THE PRICE OF FUME
Anurag Kashyap nudges the Indian Art Film into brave, new territory, but at the (perhaps inevitable) cost of alienating the mass audience.
NOV 4, 2007 – UNLESS A FUTURE FILMMAKER trains the camera on himself throughout the duration of his feature, I doubt we’ll see something as self-indulgent as No Smoking on the Indian screen — and I mean this as a serious, sincere compliment. Ever since the multiplexes opened up the possibilities of personal filmmaking — meaning, personal filmmaking that is, to some extent, viable on a commercial level — we’ve seen only teasing snatches of delivery on that early promise, most recently in Sriram Raghavan’s Johnny Gaddaar. This isn’t necessarily a judgment on these films; it’s simply an observation that entertaining an audience — that is, indulging someone other than the self — was, somewhere along the line, a consideration. It’s as if the people behind these films extended a hand of friendship to the people who watched their films, saying (without saying) that what’s about to unfold is a happy — or, more likely, unhappy — meeting point of what we want to create and what you would like to consume.
On the basis of his No Smoking, the only aspect of his hand Anurag Kashyap is interesting in extending to his audience is a raised middle finger. Not in the I-don’t-give-a-four-letter-word sense — at least, not entirely — but what unfolds here is simply what he wanted to make. If we want to see it, it’s because we want to experience what it’s like, for a couple of hours, to be inside his head. (And if that notion sounds like something that would leave Charlie Kaufman salivating — and has, perhaps, left him salivating, given his screenplay for Being John Malkovich — the reference isn’t terribly off the mark. No Smoking isn’t interested in telling a beginning-middle-end “story” so much as hurtling through byzantine rabbit-holes in search of great trippy truths, in the manner that Kaufman practically invented.) And had Kashyap not cast John Abraham as his lead, and had he managed to wangle out of incorporating a Bipasha Basu item number, what he’s made would have been easier to recognise — and categorise — as the next big step in the Indian Art Film.
Because Indian Art Film isn’t the first thing that sprang to mind when we saw the dapper Abraham and the bootylicious Basu strutting their stuff in the television promos. When we think Art Film, we think Rahul Bose and Konkona Sen Sharma, and with them in the cast, our minds are automatically primed for a deep engagement with the material, and it’s a safe bet that someone who simply wanted a couple of hours of eye candy to go with his popcorn would not rush into a movie hall screening this material. I’m not saying that this is fair, but, people — especially in the cinema — do come with labels, and a lot of the viewers whom I sat and watched No Smoking with ended up severely disgruntled with Kashyap’s label-busting effort. (Existential? Metaphysical? Surreal? Sci-fi? All? The only labels you couldn’t affix to No Smoking are “mainstream” and “audience pleasing” and “commercial.”) And of course they were. It’s not unlike the promise of a Manmohan Desai romp turning into a slog through Mani Kaul territory.
Then again, why should we herd all of art cinema into Mani Kaul territory? If we broaden the concept of what makes for art cinema — as not just films that plod along engaging with, say, a shattering social reality, but also a cinema that’s a reflection of a person’s intense, personal art (ergo, “art cinema”) — couldn’t John Abraham be a part of this new universe? (After all, at one point, he’s analysed by a retro-futuristic device as “Specimen: Homo Sapiens/Category: Very Rich,” and who better to embody privileged manhood than Abraham?) Couldn’t the title sequence in such a film be unapologetic about its showy computerised trickery, with the credits vanishing into wisps of smoke? Couldn’t the film include a surreal bit that morphs into a mini-masala moment, as when chainsmoker K (the character that Abraham plays) finds himself in desolate, snowbound Siberia, desperate for a smoke, and lunges at a pack of cigarettes in the manner of a hero breaking a few rules of gravity to get at his loved one before the gun-toting villain gets there first? Couldn’t this film incorporate snatches of popular music across a diverse spectrum, from AR Rahman’s Ae ajnabi to Dean Martin’s Ain’t that a kick in the head?
Couldn’t such an Art Film throw around self-referentially in-jokey names like (screenwriter) Abbas Tyrewala, Gulzar and Vishal (as in, Bhardwaj)? Couldn’t it include a laugh-out-loud sitcom parody titled Kyonki Bachpan Bhi Kabhi Naughty Tha? Couldn’t it veer off on a tangent into the hyper-stylised world of Bob Fosse, toplined by an androgynous performer? And couldn’t it, unlike the traditional Art Film, completely reduce its characters to representational, stick-figure caricatures? (When K’s wife Anjali — nicely played by Ayesha Takia, who also does Lynchian double-duty as his secretary Annie — asks him to give up smoking, “Cigarette kyon nahin chhod dete?”, he responds, in a hilariously inept stab at giving himself a bit of dimensionality, “Jaise mere maa baap ne ek doosre ko chhod diya tha?” And after this refusal, all it takes for Anjali to decide to walk out on K is a game of inky-pinky-ponky between his cigarette carton and her wedding ring.)
And, yes, why should K and Anjali be defined as characters when they may not even be people — in the larger, dream-scale view of things? This is what I mean when I say that, with No Smoking, Kashyap has made a movie that — in all probability — only he can fully understand. Our interest with the film (during a first viewing), therefore — as was the case with, say, Maya Darpan or Persona, two art-cinema experiments wildly different from Kashyap’s effort in most respects except one, that their makers indulged themselves first, their potential audiences only later — lies primarily not on an interpretative or even an empathetic level (though reams of cyberspace are guaranteed to be devoted to nailing down solid answers to the film’s many vaporous mysteries), but simply on the level of engagement. Like any other art film, John Abraham or no John Abraham, the point here isn’t to understand or analyse (though these processes are, frankly, inevitable) so much as to engage — with the images, with the sound, with the intent, with the execution. Seen in that light, a conventional review or rating — on the scale of “rush to the theatre this very instant” to “preferably stay at home and watch paint dry” — is useless. If you’ve read this far, you know if you want to put yourself through No Smoking or not.
And if you do, here’s what you’ll see: the story of K trying to kick his nicotine addiction by enrolling himself in a hardcore programme engineered by Guru Baba Bengali (Paresh Rawal, relishing the opportunity to cut loose in something not made by Priyadarshan). Just how hardcore is this programme? So much, that the price for each subsequent cigarette (after signing up to quit) is a borderline-metaphorical punishment — family members could be subjected to asphyxiation (reflecting, at one shot, what the smoker has been doing slowly to them all this time), a finger could be chopped off (because, you know, if the smoker is not particularly bothered about the health of his body parts, well, why not have them removed?), and so on. (If you’re guessing that this same finger-wagger of a morality tale could have been narrated with far less abstraction, you’re probably right. But then, where’s the fun in that? I mean, which self-respecting art-filmmaker of today would want to shower his skills on a — swear-word alert — linear narrative?)
As for me, after my engagement with No Smoking, here’s what I took away — the image of K descending, Orpheus-like, into an apparently bottomless underworld (where Baba Bengali operates from); the shots of this underworld, this hell, being stained a nicotine-yellow, as if the bad habits of the smokers/sinners had left behind a lasting mark; the one-rupee coin that Baba Bengali requests as a fee juxtaposed with the change that a eunuch hurls into K’s car at a traffic light (and which he ignores, thus being stuck for change later on); the spectral visions that ripple past the screen as if spooks had gotten stuck in the theatre’s projection system, and what these eventually turn out to be; an early reference to the concentration-camp shower sequence in Schindler’s List being paralleled at a later stage, at a place overseen by a man who professes an affinity for Hitler; and, most memorably, the central conceit — drawing, I felt, not from Kafka (simply because K seems to be named after Josef K), but that other German writer, Goethe and his Faust — that hinges on the melodramatic exaggeration that the price you pay (to the Devil) for doing what you really want to do is your soul. And, in most other cases, isn’t this Faustian bargain — between artist and audience — just another name for filmmaking?
Copyright Â©2007 The New Sunday Express