No Smoking (2007) – A Classic Decrypted

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“A thousand people stop smoking every day, by dying.”

No Smoking is a murky experience from the lens of the prolific, yet sadistic—Anurag Kashyap. The movie stars John Abraham (K) as the lead protagonist, with the ravishing Ayesha Takia (Anjali/Annie) supporting him as his wife. It also features the plethora of characters played by Paresh Rawal (Baba Bengali) and Ranbir Shorey (Abbas) primarily. The story comes from the imagination of Kashyap himself, while the screenplay has an association of Raja Chaudhary and Anurag Kashyap.

Initially, Anurag Kashyap had offered this movie to Shahrukh Khan, who later was unable to assume the role of the chain smoker that he is in real life for various reasons. Popularly held, Kashyap offered this movie to every star through SMS, with only John Abraham being the one to respond to Kashyap’s proposal. The movie released on October 26, 2007, and met a cold response at the box-office, whilst mostly being slaughtered by the ranked critics of India. A popular quote—extracted from his interview with Glamsham.com—from Anurag Kashyap does better justice in demonstrating the response No Smoking encountered on its way to the ashtray: “I was extremely angry and bitter after No Smoking. People reviewed me rather than the movie. It was a new kind of film and while it was getting international recognition, in my own country it was being ripped apart. I learnt a lesson though and it was that it you have to do something new, you have to go step by step. First and foremost, look at how the film would recover money. No Smoking was an expensive film and it hurts.”

Succinctly, No Smoking is a psychological thriller that uses the “noir” approach of filming—heavy dosages of conflict present in protagonists that are really antiheroes in essence, who are rather confused, disturbed, shaken, and are unusually forced to compromise into difficult decisions. From the technical standpoint, such cinemas utilize low lighting, dark places and tones, eccentric camera angles, and dominantly shadows and shades to enhance the mystery, intrigue, and the cryptic messages hidden underneath the obvious outbursts.

The premise of No Smoking is as simple as the title: no smoking. It is an adventure of a chain smoker who comes around 360, and is forced to quit smoking. At least, that is the screenplay. Is the movie ethnically about quitting smoking though? As one divulges into the labyrinth of No Smoking, one uncovers layers after layers, and what it seems is not really what it is and what it is, really is what it always is!

“To do is to be” – Plato

The ravishing backdrop of Siberia; the silver carpet, with drops of eyelids drowning physical entities and coagulating any placid flux—chilled across the terrain—the journey starts. Men of might march along the carpet of solicitude claying their triumphant steps to stagger their reseated guiles. Something tweets. “Hello,” is the call. The twittering carries on—civilized, yet alluringly pompous—the lips demand the kiss, the nipple that elates humanity. In such a quest of darning altitude, the lips seek that kiss of mutual affinity against all obstacles with two arms and a pipe that is veering enough towards those pair of gluttons, one, two, one, two… Regrettably, the lips reach closer and closer to the vaporizing nectar, only to be down and out. The pipe had flamed. The lips kiss the nipples, the touch is so erotic, but in the silvering rains of Siberia—the flames of the elements go missing.  A giant sigh follows—the wake-up call.

K is comfortably lying on his bathtub. It was just a dream. The dream stands symbolic in many ways. K lights his cigarette, and wonders why this dream every time. Later, his psychologist friend enlightens his soul of nicotine addiction and the suppressed feelings of losing the beautiful smoke of nicotine, something that is haunting him constantly.

“Nobody tells me what to do.” – K

K is a self-obsessed, narcissistic chain-smoker who is very rich and lives with his very beautiful wife, Anjali. Anjali is happily married to K, but she despises his smoking adventures—so much that she contemplates the art of detachment if the art of smoking does not vanish away. During this journey, K bumps into an old friend, Abbas, who initiated his journey into this smoky land, but apparently, he has quit smoking! Abbas talks of an amazing rehabilitation center, the Prayogshala, where they ensure that smoking, or any form of addiction and you part ways for good—permanently!

All of these fall into the deaf ears of our hero, Mr. K, who continues to smoke as only he could. Until the day, when his wife, the beautiful, tempting, charming, and ravishing—Anjali decides to leave him. It is either her or the cigarette. That becomes the inciting incident of the movie. Now, forced against his will and for his love, K agrees to visit the Prayogshala. His friend Abbas sets up an appointment with the Shree Shree Baba Bengali. K meets him and from that profligate of a day, K’s life changes in ways only Anurag Kashyap could imagine. For Abbas, he receives back a ring in token.

“To be is to do” – Socrates

The Prayogshala turns out to be the underworld, the “Lok” of Destruction. It is far underneath any of us and we could never reach it until our destiny opened the gates to hell. Generally, for those who are in love with addiction. K reaches the Prayogshala and once he does, he cannot return without the antismoke stamp engrained on his forehead—that too paid in excess by him! In that contractual treatise that looked larger than any spiritual book in the world, briefly, there were four penalties for lighting a cigarette and the penalties moved in a queue:

  1. The first is locking a loved one into a “cigarette-smoke” chamber, inspired from the one Hitler’s gas chambers, for 5 minutes containing all the smoke one has smoked in their life until that point.
  2. The punishment for lighting a second cigarette is simple: lose your finger!
  3. The third—if you are stupid not to understand the gravity of the situation—the Prayogshala would eliminate your loved one from the world, permanently—something called death.
  4. The forth one, if you happen to be completely wasted, extraction of your soul from the body.

At this point, K—having signed the contract of death through means of excessive force and the feeling of menace—is now in a predicament where he is forced to oblige to Baba Bengali, or else risk losing something precious. The events that follow are surreal, dark, thrilling, and confusing. What is reality? What are dreams? Everything becomes a mystery. The line between reality and dream becomes hazy. Life becomes a nightmare; a nightmare becomes life.

Having tried everything in his power, K has no option left. He has no turning point. He is at breaking point. He has to oblige. As his friends Abbas and Joy, K gets the shock of hearing disability at the first thought of smoking. At his lighting of the first cigarette, his brother—who is living in the hospital with one lung at the disposal of the devil—has to suffer five minutes in the “gas chamber.” The events continue, until K becomes adamant not to smoke. During the same instance, his old friend Alex makes way and starts a Cigar company in India. In the inauguration, Alex and his men force John to light the cigar—John throws it out just before Alex is successful, but—due to an error—Baba Bengali takes home with him, K’s wife Anjali and proceeds to eliminate her from the world as part of a penalty against the crime of lighting a second cigarette, while in therapy. The issue is later clarified—where Baba Bengali accepts his mistake and sets his wife free, but the twists and turns K has to encounter after the error becomes a warren of incidents, with nothing as obvious as it seems and everything different from what it really is…

“Dobe Dobe Do” – Sinatra

The climax of the movie is riveting and adds all the surrealisms of the movie in ample dosages. K wakes up from his sleep, moves to his favorite spot—his bathroom, and realizes his two fingers disappeared from his hands. The same two fingers he uses for smoking, as with the case of his best friend Abbas. The movie ends there.

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 “Jai Shree Kali” – Shree Shree Prakash Guru Ghantal Baba Bengali Sealdahwale

It would be effortless to conclude that No Smoking is a movie about smoking. In many ways, it is. The core idea here starts from a smoker who cannot seem to stop smoking. Digging deeper, is that really all the movie? That would be a wrong assessment. The smoking angle is just the beginning! Looking at it from a different standpoint, No Smoking has multiple themes and layers. It really depends upon the interpretations of the viewer—how they perceive the themes presented in No Smoking. Popularly, No Smoking is amongst the first movies from India to have multiple interpretations. Movies with such stories have been very rare and since then, as well, such movies have not really come to the elevator.

In this alchemy called No Smoking, the themes spread all across the interiors of the story having two echelons, at a dominant level. The first row of themes appears at macro level:

  • Surrealism
  • Subconscious State
  • Theory of Soul

At the micro level, the themes illustrated are of Transformation, Implications of Fear, Freewill vs. Destiny, and Symbolic Meanings, with brilliant usage of metaphors.

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The aforementioned themes and sub-themes establish the story and experience of No Smoking as something dynamic, delusional, mystifying, and most importantly—the heartbeat of the movie—cryptic graphics of visuals, angles, conflicts, characters, and affairs. When you suck the juice out of No Smoking, the remaining pulp loses value literally, yet enhances the figurative suggestions those elements propose throughout the running of the story. In that sense, No Smoking becomes an experience—a cerebral and abstract piece of visual storytelling over a movie that has a story or a simple story that happened to be born at cinemascope.

Right from K’s friends, the doctor and Abbas, most recommend a certain rehabilitation center called, “the Prayogshala,” for anybody who wishes to set aside their addiction problems. The head of the center is Baba Bengali—a madcap that fuses ancient oddities prevailing in Hinduism and Islam with modern technology so sophisticated that it would embarrass the technological umbrella covering society today. The story hints at this communion of science with philosophy. Anurag Kashyap may not have intended for this accidental empathy, but this union establishes the point that falls under the theme of transformation. The only way to transform is when Trans meets form!

Baba Bengali referred to the Prayogshala as, “Patal Lok.” In Hinduism, that means the world underneath us. The Prayogshala is located in the outskirts of the city, and gives the impression of a slummy area, with dirt, dimness, and poverty as the crying voices of the area surrounding and containing the Prayogshala. The dimness is not the lack of light in this world, but the tone of the visual home of Prayogshala. On the contrary, K lives high up top in the skies of a cozy and sparkling home. The Prayogshala is completely opposite to this. It signifies the psychological state of K. The task of cleansing himself from within requires K to pass through the dirt, darkness, and poverty—where he is to be stripped off completely—before coming out with a new perspective and a new vision of life and life’s offerings around him.

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One subtle aspect throughout the movie was that of hearing aids. It was perplexing that each patient of the Prayogshala donned hearing aids. This subtle gesture has a profound meaning in the context of the movie. Before romancing with Baba Bengali, K was a self-centered and self-obsessed human being who was in love with himself. Consequently, he did not need anybody’s help, assurance, or advice. After meeting Baba Bengali, things begun to appear paradoxically for this messiah of men. He was humbled. All of a sudden, he started listening to people around. He had to listen to Baba Bengali in order to save his family. He had to listen to his friend Abbas. Most importantly, the kick-start was his wife, Anjali; he had to listen to her foremost. The hearing aids—for all the three friends—symbolize the need to accept outer forces and leave behind their own voices speaking in their head.

A different such symbol, albeit eccentric, are the fingers. It just so happened that Abbas and later K would lose the two fingers commonly used by smokers. Is it not surreal? The story is about subconscious fight against oppositions, with smoking being the metaphor, and in that metaphor—the punishment is cutting on the two fingers needed by smokers. The focal point of the story was never the smoking aspect, but the subconscious issue of addiction, the fear chronic addiction accompanies, and the slow rehabilitation phase where—with splendid usages of surrealism—Anurag Kashyap establishes K as a lost soul in search of light.

Briefly, the descriptions by the two favorite tools of K: his sunglasses (dark and gloomy) and his bathtub (relaxing and revitalizing) enhances the hidden meanings of the story. Going along with the dark humor presented in the movie and the noir style, the dark shades added the extra bit of mystic and darkness in K’s character. It was this darkness that defined K and—it configured K and his quest to find himself through his surreal dreams. This darkness signified the gloomy state of mind of K because his eyes—the gateway to the visual world—had curtains of darkness around them. On the other hand, the bathtub is where his heart lied. It was his home. That was his bed in many ways. During the final quarter of the movie, when K sees the bathtub, he is not seeing anything strange. He is seeing the one spot where his mind is calm, and that initiates the key terminology: calmness. The Prayogshala wants K to seek that calmness and to discover the state of calmness that the original Soul is before the corruption and the destruction. Although the variation used in this movie differs to the traditional Hindu concept of Soul because Kashyap refers to the mind as soul in No Smoking, whilst in Hinduism, the Soul is never flickering as described here; the mind is.

Throughout the journey, the surreal aspect remains constant. K goes on dreaming, wakes up, dreams again, and the cycle continues. The romance between reality and the realm of subconscious rarely seem to meet, yet they go on threading a minor line between each other. In the last bit, K relives his dream, but with a changed perception. He no longer aims for the pack of cigarettes. Those cigarettes signify nothing, but his enhanced, evolved state of being. He rather springs into the pond and into the cleansing world of the Prayogshala—as a pure Soul, an Atma, in need of transformation and a complete overhaul of the subconscious conditionings. There when he sees the real K—clean and usual—that is where the realization of the need to shower pipes in. The shower seems a strange one—as he evaporates into smoke rather than donning the element of water. The cryptic showings do not end even beyond the end…

Apart from these themes, the recurrent theme of “fear” runs the story. For it is not love that forces change, it is fear that brings about drastic changes. Whether the fear is of losing one’s wife, family, or oneself—this fear drives K, or any human being, into his subconscious where he encounters himself, his state of mind resulting into a fueled desire to achieve what he is to achieve through the means necessary to achieve the difficult, but achievable.

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 “Jisne bill bharliya hai unko nahana bhejdo.” – Baba Bengali

In the climax of the movie, K loses two fingers, but not without warning. Baba Bengali assures him of paying “heavily” for the Rupee 1 sum that K is unable to pay—even after the treatment seems to be over. The implication here is special because the treatment is not over—not yet, at the very least. The lost two fingers only signify the freewill born in K, the will to quit smoking as with his friend Abbas. Literally, the will to transform is borne when he loses his two fingers. On a side note, the rule to gain back the lost rings of hope is to recommend some friend or acquaintance to the Prayogshala into the anti addiction therapy, as stated. Even this gives a tremendous insight into the subconscious realm the movie floats. A person only recommends somebody else when that person truly breaks the shackles, breaks free and transforms into something better. Is it not a psychological masterpiece?

The climax is not the end at all. It is the beginning for K to start fresh and regain the fingers that would now be used as organs within multiple organs and not as catalysts for addiction.

Overall, No Smoking is a sensationalist cinema at its zenith, with every element, scene, dialogue, sequence, and dream symbolizing a meaning into another plain of consciousness. In no way is No Smoking different to regular feature movies. The only aspect where No Smoking leaves behind all the rest is the storytelling, the cryptic messages, the surrealism, and the saga between reality and unreality. At the psychological level, No Smoking has multiple versions—rather subjective as No Smoking also flowers the viewer’s subconscious in the process. In this piece of writing, the focus lies on the themes and underlying messages of the story rather than the technical aspects of filmmaking. The belief is that the story should be gripping and engrossing—as in the case of No Smoking. The eyes shall automatically follow the filmmaker if such is the scenario.

John Abraham is stupendous in his role, as the paranoid chain-smoker K. Few actors could have done the role as convincingly as John Abraham personified K. John is not a great actor, by any stretch of the mind. Yet, this performance stands out—not because John gives a knockout punch, but for the way John disappears and K appears through and through.

At the end, No Smoking ranks as Anurag Kashyap’s finest movie until now. The mixture of the psychedelic story, dramatic angles, noir style, psychological patterns, subconscious realms, and the pace all of these move along is relenting. It is simple astounding that he did not win any Indian Movie Award for his directorial grandeur and scripting genius in this movie. There are some entertaining movies. Some have an engaging story. No Smoking has a simple story, yet moves as a perplexing journey.

Before the curtains fall down, one line to sum the movie: I came, I saw, I conquered.

Image credit goes to Santabanta and Bollywood hungama.

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