BY GAUTAM DEKA
‘No Smoking’ is a 2007 psychological/black comedy Bollywood film directed by Anurag Kashyap. The film is infamous for being a major financial and critical flop. It was made on a budget of 23 crores and collected a mere 3 crores at the Box Office, it received poor critical reception in India with film critic Rajeez Masand calling it an ‘extremely arrogant piece of work’ with an ‘intentionally incohesive screen-play’. The film did well abroad and has been played at several prestigious film festivals. In this article, I try to decipher the film and show how it is rife with meaning.
‘No Smoking’s protagonist is called ‘K’, like the protagonist in Franz Kafka’s 1925 book ‘The Trial’. ‘The Trial’ is a book about a man called Josef K who is arrested without any justification by a mysterious and remote body. ‘No Smoking’ takes its essence from the book (the protagonist is forcibly treated for a smoking addiction by a mysterious organization called ‘Prayogshaala’), where they differ is that in the book, Josef K’s crimes are never mentioned and he isn’t an explicitly unlikeable person. On the other hand, in the film, K is a narcissist and a class A asshole, and his transgression is very clear: smoking.
The fact that K is an unlikeable protagonist is significant, and does not make sense at first. If you want the audience to see how unfairly ‘K’ is treated and root for him, why would you want to make him unsympathetic?
Kashyap is trying to make the strongest moral case for individual liberty, his case being that even the person bereft of any moral character deserves their right to personal freedom. If you ask anyone at what point should one stop smoking, you would probably get responses like ‘when it starts affecting your health or your relationships’. In K’s case, his lungs are damaged and his wife is about to divorce him due to his chain-smoking and all his friends are concerned about him. It is K’s narcissism that stops him from listening to others. “Nobody tells me what to do,” he tells himself while preening at himself in the mirror. Kashyap builds a strong case against smoking. If there ever was a person you would want to use force on, it would be K, maybe even just to see him suffer.
When Anjali (K’s wife) tries to pin the blame of his addiction on his friend who introduced him to smoking, K abruptly says, “No one taught me to smoke, and when Abbas gave me a cigarette, the lighter was in my pocket.” K takes responsibility for his actions, isn’t ashamed of smoking, and is stubborn about not leaving it. He is unapologetic and defiant.
When Anjali leaves K, he finally decides to go to this mysterious rehabilitation centre called the ‘Prayogshaala’. The Prayogshaala has a 100% success rate; people who come out of this centre have an ear machine stuck to their ears - a symbol of their domestication. All the workers in the centre wear Burqas; their bodies are covered from head to toe as if suggesting that there is absolutely no difference between all these workers; their individualism is lost under the garb.
The cult-like figure who runs the centre is a religious fundamentalist called ‘Baba Bengali’. Kashyap rails against several forms of authority: Baba Bengali is a symbol for both fundamentalist dogma and the fascist state. Baba Bengali has files on everyone, his goons are everywhere and his patients are under observation 24/7. He even has his holy book which is hilariously called the ‘Cigarette Shastra’ (‘No Smoking’ shifts its tone back and forth from being a black comedy to a sombre psychological horror, which is one of the reasons I attribute to its poor critical reception in India).
Black sunglasses are a big motif in the film, everyone who spies for Baba Bengali wears a pair of black sunglasses, suggesting that they are blind to the ethical wrongdoing of their work. Baba Bengali is attracted to fascist ideologies, this becomes hilariously apparent when he says he was actually friends with Hitler. Baba Bengali has a picture of him in a car with Hitler, it’s ridiculous and is reminiscent of a similar scene in ‘The Shining’. ‘No Smoking’ embraces this ridiculousness, and has such surreal bits that are so out of sync with its tone, it creates discomfort in the viewer, much like a David Lynch film.
There are a lot of allusions to authoritarian states, as an authoritarian state is the antithesis of individualism. Baba employs Gas chambers to rid people of their smoking addictions. K is manhandled by Baba’s goons but he resists till the last moment. For K, his smoking is his identity. It is something that makes him who he is. He is an unsympathetic protagonist but a staunch individualist. In an earlier scene in the movie, we see K enter the lift and light up a cigarette. We see an old lady object to him smoking, and instead of obliging her request that he put out the cigarette, he asks the old lady to take the stairs.
Baba’s goons are everywhere but so strong is K’s addiction, he literally travels the world to find privacy and personal freedom. He fights this mysterious behemoth of an organization tooth and nail. Kashyap ends up being successful in his case, we empathize with K. We want him to have freedom. It does not matter whether the manifestation of that freedom is smoking cigarettes; by the end of the film, it is clear to the audience that snatching away a person’s personal freedom is snatching away their soul. By separating the cigarette from K, Baba separates K from his soul. In the end, we see a docile and demure K listening to his ecstatic wife. Ironically, Baba Bengali makes this point sufficiently evident with his motto “Aatma hain toh shareer ishwar hain, Aatma nahi toh shareer nishwar hain”. (As long as the soul is present, man is god. When the soul is absent, man is mortal). ‘No Smoking’ is a forgotten masterpiece that deserves your attention.