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Smoking on Screen: A Menace?

By: Arya Aiyappan
Friday, November 24, 2006
Smoking and cinema share a long inter-twined history of enduring relationship. The macho image of a hero tossing a lit cigar, cigarette or tobacco between his fingers and puffing out smoke at the camera connoted masculinity and heroism. Over the years when all icons are toppling down and replaced with new ones, smoking no longer connotes virility but an ignorance of the embryonic dangers. However isolating cinema as the springboard for all social perils is too juvenile a judgement. Mixed reactions have paved the way for a never-ending series of debates on the portrayal of smoking in cinema and its dire effects.

The statutory law imposed a ban on images of smoking in films and on television from August. The government banned smoking in public places and forbid tobacco firms' advertising, and promoting sports and games. The long hands of law not sparing the maestro Big B has filed cases against him for depiction of smoking in some advertisements. Depiction of smoking in films is the most telling form of advertising in the modern age. The film industry denounces it as absurd mockery vouchsafing of realism and freedom for artistic expression. As the debate ensues each party validates its point with the lawmakers calling attention to the fact that every year 800,000 Indians die from smoking-related diseases whereas filmmakers and actors uphold that cinema is not solely responsible for the death-defying evils in the society.

Cinema as a social vehicle for communication is commited to a social cause. In India film stars are demi-gods who dictate our lives through the screen images they represent. The glamorous world of showbiz magnetizes the juvenile younger generation who blindly emulate film heroes. The young impressionable minds can scarcely discern the difference between realism and fiction. Cigarette is a glamorous prop in cinema negatively influencing the spectators who watch them. In a survey conducted on films released during 1991 to 2002 practically three out of four movies depicted smoking in various forms. The King Khan of Bollywood Shahrukh Khan nearly smoked 109 times or more on screen and catching up with him celebrated Tamil Mannan Rajnikant has smoked 103 times!

Amitabh Bachchan, Shahrukh Khan, John Abraham, Kamal Hassan, Rajnikanth, Mammootty, Mohanlal, etc have all enacted smoking scenes in films as and when the story deems it necessary. Directors resort to the use of smoking scenes in films according to the plot, even if the protagonist is a hero or a heroine; Shabana Azmi in Godmother, Zeenat Aman in Hare Rama Hare Krishna, were pictured as smokers to lend depth and reality to the characters they essayed. 'Winston Churchill cannot be realistically represented without his trademark cigar'. On screen smoking connotes a wide gamut of meanings related to obsession, sexiness, style, jitteriness, self-abuse, robustness, poise, psychosis, defiance, weakness, etc.

The film fraternity deplores the verdict as immature as it does not take into account the murder and violent sex perpetrated in society, cinema and cinema's artistic value as a piece of art. In unison they advocate rather a progressive ban on smoking in society to eradicate the menace. Saif Ali Khan has quit smoking so also Shahrukh Khan an avid smoker is slowly trying to curb it.

The hue and cry over the ban imposed on smoking and use of tobacco has made the government make some exemptions with regard to historical characters, live telecast and documentaries on the adverse effects of the products, etc. The urgency of the time is to spread awareness and prevent passive smoking, which becomes detrimental in the long run. The ongoing debate runs on parallel lines of a draw edging on a win-win situation to raise a healthy generation. "Smoking in the movies fosters a culture that encourages young people to smoke; whereas what is needed is that we actively develop antipathy to smoking."

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