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The Smoking Screen!
By Gautaman Bhaskaran
South Asia Editor
Humphrey Bogart died of lung cancer.

Once Humphrey Bogart seduced women through his smoke rings. In a movie like "Casablanca," much of this Hollywood star's playboy persona came from the cigarette he held between his fingers. That the tobacco stick finally finished him is something that all his fans, especially female, would want to blow it away with the smoke. Bogart died of lung cancer, and the world is much wiser today than it was then.

However, cigarette still plays a disturbingly major part on the screen, and continues to be a symbol of not just masculinity but also female empowerment. We all remember Sharon Stone's fag play in "Basic Instinct," that women copied with glee, hoping that the stick between their lips would kick up their confidence, boost their image and help them look all the more sexually alluring. This precisely is the problem, of stars pushing not just cigarette sales but also a concept that is deadly.

In India, time was when only villains or vamps smoked. They were bad people in any case, not worth aping. The larger society was not unduly perturbed by this, for it knew that the young would not like to transform themselves into evil, unlovable figures, reeking of tobacco, teeth all stained and health all set to ruin.

However, at some point, tobacco majors elbowed out of a more aware and conscious West turned their attention to the developing world. India, with its rapidly rising population, made up of a 60% youth component, seemed an ideal market. And the companies unpacked their cartons on the streets, and they thought up of a novel way to tempt teens to take to tobacco. Why, of course, films. If popular heroes could be seen with fags, the image would send an irresistible message to young boys and girls, and studies have shown that smoking is a habit that usually forms in one's teens.

So when Tamil superstar Rajnikant played with cigarettes in "Muthu" (also seen in South Korea and Japan), the picture was extremely evocative. And impressionable, young minds concluded that if the hero — not the villain — could smoke, it must be perfectly legitimate to do so.

It is in this context that India's Health Minister, Anbumani Ramadoss, pushed the Federal Government to pass the Cigarette and Other tobacco Products Act. However, his repeated appeals to movie stars to refrain from on-screen smoking have gone largely unheeded. The excuse or reason has been "creative liberty." On June 30, the Goa Bench of the Bombay High Court issued a notice to megastar Amitabh Bachchan and others for allegedly violating the Anti-Tobacco Act. The Goa-based anti-tobacco organisation, National Organisation for Tobacco Eradication, filed this case after billboards showing Bachchan smoking a cigar were put up on a highway.

A couple of weeks before the case was filed, another Bollywood star and heartthrob of millions, Aamir Khan, made a public announcement through his blogs that he had begun smoking again because of work pressure. The fact that he went public with what was a private affair arouses my suspicion that Big Tobacco is back to its tricks, which are getting more novel.

The most dangerous thing about Khan's "disclosure" is that it will encourage boys and girls to pick up the poison stick to try and beat stress! And children have enough of it, given the highly competitive atmosphere they grow up in. Most of them live through their childhood without quite enjoying the pleasures of childhood: they are pushed to achieve, to perform, not really to learn or savour or enjoy.

In May this year, The Hindustan Times, a leading Indian newspaper, front-paged a picture of another Bollywood star, 'King Khan' Shahrukh Khan, smoking in full public view at the much-hyped Indian Premier League cricket match series. Tobacco reported kills more than a million people in India alone every year, besides causing innumerable diseases. The economy suffers. These are well documented, and need no elaboration. But how do we tackle this menace? Ramadoss told the last World Conference on Tobacco and Health in the USA: "One of the easiest ways to bring down the number of children and young people getting initiated into tobacco use in India, without any budgetary allocation for this public health exercise, is to remove the depiction of tobacco use in films and TV."

He was right, because if showing smoking on the screen was harmful, the glamorisation of it was even more so. The ill effects of asking stars to smoke on the screen have been analysed, and the finding leaves nobody in doubt. A 2003 study made by the World Health Organization and the Indian Ministry of Health and Family Welfare revealed that 76% of Indian movies showed cigarette smoking. This study also concluded that 52.2% of adults in India who began puffing in their teens were influenced by movies. A similar study in 2004-5 demonstrated that on-screen depiction of tobacco use had become more aggressive with the percentage shooting up to 89. Of these, 75 percent involved lead actors.

India makes 1000-odd films a year, and 60 million people watch them in theatres, and another 70 million on television. So 130 million men, women and children see Bachchan and his ilk puff at poison. But many of those who see on the screen tobacco turn into ash in a haze of smoke do not understand that cigarette is lethal. Maybe, they do not even care, hypnotised as they are by the image of their favourite stars blowing rings in the air.

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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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