Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Anurag Kashyap's No Smoking and Tarsem Singh's The Cell: some notes

I watched Anurag Kashyap ’s No Smoking late on Friday, just before going out of town for the weekend, and was very impressed by it. Though I had to review it for Tehelka, it wasn’t on a very pressing deadline and this meant I had time to think about the film for a while. For good or for bad, it also meant that I ended up scanning a couple of other reviews (something I normally avoid doing until I’ve written my own), and I wasn’t surprised at the way it was savaged by most newspapers. This is a very strange film, difficult to process even if you’ve seen and enjoyed movies like Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream, which have similar addled-mind visuals. And if you go in expecting a linear or realistic (in the deadest sense of that word) narrative or because of the Bipasha Basu item number, your brain cells could easily short-circuit by the halfway point.

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.

The Cell

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.


  1. You will probably never be a John Abraham fan???? I stopped reading this review there.

    Seriously, good to know and now I want to see it.

    Quitters Inc, Stephen King: The main character, Richard ("Dick") Morrison, is a middle-aged man who would like to quit smoking. A friend advises him to go to the Quitters, Inc. firm for treatment because they have already helped him quit. The firm is said to have a 98% success rate with their clients and guarantees that once the person has enrolled for treatment, he may no longer smoke

    Morrison soon finds out about the brutal tactics used by Quitters, Inc., which include administering non-fatal electric shocks to his family members if he is caught smoking a cigarette, and that these electric shocks would get more intense, and eventually include him, if he continued to smoke. Morrison's counselor even reveals what happens after the ninth infraction, which would result in the breaking of his mentally disabled son's arms. The counselor, Vic Donatti, states that if Morrison commits a tenth infraction, he would become part of "the unregenerate two percent" and then places a gun on his desk. "But even the unregenerate two percent never smoke again. We guarantee it."

    With some difficulty, Morrison is able to quit, with only one slip. His wife is subjected to the "treatment" but, since she also wants Morrison to not smoke, she forgives him. Morrison, however, now must deal with other aspects of the firm's brutal tactics. His counselor gives him a prescription for some diet pills, and tells him that if he does not lose the weight he has gained as consequence of quitting smoking, then his wife's finger will be cut off. Morrison loses the weight, but realizes that the friend who sent him to Quitters, Inc. has not been so lucky... his wife lost her finger

  3. Felix: I know, saw that earlier. It's mentioned on the Wikipedia entry for the film as well.

  4. tarsem and anurag went to the same college in delhi in hansraj

  5. Jai: You have no idea how vindicated I feel after reading your review of No Smoking. I have almost been hounded by people (on my blog and in "real" life) for having liked the movie, so much so that I was beginning to wonder if there was something more wrong with me than I knew. :) So, thank you. Here is my take on it:

    PS: Missed the item number after the credits since I left the theater. Maybe that was a good thing since it might have diluted my opinion of the movie

  6. Check out Paprika by Satoshi Kon. Watched it only a few days ago and I was reminded of the Cell. You'll love it.

  7. about the bob fosse/cabaret thing: i can't help thinking (because i haven't yet seen no smoking) that there must be a nod to all that jazz as well in the naming of the whatdjyacallit. no? the 'show time folks!' mantra against the surreal nature of what punctuates that film, as well as the illness and coming to terms with it theme that underlies both films.

  8. Space Bar: that didn't occur to me, probably because I saw All that Jazz a very long time ago, and it didn't leave much of an impression. But sounds likely.

    ArSENik: actually that song is superb, and the picturisation isn't completely at odds with the rest of the film - there's a hint of Bipasha playing the Devil, who now has possession of John's soul.

  9. Good work Jai! I am glad that 'No Smoking' is appreciated for what it is, and not judged by standard 'formulaic' clauses set up by our esteemed film critics.

    I also read Baradwaj Rangan's review and as always it was excellent. I liked Kashyap's 'Black friday' and after seeing the latest offering , you cannot help but respect the man for his innovation and guts.

    He is also outspoken about the kind of films we make today and I believe the man has a point.Yes! 'No Smoking' can seem self glorifying at times, That however does not take out its bold and sometimes almost phantasmagoric narrative.The film is not for the sensibilities of everyone.I don't also think that standard cliches like 'genre' applies here , it is just cinema potrayed in an untraditional non-linear way and the director should have all the authority to make the film as he wants.

    You said that you can never be a fan of 'John Abraham'. Fine! but the man has to be applauded for even trying out such a movie. I believe that Mr. Abraham is less pretentious than some of our other actors . He has never said that he is a great or even good actor but always stresses about the need to improve.

    For that matter I have never seen such modesty in Aamir or SRK ,(however you can argue that SRK loves to play to the gallery).

    On your review of the 'Cell' , James Berardinelli also said nice things about the movie apart from Roger Ebert. The cell was good and I wonder why Tarsem Singh never made another movie after that.

  10. ...the man has to be applauded for even trying out such a movie.

    Shwet: true. It's a brave choice and I liked some of the things he said about No Smoking in his interviews. I think most people associated with the project are resigned to the idea that it will arouse strong negative reactions from most critics, but they're still glad they did it, and they know what they were trying to do.

    Just saw Berardinelli's review of The Cell, and though he was reserved in his praise I was pleasantly surprised - because he's a reviewer who usually doesn't show much patience with the great visual movies. Has a bit of a chip on his shoulder about a film needing to be "meaningful" on some obvious level. (I think he's trashed nearly everything DePalma has done in the last 20 years with the exception of The Untouchables, which was his safest, most conventional, most easy-to-appreciate film.)

    P.S. I said I'll probably never be a J A fan - and I was talking purely about his acting skills, not his career choices. But I would agree that he's the sort of actor who has a chance of improving with time - seems to have the requisite humility/willingness to try new things. Let's see.

  11. Jai: Yes , on that level you are right about Berardinelli trying to find something meaningful in most fims. Seems a lot like our Taran Adarsh , Kazmi and the others.

    However I feel that as a reviewer even if he has selective biases, he does a more than decent job of still analysing the films.His reviews do have some depth , more than some others, though clearly he is no Roger Ebert.

    However he reviwed 'Lord Of the Rings' as one of the best ever. Although I too love the triology for it is a visual treat and cause it gave you an excuse to be enthralled by three hours of frivolity. I was surprised at the attention he paid to the message of the movie and called "Peter Jackson" a master craftsman.

    I never personally thought Tolkien to be that literally important as obviously Berardinelli and some others think.

  12. Though I am not an overtly huge Bipasha worshiper (aesthetically speaking), that just sounds too kinky to miss. Will youtube it.

  13. Jai, damn good review! I too loved the movie and was expecting you to say the same too. I somehow felt lost in the last 20-30 mins though...after Ayesha Takia's "treatment". I felt it might all end up being a dream, but it was quite ambiguous after that. Nevertheless, a very bold and interesting movie and needs to be commended for trying out a new style!

  14. Hmmm... I almost agree with you on the film. In almost every frame that veers away from reality, you can see that Kashyap has seen and understood his cinema and tries hard to work that understanding into this film. However, my problem with it is that the blemishes often overshadow the successes. I guess one real issue for me was that the scripting just wasn't strong enough. So at points when the visual styling was at its highest, I often felt the content was at its lowest. I'm not saying this in the "all style no substance" meaning. Rather, what I mean is that Kashyap fails to anchor the film in a realistic, relatable framework and reference points, which means that the excursions into surreality are free-wheeling moments rather than steadily bridged jumps in imagination. Still, it is an enigmatic film that needs to be seen and decided about individually.

  15. No Smoking left me with an acute sense of unease and discomfort. Yes, I could not find anything that was wrong with this film... anurag "told us what he wanted to... the way he wanted to". He wanted, at least for those of us who would understand its subtext, to be haunted by the film. Not being able to forget it. His absurd (real) world is Kafkaesque but without any windows open to life. No Smoking is arrogantly dark. I wonder what one is supposed to do when confronted with the absurd realities of the "system" that the director weaved brilliantly through a series of metaphors. The film is a prolonged nightmare with almost no breather. Of course, I was not looking for a way-out from Anurag but could not he justify life a little more? Or does he seriously think one has to either die fighting the "system" or live a soul-less life succumbing to it?

  16. yeah hav seen the promos of the film and now your review. having liked them both makes a strong case for watching the film that i will sure do.

  17. Thank you for this review, Jai. This movie needs reviews like these ... film reviewers in newspapers ought to visit a prayogshala and be forced to read a lot more and see more works of cinema before they are allowed to review movies again.

    I probably never would be an Abraham fan too, but he simply rocks in this one. And more than that, I appreciate the fact that he signed a film like this in spite of his hardcore commercial background.

    What's most hilarious is about how reviewers have gone on to write about how the film is on the perils of smoking ... the actual film is about an absurd world in the Kafkaesque sense, extreme fundamentalism with a nod towards Big Brother and 1984 and about an individual who wishes to go against the norm with 'nobody telling him what to do', but then it's the norm that takes him under its hold and tries to show him his place.

  18. "No Smoking" is one of the most disturbing, haunting films I have ever seen. Unforgettable. Hats off to Anurag Kashyap. And congratulations to John on his sensitive performance - there are so many scenes where the confusion, pain, bewilderment of K's character are conveyed not through dialogues but through John's body language and expressions. I can't wait for the DVD to come out.

  19. reviewers in newspapers ought to visit a prayogshala and be forced to read a lot more and see more works of cinema before they are allowed to review movies again

    Raj: in general, I'd agree that many newspaper reviewers out here haven't seen enough good films (from different branches of filmmaking). But I also have to say that it's equally valid for an informed movie-watcher to think No Smoking is a mediocre film and to express this in a well-argued review. While I'm happy that people are standing up for this film, I'm a bit disturbed by some of the smug counter-criticism that runs along the lines "if you didn't like No Smoking, that means you don't know about cinema".

    But yes, reducing the film to an "anti-smoking" message movie is laughable, and plain lazy.

  20. ...could not he justify life a little more? Or does he seriously think one has to either die fighting the "system" or live a soul-less life succumbing to it?

    Sayantan: maybe he has a worldview that doesn't involve justifying life or trying for a brighter perspective on things. We need to respect that (or at least accept it) and then go on to judge the film on its own terms. Also, I think your "acute sense of unease and discomfort" (something which many viewers would have felt, including those who savaged the film afterwards) says a lot about the film's success in doing what it was trying to do.

    Btw, liked your post a lot.

  21. Sangeetha: I also thought the last 20 minutes stretched on for too long. And frankly, I'm still not sure that it wasn't all a dream!

  22. Intelligent words about intelligent cinema. Shows why I keep coming back to Jabberwock

  23. Oh yes I agree, and that too is happening courtesy this whole clique-ism that seems to form in Bollywood.

    Eventually, a review has to be an individual opinion, I myself have not been able to like a number of films that have been universally heralded as classics ...

    Yet, all NS reviews I have read, two exceptions being Baradwaj Rangan and Sarita Tanwar (MiD-Day) have either been lazy reviews that say the movie could have given its noble message in a more simplistic form or are personal agendas (Khalid Mohammed launching a vitriolic attack on Kashyap and so on).

  24. Chaila- Bihari: *giggle* thanks.

    Raj: I know, that's something I should have mentioned in the previous comment. The problem with all the negative reviews I've seen so far isn't that they are negative but that you don't get the impression that the reviewer has tried to engage with the film. It's more like kneejerk anti-intellectualism. If, say, Baradwaj had disliked the film and then written a negative review matching his usual standards, I would have appreciated that every bit as I do the review he actually wrote.

    Btw, there are a few other positive reviews out there - Nandini Ramnath's in Time Out for instance, and Manju Sara Rajan's in Mint.

  25. >> I'm a bit disturbed by some of the smug counter-criticism that runs along the lines "if you didn't like No Smoking, that means you don't know about cinema".

    *nods aggressively* I concur with that Jabberwock, and I'm glad someone said that. Also, the notion that appreciation of a film like No Smoking (or any kind of film for that matter) has to be preceded by a "history" simply beats me. (Of course, I don't mean to suggest that any sort of "history" doesn’t add much to one's appreciation of arts in general.)

    I loved the film myself, a brilliantly filmed dreamy meditation about the "tussle" between individual freedom and collective consciousness among other things.

  26. I have a burning question about this film. But asking it here would involve posting spoilers. Help?

    And the curtain came down before the item number. :(

  27. NO SMOKING what a rubbish film ..waste of dollars $$$... jab we met is better anurag kashyap is going the RGV way totally irrelevant with the film audiences
    only pseudo intellectuals will like his movies

  28. Anon: yes yes, of course. What terrible people we pseudo-intellectuals are. We put ourselves through endless hours of torture watching these rubbish films just so we can tell people we liked them. Immense self-loathing proliferates.

  29. u mean profligates :)
    what to do hum to aise he hain

  30. A person who can't even use his name while commenting must be having tons of fortitude.

    Anon: 'Tum Jaise ho waise hi Raho' Tum Badal gaye to duniya ka kya hoga.

  31. sort of a non-sequitur, this. I pasted the wiki bit and then scrolled to the bottom and saw the snippet about the link between the story and the film plot. When I read the plot synopsis, I felt (again) about Stephen K the way you feel about de Palma - proud and defensive. How many plots derive directly from or at least reference King. And yet the man, one of the finest observers of human nature around is labelled a schlock-n-splat penny-dreadful hack. Trigger finger on ctrl+v - sorry amigo!

  32. I am glad you wrote this way about The Cell. I think it is one of those films I would always be highly defensive about. Or so I wish. It uses the hyponotic jaggery of visuals that takes the viewer in. Good post!

  33. Very happy to know that you have liked the movie.

    I do not understand this general feeling of people: If you like No Smoking and hate Om Shanti Om(which is just an extended collection of gags and references) you are a pseudo-intellectual being.

    I totally agreed with you when you said any good film is a “fun” film, whether it’s made by Manmohan Desai or Ingmar Bergman.

    Moreover cinema is personal experience and shouldn't be swayed by general opinion.


  34. Have you seen this movie called the Cube? You might find it interesting.

  35. Hey Jai,

    This is a very nice review of No Smoking. I stumbled on your blog thanks to DP's link of your Jodha Akbar review. But the more I'm exploring, the more glad I am that I found this blog.

    No Smoking has been so thoroughly thrashed by people whose business it is to understand movies, that such reviews really become important. I'll put a link on this on my own blog.


  36. And absolutely agree with your comment to Raj. No liking No Smoking as a serious film watcher is no crime. It's just that the reviews should have been more intelligent that they have been (mainstream).

  37. i have no idea what went worng... but though i liked the director's approach to the idea of smoking....
    "I DIDN'T UNDERSTAND THE MOVIE"....i liked the beginning and was curious to know what would happen... but swear.. didn't understand what it was.May be had to be moer intellectual in my views...i would highly appreciate it if anyone could explain to me what it was all about...

    Chikku :)

  38. Hey , why no mention about the music of No Smoking? i believe this was easily one of the best works by Vishal bharadwaj. Loved it both for its orchestration and Gulzar's poetry.

  39. Dev D is a modern-day love story. Dev, Paro and Chanda of Dev D reflect the sensibilities, conflicts, aggression, independence, free thought, exuberance and recklessness of the youth of today. A generation that is jammed between eastern roots and western sensibilities.
    Dev D is set in the rustic and colourful Punjab and also explores the dingy, morbid, dark underbelly of Delhi. It takes us from sprawling mustard fields to a riot of neon; from Punjabi ballads to mayhem in rock.
    The film stars Abhay Deol as Dev, Mahi Gill as Paro & Kalki as Chanda.
    It's been written and directed by Anurag Kashyap and produced by UTV Spotboy.
    To know more log onto

  40. Great review. No Smoking was awesome movie to watch if only to see the treatment of the Stephen King story (starts off in a similar vein but man does it take a big big detour) and the atmosphere that Kashyap manages to create. I love the decision of casting John Abraham. Similar to the casting of Brad Pitt in Fight club; to keep the viewer distracted from what is about to come.

    The movie "cell" is of course a visual tour de force. Its one of the rare modern movies which is able to take us into the nightmare world so convincingly. This used to be much more common in some of the earlier films like those of Resnais, Bunuel, Angelopoulous etc. The only gripe I had with the film was the unimaginative plot, which exists only to act a s a platform for Tarsem to show off his visual skills. Heck, even the plot of Nightmare on elm street would fit perfectly for the film