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South Asia Monitor
Smoking Screen
By Gautaman Bhaskaran
South Asia Editor
Smoking screen

Cinema's power to move and mould men is awesome. Actors play facilitators and propagators of this power, and when India's Federal Health Minister, Anbumani Ramadoss, carried out a long campaign some months ago to ban smoking on the screen and even succeeded in doing so, he certainly had a point. Film heroes and heroines who essayed smokers often set hard-to-resist examples for especially their younger fans. The act was what mattered, not its consequences. Neither the money spent on cigarettes nor the terribly ruinous effect they had on health appeared on the radar of all those who idolised the men and women puffing away on the screen.

Humphrey Bogart, one of Hollywood's endearing icons who by his sheer presence turned ordinary films into riveting classics ("The Maltese Falcon," "Casablanca," and others), drove his fans to delirious heights with his smoke rings that he blew into the air. The nicotine stick shadowed Bogart on the screen, and off it, something that he could not live without. He carried off some of his best scenes with a cigarette dangling between his lips. Never had roll of poison looked so cool. But in the end, it brought him a painful and premature death. He was only 57 when cancer killed him. It was the same sad story with two Marlboro men, Wayne McLaren and David McLean, whose tough persona on billboards and other forms of advertisements had encouraged hundreds of teens to start smoking in an attempt to look and feel macho.

In India, it was very common to see actors such as Shahrukh Khan, Amitabh Bachchan and Tamil superstar Rajnikanth light a cigarette often not really to take a puff as it was to make a statement. Young boys copied it with gusto only to drag the smoke right into their lungs with style threatening to snuff out life.

Among actresses, a smoking Penelope Cruz ("Vicky Cristina Barcelona") or a Pamela Anderson ("Barb Wire") or a Sandra Bullock ("In Love and War," "The Net," "A Time to Kill") or a Demi Moore ("The Juror," "Now and Then") or a Sharon Stone ("Casino," "Diabolique") mesmerised girls. Stone's crossing and uncrossing of legs in "Basic Instinct" could have looked a lot less saucy had she not reached out for a cigarette. The smoky aura that engulfed her made her all the more tantalising for women.

Research has concluded that many teens take up smoking after they see their favourite stars looking rugged or sexy with a cigarette. The American Journal of Public Health, considered the Bible of community wellbeing, found after a detailed three-year survey some time ago that smoking in movies was undeniably linked to boys and girls taking up the habit early in life. Usually it began as an image building, confidence boosting exercise: boys wanted to smoke to look smart in order to impress girls, and girls believed that the smoke they blew was a sign of empowerment, a freedom of expression, even an affirmation of sexual liberation.

So Ramadoss was not being exactly paranoid when he piloted a law to prevent actors from lighting up on the screen. Rajnikanth's famous antics with the cigarette had to stop. Khan had to build his body and strip to his waist to make up for what he or his directors may have considered a loss of "manliness." However, the law was recently turned down by the Supreme Court. It was in force only for a few months.

In India, with a predominantly large young population which looks at cinema stars as demi-gods (Rajnikanth's wooden cut-outs are anointed with milk and honey every time his film opens), the tobacco majors see a lucrative market. And they find that they can easily expand it through the screen. With the West increasingly hostile to the cigarette and branding the smoker an outcaste, Big Tobacco has turned its attention to developing nations like India, where a growing middleclass with money to spare for fun can be easily tempted into nicotine addiction. Stars are willing to smoke or endorse cigarettes in movies, thus embellishing the fag with fascination.

It is this glamourisation that must be checked – which Ramadoss tried in vain. Time was when mostly villains smoked in Indian films. Now with heroes and heroines puffing away stylishly and seductively, the line between the good and the bad appears blurred. Maybe Ramadoss over-played himself when he tried a blanket instead of a selective ban. However, it is imperative that actors show greater restraint before lighting up and fuelling the fire of desire.



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Gautaman Bhaskaran is a veteran film critic and writer who has covered Cannes and other major international festivals, like Venice, Berlin, Montreal, Melbourne, and Fukuoka over the past two decades. He has been to Cannes alone for 15 years. He has worked in two of India’s leading English newspapers, The Hindu and The Statesman, and is now completing an authorized biography of India’s auteur-director, Adoor Gopalakrishnan. Penguin International will publish the book, whose research was funded by Ford Foundation.

 

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