway, smoking alone? Is it selfish to continue with behavior that isn’t accepted by others or is it selfish of them to not accept you as you are?"

aptly captures the questions faced by Anurag as a film maker. However, he chose to explore his experiences via the Kafka short story "The Trial" (the reason why the protagonist is named "K"). It all would make for interesting viewing, but only for those not expecting a "normal" film experience of a connected story with clear character delineations, I think. Your review has again ramped up my interest in this film (which, like many that I make mental notes to see "some day" kind of sunk into my mental oblivion.) Thanks for reviewing it!

kunalmistry said...

To start with, the item girl is not Jesse Randhawa. She is Sandhya Mridul, also casted in Saathiya, Waisa Bhi Hota Hai-part 2, etc.

Why was Abbas Tyrewala named Abbas Tyrewala? Because, Anurag paid a tribute to his real-life friend Abbas Tyrewala (a film producer).

Double role of K's wife and secretary? To indicate that a man expects a wife as sexy as a secretary and a secretary who can handle office work as efficiently as his wife.

Thing about Abbas loves his wife -
Because Abbas had been the treatment and as per Baba Bengali, Abbas' wife would be killed if he tries to somoke (similar to what happened with Anjali).

One more thing which is told between the lines - the telephone operators are shown wearing burkhas (which seems absurd at the first sight). This indicates that people working in calling centers do not have a recognized face. Nobody knows them by face, just their voice.

Ultimately, what Baba Bengali repeats frequently - "Aatma hai to shareer eeshwar hai, aatma nahi to nashwar hai" - the person is converted into a living statue who does not have any bonds (in this case, smoking) and thus, made free of the worldly bonds. His desires are taken out of his body by hook or by crook.

kunalmistry said...

@Moimeme: The author of the book has been notably credited at the very beginning of the movie at the start of the credits.

Filmi Girl said...

@martoufmarty :)

@Kaitlyn I thought I remembered Anurag saying that he hadn't read whatever story people were saying it was based on. Like here.

@Moimeme Thank you for your comments!!! Very illuminating. The Kafka connection is interesting... do you happen to have a link or something where he talks about it? I'd be curious to know. I'm not really a Kafka buff. :)

@kunalmistry I'm 100% sure it is Jesse Randhawa. Where did you get your information?

Also, I think you are taking the film too literally.

Why was Abbas Tyrewala named Abbas Tyrewala? Because, Anurag paid a tribute to his real-life friend Abbas Tyrewala (a film producer).

Yes, I know this but in the context of the film it serves no purpose except as a joke. That was my point.

And yes, double role of sexy lady-wife but in the context of the film, there is the added mystery. If Anurag had been so prosaic in his scripting as your interpretation, the film would hold much less charm.

I think it ruins the experience of the film if one tries to find literal parallels to every single thing. Couldn't the call center employees also be representing the meshing of the old traditions with new technology? There are a lot of interpretations and we can't just pinpoint one as "correct."

A film like this is best experienced and mused over rather than picked apart like a puzzle.

But that is just my opinion...

dagnyfan said...

Great post, Filmigirl! I had been watching all John Abraham films and saved this one for last - expecting not to like it. I was pleasantly surprised. Not only did John give what I consider to be his best performance - I loved his transition from arrogant narcissist to beaten and lost soul- but my appreciation for the vision of the film grew after I watched a video on Youtube. Anurag gave a talk about this film. It included his vision to tell a story about people having the right to express themselves and live their life on their own terms - even if they chose to be jerks. He also clearly stated he loved how different people have different interpretations of art and valued that, so I think you're right on that he would hope for more than a simple A=B interpretation. I'll try to find the link.

One part I couldn't get into was the Bob Fosse tribute. I just never liked that - Victor Victoria definitely didn't work for me. Just personal taste.

kunalmistry said...

Yes....my bad, she is Jesse Randhawa...:p

And yes, the other things are my interpretations. So....
Maybe, I am trying to sound the things to be logical...:p

dagnyfan said...

This is the first of 3 parts of Anurag's talk about No Smoking.

http://youtu.be/TjJAL5emp74

Moimeme said...

@Filmigirl: Unfortunately, the Passionforcinema website is now defunct (there were the usual Anurag type dramatics when it was closing). I thought at that time the final decision was that the archives would still be available, but now I can't find them. So, short of searching through Google archives, you will have to be satisfied with the youtube links others have put up.

eliza bennet said...

I LOVE this film. Great visuals, interesting storytelling and fab acting by all parties (including suprisingly John Abraham who normally poses) this film was excellent as far as I'm concerned and I wouldn't change a thing in it.

Oddly I don't like Anurag Kashyap's other films and normaly find his film making too cluttered but No Smoking to me is an exception.

I do think this film is not for everyone however it is very good cinema.

Mohit P. said...

Kashyap's blogpost about the allegory in NS & more: http://anuragkashyap.tumbhi.com/uncategorized/i-smoked-classic-milds-124

Mohit P. said...

Anurag Kashyap's guide to No Smoking: http://rediff.com/movies/2007/oct/30anurag.htm

Mohit P. said...

Part 2 of Anurag Kashyap's guide to No Smoking http://rediff.com/movies/oct/31anurag.htm

Note from Filmi Girl:

I love Bollywood - and all the ridiculous things that happen in Bollywood - but it doesn't mean that I can't occasionally make fun of various celebrities and films.

If you don't like my sense of humor, please just move on by - Trolls are not appreciated and nasty comments will be deleted.

xoxo Filmi Girl