But for viewers who are willing to open themselves to it, No Smoking is a daring, imaginative, often brilliant film, one that marries a very personal vision with a keen visual sense and some of the best cinematography recently seen in Bollywood. It takes some time for this to become obvious, however. Notwithstanding a surreal opening sequence set in a snowy landscape, most of the early scenes are routine, even amateurish. John Abraham (as a chain smoker named K) shows off his chiseled upper body in a bathroom mirror and exchanges sophomore lines with his wife Anjali, played by Ayesha Takia (Shrill question: “Tum bathroom mein cigarette kyun peete ho?” Petulant answer: “Tum bedroom mein kyun soti ho?”). Cutesy thought and speech bubbles pop up now and again.
None of this prepares you for what is to come. Prompted by a friend, K descends into the creepy subterranean world of a prayogshala to meet a Baba (Paresh Rawal, excellent, even when mouthing gobbledygook) who will help him quit smoking, and it’s here that the film signals its movement from the real world into a dream zone where anything can happen – a world of bleached colours, grotesque character types and a shift from real-world logic (the Baba watches scenes from K’s life on mouldy videocassettes and has the power to control the destinies of his loved ones; effectively – Faust alert here – he buys K’s soul).
Some of what follows can be described in simplistic plot-synopsis terms (e.g. “K tries to cheat the deal but the Baba seems to know his every move and makes his family suffer”), but beyond a point the idea of a conventional storyline is irrelevant here. Far more compelling is the way Kashyap and cinematographer Rajeev Ravi draw us into the interior world of an addict who is much farther gone than he realises. Soon it becomes impossible to tell exactly how much of this is going on inside K’s head. Perhaps the whole thing is a dream.
Bleak though No Smoking is, both visually and thematically, it’s also a darkly funny film. I particularly enjoyed the speeded-up childhood flashback (played to the tune of the Gene Raskin classic “Those were the Days”) of K and his buddy Abbas (Ranvir Sheorey) smoking in a bathroom; the hilarious Newton moment in Cuba (don’t ask!); the nod to Cabaret in a musical scene set in a nightclub called The Bob Fosse; and the caricature of a loudmouthed, drunken boor who begins a conversation with K by slurring, “Arre, aap zyaada baat nahin karte. Lagta hai sochne waale types ho?” (So familiar! This could be a swipe at mainstream critics or at viewers who turn inverse snobbery into an art form by puffing their chests out and saying "Hum toh films sirf entertainment ke liye dekhte hain".) All this is the work of a director who knows how to have fun even while he exorcises a few personal demons, which is clearly what Kashyap is doing here.
I’ll probably never be a John Abraham fan, but apart from an unintentional chuckle-out-loud moment early on (desperately feigning intensity, he hollers “What’s loving your wife got to do with smoking?!”), he doesn’t do anything particularly wrong here, which is as much as I expect from him. What’s more interesting is the way Kashyap uses Abraham’s alpha-male screen image to discomfit the viewer, to sweep the carpet out from under our feet. An early scene juxtaposes him admiring his physique in a mirror with a shot of emaciated concentration-camp victims from Schindler’s List; later, there will be another chilling gas-chamber connection, and by the film’s end the hunky Abraham persona has been considerably deglamorised. Which is why it’s a bit incongruous that the Bipasha-John song (superb though it is) comes on after the credits roll.
After watching No Smoking, I’ve been thinking a lot about Tarsem Singh’s underappreciated 2000 film The Cell, with its sci-fi premise of a “coma-therapy psychologist” (Jennifer Lopez) entering the mind of a serial killer in an attempt to discover the location of his last victim. Unlike in the usual serial-killer film, there is no physical threat to the protagonist here; the killer has already been apprehended and is in a comatose state. The threat comes from what your mind can make your body believe, and this danger is what the Lopez character must face.
No Smoking has a few obvious things in common with The Cell. Both movies use hypnotic, unsettling visuals to explore the mental landscapes of disturbed people. (The look of the prayogshala scenes in No Smoking reminded me of the scenes set inside the killer’s mind in The Cell.) Both movies are heavily (and often magnificently) stylised, which inevitably leads to the all-argument-ends-here criticism that goes “all style, no substance” or “it looks very impressive and beautiful, but where’s the story/what’s it trying to say?” Both are largely unconcerned with the “real world”, so much so that one flaw in both films is that the waking-life scenes are half-heartedly done; the director doesn’t seem too interested in them.
Both movies also suffer from star presence. As Baradwaj Rangan points out in his excellent review of No Smoking, many viewers will walk into the hall thinking this film is standard popcorn fare, because that’s what you associate John Abraham with. But it’s equally true that Abraham’s very presence will reflexively turn off a certain type of “serious viewer”, much the same way as Jennifer Lopez’s presence in The Cell turned off a lot of people who are pre-programmed to dislike her or any project she is associated with.
Also – and it may be too early to say this – the critical reception given to both films is similar, suggesting a timid, safety-first attitude to movie-watching. Roger Ebert was one of the few critics who championed The Cell when it released, and I liked this bit from his review:
We live in a time when Hollywood shyly ejects weekly remakes of dependable plots, terrified to include anything that might confuse the dullest audience member. The new studio guidelines prefer PG-13 cuts from directors, so now we get movies like "Coyote Ugly" that start out with no brains and now don't have any sex, either. Into this wilderness comes a movie like "The Cell," which is challenging, wildly ambitious and technically superb, and I dunno: I guess it just overloads the circuits for some people.Mentioning that Tarsem Singh is of Indian origin, Ebert writes:
Tarsem comes from a culture where ancient imagery and modern technology live side by side. In the 1970s, Pauline Kael wrote that the most interesting directors were Altman, Scorsese and Coppola because they were Catholics whose imaginations were enriched by the church of pre-Vatican II, while most other Americans were growing up on Eisenhower's bland platitudes. Now our whole culture has been tamed by marketing and branding, and mass entertainment has been dumbed down. Is it possible that the next infusion of creativity will come from cultures like India, still rich in imagination, not yet locked into malls?“Rich in imagination, not yet locked into malls” is highly debatable, as anyone who has experienced life in an Indian city will know. Some of the reactions I’ve seen to No Smoking are equally indicative of a lack of imagination, and a simplistic idea of what a good film “must be”. I’m not saying No Smoking is unblemished – as I mentioned before, the real-world scenes are half-heartedly done, and the second half goes on for too long, much like the second half of Kashyap’s still-unreleased Paanch did – but it’s a film I’m glad a director had the talent, courage and resources to make.
P.S. Time hasn’t permitted it, but I’ve been wanting to do a series called “Favourite Films I feel Protective/Defensive About”. Included here would be movies that rank very highly on my personal list, but which I feel awkward bringing up in the film-buff’s equivalent of Polite Society – because these films have been vehemently dismissed by a majority of respected critics. Occupying a high position on this list would be films that are vulnerable to the “all style, no substance” accusation that I’ve grown increasingly suspicious of – films by the great visual artists such as Brian DePalma, for instance. And of course The Cell, a film I have a real soft spot for.