Frankly, I haven’t heard many, even in the die-hard cinephile circle, talk about Anurag Kashyap’s 2007 neo-noir film No Smoking. Having faced a barrage of hindrances and obstacles to the release of his first two films, Paanch (2003) and Black Friday (2004), Kashyap’s third directorial venture, No Smoking, managed to reach theatres without any hassles. However, what was talked about much was how the movie differed compared to other films from the Bollywood mainstream. Even though such different, path-breaking and courageous ventures were being appreciated, many found it difficult to digest No Smoking, which depicts the ordeal of a narcissistic individual who tries to quit smoking.
No Smoking revolves around John Abraham’s K, a narcissistic, self-obsessed and arrogant chainsmoker, who, despite persistent and restless appeals from his wife Anjali (Ayesha Takia), friends and well-wishers, never lets the habit go. Whenever we see John Abraham on screen, he is either lighting a cigarette or smoking one. He is constantly obsessed with how he looks, always wearing sunglasses and the most professional-looking suits. He pays zero regard to what the people around him think- he doesn’t care for his wife’s constant requests to quit smoking; in fact, he has the audacity to say “Go use the stairs,” to a septuagenarian lady in the elevator when he finds that his smoking suffocates her.
It is on Anjali’s threat of a divorce and the advice of his two close friends, played by Ranvir Shorey and Kiku Sharda, that K finally decides to consult a de-addiction-cum-rehabilitation center named Prayogshala. Prayogshala functions in a highly mysterious underground base in the streets of Mumbai, and is headed by an equally mysterious yet powerful Baba Bengali, played by Paresh Rawal, who emanates a sort of all-knowing, spiritual and sage-like persona. We see that the two friends who suggest Prayogshala to K were themselves smoking addicts, who were able to kick the habit, thanks to Baba Bengali and Prayogshala. The means through which this goal was achieved remains unknown for the first half of the film, even though we slowly come to the realization that their experiences were, in fact, harrowing.
K approaches Prayogshala with the laxity that he will be able to call it quits on the rehabilitation programme any time he would want to. However, things are not easy at the ominously functioning Prayogshala, where an all-seeing Baba Bengali keeps a close watch on his patients. We see Baba Bengali’s dominant and unforgiving nature when he gives nods to infamous German dictator Hitler, whom Bengali refers to as his ‘friend’. Bengali takes cues from Hitler’s MO to keep a watch on his patients and also to incarcerate them. Baba Bengali often quips that misfortune is destined to happen to those, who may try to smoke again after the de-addiction programme. Such unfortunate incidents happen quite surprisingly and quickly, that it only takes a fraction of a second for the incident to befall them. These events manifest in the form of the death of a close one or an infliction of pain on oneself. In his quest to find escape from Bengali’s convoluted mind games, K embarks on a cat-and-mouse chase with the domineering chief of Prayogshala, and often at times, with his own mind. What Kashyap manages to wonderfully sketch is the utterly confusing psyche of K, who in his attempt to quit chain smoking, from which a release is often difficult, ends up in another chain of submissiveness, surveillance and restraint, a chain from which a release or escape is equally difficult.
In most of the scenes, Baba Bengali bears an uncanny resemblance to the Big Brother, the all-seeing, dominant and powerful entity in George Orwell’s famous novel 1984. In the film, the viewer is treated to the various mechanisms through which Baba Bengali keeps a close watch on his patients. There is an infinitely large repository of VHS tapes, which have recorded each and every incident and happenings in the lives of the patients of Prayogshala. Bengali often warns K that he will always keep an eye on his new patient, much to K’s ridicule and ignorance.
Even for us, the viewers, it appears to be a question of practicality- a question echoed when K asks Sharda’s character- “How can they stare at a person’s life for 24 hours?” It is this substantive, if not complete, rejection of practicality that the director intended to employ in No Smoking, and that is the reason why after viewing, one may be left with more questions than answers. The opening shot of the movie shows K incarcerated in Siberia, surrounded by bulky, Russian-speaking soldiers. We are not certain as to whether the events that unfold in such a mysterious setting are happening in the real world or in K’s head. Throughout the film, the director leaves it to the audience to deduce which events are happening in the real world and what may actually be delusions in K’s convoluted psyche. As a motif, we see John Abraham repeatedly emerging out of a bathtub, in what appears to be K’s return to the real world or, even confusingly, into his own mind.
No Smoking is one of those rare films in Bollywood that can warrant multiple interpretations by different viewers of the film. For one viewer, No Smoking may have been a journey through the complicated mind and psychology of a smoking addict who intends to kick the habit. It may be a depiction of the travails of a chain smoker who finds it difficult to quit and the mental toll this process has on him. For another viewer, No Smoking may have been Kashyap’s way of cinematically and metaphorically depicting an authoritarian and dominant regime, where free will and freedom of expression may seem to be a privilege granted, often as an instrument to further the regime’s cause. This is where No Smoking, yet again, draws heavy inspiration, thematically, from 1984, where free will is constrained by an ominous and dominating totalitarian leader.
Considering the controversial and unconventional filmmaker that Anurag Kashyap is, the second interpretation seems preferable. Kashyap’s debut venture, Paanch, fell prey to CBFC’s scissors and never found a theatrical release. His second outing, the critically acclaimed Black Friday, had to wait three years to hit the silver screen. In fact, No Smoking was Kashyap’s first picture to have a theatrical release without any hurdle. No Smoking may have been the director’s depiction of this authoritarian regime where even cinema, as an artistic form of expression, is suppressed and restrained. Baba Bengali’s allegiance to Hitler also reminds us of this repressive nature of authority. Kashyap wonderfully weaves a Prayogshala-centered world, modeled on the lines of Orwell’s Big Brother and Hitler’s Germany, where dissent and questions that challenge the authority are heavily frowned upon and struck down.
Interpretations aside, No Smoking was a brave directorial venture by Anurag Kashyap, who only further cemented his position as my favorite Bollywood director. No Smoking is not a perfect film, and not the director’s best (his best was yet to come), but it was brave in every way. Kashyap gave a new and entirely unexpected spin on the ‘addict-quits-habit’ storytelling trope and laced it with elements of a psychological thriller, a neo-noir picture and even with some politically critical undertones. It isn’t a surprise that the film failed miserably at the box office, while internationally, it received considerably positive reviews. The film’s technique of non-linear narratives and the fantastical use of dreams, reality and illusion was something unheard of and not experimented at the time. No Smoking’s failure was a partial testament to how our audiences were, at that time, inept at savoring and appreciating such unconventional storytelling and filmmaking, of which Kashyap has become a staunch advocate. No Smoking, evidently, was a picture that was way ahead of its time. I constantly wonder how this film would have been successful, appreciated and analyzed, had it been produced and released now.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.