No Smoking : An Afterview

April 12, 2008 at 2:44 am (Cinema, Kiran David)



I am dismayed by the way film critics who write on mainstream Indian cinema have responded to Anurag Kashyap’s film No Smoking. Most of the responses have been juvenile, some of them vicious in a moronic way. I have found film critics writing in Indian newspapers rather tedious and inept. I am not questioning their taste but their intelligence, point of view and consistency as critics. I am shocked when they give high ratings to a terrible film and trash an equally bad one, or one that may actually be better. Often their reviews reflect a sycophancy to some star, which translates into giving that particular star and his/her film a great review while panning an equally undeserving enterprise. I do not know whether this is the case of critic as ardent fan or something more dishonest, and therefore pathetic and lacking in any kind of self-respect.


The other problem with our critics is that they tend to rave about films that are well-intentioned but not really cinema. While good-intentions are laudable, I think a film should be critiqued or reviewed as cinema, which none of them seem remotely capable of doing.


Having read some venomous reviews of No Smoking I wanted to revisit some of the films that were favored by the critics in question.


Om Shanti Om got rave reviews. An affectionate look at our kitschy cinematic past, it only has one inspired moment – the Filmfare Awards scene, in which the inspired (but borrowed) image of a phallic Akshay Kumar is used to fine effect. The rest of the film seems under-baked, poorly plotted and completely lacking in levity. I wish the director and her adoring critics had seen Tears Of The Black Tiger by Wisit Sasanatieng – a similar look at the kitschy past of Thai cinema – to figure out what the term ‘inspired’ means.


Parzania – an honorable, in fact, an extremely honorable attempt to look at the horrors of our recent past – as a film often seems sophomoric and tatty, with most of the acting rarely transcending the levels of a school play.


Aparna Sen’s Mr and Mrs Iyer, another film that got eulogized, is, again, a completely immature film. It takes an important social problem and trivializes it. It’s the kind of film made for people who share her middle-class sensibilities, and essentially preaches to the converted. It is pointless from a political standpoint, and cinematically, far from impressive.


The films mentioned above are just a few among the many reviewed favorably by our highly-respected and powerful critics. I am not sure how many of them are capable of truly understanding the medium and making unbiased observations. I am convinced they lack the intelligence of even the worst of our filmmakers.


Why then did these esteemed folk choose No Smoking to trash and knock out of existence?


Here is an Indian film that intelligently approaches what it is trying to say. It refers to other films and art forms, both high and low, giving the audience various clues to help them make connections and expand the narrative. One critic, in fact, made the statement which for me is the howler of the year – “ok ok we’ve also read Kafka”. But wasn’t that precisely the point? Here is a director who respects his audience and assumes that they read and think. Besides that, he quotes works that have inspired or shaped his being as a filmmaker and indicates the autobiographical nature of the work.


This is probably the most personal film made within the framework of the Indian mainstream. The director has placed himself at the centre of the narrative and tells a story of a man who is at odds with his environment. He, however, uses allusions to evoke the horror he is going through. Smoking is just the Mcguffin. Unlike other, lazier, filmmakers who steal from films to cover for their lack of intelligence, Kashyap uses his references to help us identify his influences and his take on them. Sometimes, these quotations work as tributes. Even if he did not use the name Bob Fosse, one would have realized what he was referring to. In fact his using a male voice on a female dancer in the lounge-bar scene was amazing as it alluded to the transgender nature of Fosse’s women- dancers, a trend which goes back much further to the Sternberg/Dietrich films.


While K, the character John Abraham plays, is clearly a reference to Kafka, Kashyap changes the context completely and appropriates it for his own purpose – to comment on the state of affairs within mainstream cinema which chokes artists with sensibilities that differ from the norm. A place where playing by the rules of the establishment – with all its mediocrity and tyranny – is expected.


On another level, the film seems to be a reflection on the political tyranny that exists in many parts of our country. In this endeavour, it succeeds far more than films like Parzania or Mr and Mrs Iyer which try to address these issues more literally. No Smoking confronts the viewer with our current political reality and the day-to-day horror that exists.


Kashyap uses his connecting timelines interestingly to navigate between various states of consciousness, crisscrossing dreams and reality in a way that, most often, works well for him.


There has also been a lot of criticism of John Abraham. While he is probably not a great actor, at least in this film he works, both within the film’s context and as an image that Kashyap wants him to be. And really, how many decent performances have we had in the last 15 years? I think you can count them on your fingers. Yet, critics have slammed him, the same critics who have praised awful, though terribly-loved, HAMS over the years. I do not know whether he will develop as an actor but I tip my glass to him for having had the courage to do this film, where other popular “ACTORS” would have fled.


There are a few areas that I find problematic, the most important one being the way he has used the daily spaces that K inhabits. They seem to suffer in comparison to the way he has used the underbelly of the city (or his mind?) with all its detailing. Also I’m not quite sure if the wife/secretary angle really works within this narrative. I think his other allusions to ‘the double’ work much better. I would also have preferred it if the allusions were a bit more subdued, but I suppose Kashyap is also a child of the times with all its chaos and clutter. Despite these and some other minor issues, the film manages to transcend its weakness and emerges as a powerful work. It shows that Kashyap is growing as an artist. This is by far his most mature work. Paanch announced a director with an interesting sensibility, a man with a point of view. It had a lot of rough spots but was clearly the work of a maverick with passion. Black Friday, which everybody loved as it carried within it the burden of respectability, was an efficient work and told us that the filmmaker had grasped his craft. With No Smoking Kashyap has turned a corner and revealed an artist willing to take risks that could crucify him. One hopes his future films carry within them the intangible that all great art has and which all true artists aspire to attain. He has the courage to stand up against the odds and suffer for it, which is in itself reason for us to live in hope.


I have spent the last few weeks trying to talk to people in and around the business about giving the film a chance, but many of them seem to be more concerned about the filmmaker’s self-obsession and arrogance. These are totally irrelevant; I would rather see a film made by an arrogant S.O.B which is invested with intelligence than watch crap by a pleasant politically-correct slob.


My reason for writing this piece is to create a climate where one can intelligently, and without prejudice, perceive a work for what it is. I am not saying that everyone must like No Smoking, but that we should give it a chance. Rohmer, when writing about Mr. Arkadin said that while he personally preferred the work of Hawks and Rossellini in terms of sensibility, he realized the importance of recognizing the genius of Welles and Eisenstein. I am not comparing Kashyap to either of the filmmakers and very very certainly not the critics to Rohmer. But it is very important that as critics they be sharp and recognize the worth of works that may go against their sensibility. I myself revel in the image of Chishu Ryu peeling an apple on a Late Spring almost sixty years ago, and yet I would want to see anything made by Anurag Kashyap.


To the critics who have attacked this film, not intelligently but for personal reasons, to brokers of mediocrity, lackeys of stars and powerful production houses, I say, as someone did many years ago – “Drop your cocks and pull up your socks”. I do not believe that the critic is irrelevant as many do, but most of the people masquerading as critics are a bunch that really worries me.


Till then, carry on Saint Anurag, actor and martyr. As I make my exit, I hope I do not hear a squeaky voice saying, “Ok, ok we’ve also read Sartre”.

– Kiran David


(An edited version of this article  first appeared in  December 2007 issue of Tehelka magazine).


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