Don’t smoke, you’re fictional GUEST COMMENT

Amar is sitting on bed, two days old bristles on his chin, hair unkempt, mouth slightly open and expression melancholy. He takes a cigarette between his lips. His wife Manasi approaches the bed and stares at him stonily. Their eyes meet. Manasi pushes forward her hand to Amar’s mouth, takes the cigarette and throws it away.


Amar doesn’t say a word. He quietly takes another cigarette in mouth. Few seconds pass. Nothing happens… as if time is frozen. Manasi once again, this time with venom in her eyes, pulls the cigarette and throws it off.


Neither speaks a word. Amar pops a third cigarette in his, by now, trembling lips. Seconds tick by. The atmosphere is tense in anticipation. Something has to give. Manasi, clad in a simple saree, no make-up on face, repeats her earlier action and deprives her husband of another cigarette. Amar’s eyes are silently emitting fire, his teeth gritted.


He stretches his right hand and… smack… slaps Manasi’s face with force.



Anbumani’s Crusade


On September 14, 2006 the Indian health minister Anbumani Ramadoss announced that:

(a) Films with smoking scenes will get an “Adult” certificate.

(b) Director/producer should justify smoking scenes to a special committee.

 (c) The actor smoking on screen should appear at the beginning, at interval and end of the film to say smoking is injurious to health.

 (d) During the scene, a health warning will run on the screen.  


Speaking in Mumbai, Ramadoss said India should ban smoking completely and that Maharashtra should take the initiative to make itself tobacco-free.


On May 31, 2005 the same minister had threatened to ban all smoking from films.


The next time this Amar (Rajesh Khanna) – Manasi (Sharmila Tagore – who is now the head of the Indian Censor Board) scene from the Basu Bhattacharya 1973 film Aavishkar; is shown on television, will according to the Health Ministry order, show a scrolling health warning in big letters. (Will Rajesh Khanna be asked to give additional shots to say how dangerous smoking is?)




Fictional characters attacked

In my view, this is the first instance in human history where a Government of a free country has launched a crusade on fictional characters. It is not necessary but understandable if real-life people and fictional characters suffer from the same constraints. For example, running nude in public may be unacceptable in reality and on screen. But this is a singular case where the act of smoking is perfectly legitimate in life; only fictional characters are refrained from committing it. Shah Rukh Khan, the chain-smoking superstar, continues to smoke in public. As soon as he goes in front of camera and becomes fictional, he falls under the purview of the Health Ministry.


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Bollywood Victim or Ally


The crusade is based on a foreign document three years old.


On May 31, 2003, World health Organization (WHO) had released “Bollywood Victim or Ally,” now available in its entirety at:’bollywood%20victim%20or%20ally’


It is a comprehensive document of 183 pages, which attempts to establish the tobacco-cinema linkage in India through analysis of 440 films, focus group discussions among teenagers and in-depth interviews with 31 Bollywood professionals. A 20-page executive summary at the beginning offers a good gist of the massive document. Following are some highlights with my comments (in red), where warranted.


1. The document, based on which the Indian health ministry decided to launch crusade against smoking in films, follows a call of action by the WHO. WHO is supported by the (a) American Medical Association (b) Los Angeles department of Health and (c) SmokeFreeMovies project at the University of California in San Francisco.


When you look at the geography of the lobbying organisations, should they not be thinking of Hollywood before Bollywood?


2. “… studies have shown that ‘‘non-smoking teens whose favourite stars smoke on screen are 16 times more likely to develop positive attitudes towards smoking.’’


Unfortunately, a figure without substantiation, name of the source or reference of any kind. A positive statement for Bollywood follows: ‘‘Teenage tobacco incidents have been much lower than Hollywood films.’’


3. “Shah Rukh Khan, Ajay Devgan and Sanjay Dutt are often seen smoking on- and off-screen.”


This is then followed by two statements: Italics mine

‘‘Though Khan rarely smokes on screen in his candyfloss romances, he is often photographed smoking in his press and TV interviews.’’


‘‘The fact that superstars such as Shah Rukh Khan, Ajay Devgan, Sanjay Dutt and Rajanikant smoke off-screen has helped establish a triangular relationship between their public image, their personal lives and tobacco.’’


The next step, surely, is for the Health Ministry to prohibit superstars from smoking off-screen.


4. “Smoking was associated with romance, style, tragedy and rebellion. In South Indian films, too, they have been associated with style and sophistication.”


*The depiction of smoking as a rebel activity has remained constant. But increasingly smoking is being associated with attitudes of ‘‘independence’’ and ‘‘self-assertion’’.


*The incidence of smoking among the good guys has risen sharply from 22% in 1991 to 53% in 2002. This finding is of significance as films are depicting cigarette smoking as a normal activity. (Italics mine).


What the report calls associations, film directors call characterisation. If independence and self-assertion are the attitudes they wished to show in the leading characters, they have succeeded as per this report.


5. “While it is heartening to note that Indian films have largely desisted from displaying cigarette brand names, this may not remain so in future. As tobacco companies scout for brand promotion opportunities, films could well turn out to be the primary promotion tools for cigarette marketers.”


Speculative. It recommends pre-emptive action like in Iraq.


6. When asked the question ‘‘Do films glamorise smoking?’’


‘‘Anything in films is glamorised. Film is glamour. So there is being no glamorising done consciously. Films glamorise violence, films glamorise the mafia, drinking, everything. If you get influenced by films, you need to get your head checked.’’ Jackie Shroff, actor.


When asked about ‘‘Attitudes towards censorship’’


‘‘Tobacco is bad but sometimes it is required for a scene. If you stop showing such things then you might as well have a police state telling people what to do and what not to do. And then they will definitely indulge in such (smoking) activities!’’ Dev Anand, actor-director.


Most Indian TV serials these days deal with infidelity, promiscuity and divorces. These serials, one can suspect, are a major cause for the increasing number of divorces and decline in society’s morality. Shouldn’t the scriptwriters and directors be asked to refrain from wives cheating on their husbands? Let the wives do that in reality, but not on the screen, please!


7. *76% of the Indian films show smoking.


*It is a myth that films do not glamorise cigarette smoking and that it is used just to project ‘‘realism’’. The truth is that smoking incidents in movies is much higher than actual cigarette consumption among the Indian population.


In that case, Bollywood should also abandon the huge two-story houses in which leading characters live. To project ‘‘realism’’, half of the homes in films should be without electricity and toilets inside them, drinking water to be fetched from outside, and make every second hero illiterate.


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Tobacco industry myths

I personally consider cigarette a harmful, in many cases addictive, product. Since I am a non-smoker, I assume smoking offers pleasure or some other benefit to the smokers, or else they wouldn’t be smoking. I believe most if not all smokers are aware of the risks they take when deciding to smoke. For them, pleasure wins over risk in the trade-off calculation.


I worked for British American Tobacco, one of the major tobacco multinationals, between 1992 and 2002. I believe I can talk about certain myths related to tobacco industry with knowledge and authority.


Out of the world population of 6 billion, one billion people smoke. In other words, every sixth person in the world. A billion people engaged in any activity are not a ‘‘minority’’ and their act, however abominable, cannot be considered ‘‘abnormal’’. It is unrealistic to talk of a complete ban on cigarettes – a genuine battle against smoking – when such a high number is accustomed to the legality of their action. Singapore, a dictatorship, planned to make itself smoke-free by 2000 and later gave up the attempt as unrealistic. It is naïve to aim to ban tobacco in democratic India.


Research has shown that ban on advertising of cigarettes does very little to the demand. Brand advertising can affect the demand for individual brands, but not for cigarettes as a category. One research found that in Nordic countries, the sales grew after ban on advertising.


Smoking becomes ‘‘less’’ or ‘‘more’’ based on demographic factors and taxation rather than any anti-tobacco lobbying or WHO initiatives.


In the USA, smoking appeared to have grown dramatically in the earlier years. There were two reasons: (a) post-war Baby boom. In the sixties and seventies these baby boomers smoked, increasing the market size. (b) With women’s liberation, the second wave feminists began smoking. That produced another market expansion.


Once the baby boom stopped, and the female smoking reached a saturation point, the dramatic growth stopped. At the same time, the higher taxation resulted in smuggling of the product. This depressed further the official sales statistics. These were the reasons for the apparent fall in smoking in the USA, not anti-tobacco activities. Even today, the USA continues to be the second biggest cigarette market after China.


Don’t ask me why, but in most countries, on average, one out of three adults chooses to smoke. Two out of three adults choose not to. When there is talk about influence of advertising or film actors, one should ask as to why these factors are unable to influence two thirds of the adult population.


Governments all the world over have double standards when it comes to tobacco. The demand is fairly inelastic, so opportunities for increasing taxes are eternal. In Europe, in most markets, more than 80% of what the smoker pays goes to the government in form of taxes. The evil manufacturers who make, and the long chain of unscrupulous traders which distributes, are part of the remaining 20%. Cigarette is a key excise item. In some African countries, as much as 25% of the government revenue comes from tobacco taxation. The finance ministry is never unhappy if people smoke more. It is unrealistic any government will think of a tobacco ban – the only real remedy against the ills of smoking.


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The Indian situation


In India, 35 million people – including 26 million farmers – are engaged in the business of making and distributing tobacco and tobacco products.


The cigarette market (14%) is rather small. Almost half (48%) chew tobacco and 38% smoke bidis, the handmade product where tobacco is wrapped in a tendu leaf. Per head annual consumption is 90 cigarettes, which is one tenth of the global average. If the 25 million cigarette smokers take inspiration from films and television, where do the other 200 million (including 100 million tobacco chewers) get their inspiration from?


Everywhere, smoking moves from non-filter to filter cigarettes. As the financial situation of the Indian smoker improves, he will move from bidis to cigarettes; when health awareness increases, he will move to lighter cigarettes; female smoking which has begun in big cities in the last five years will increase in line with women’s liberation. No matter what the government bans (except cigarettes themselves), these changes will happen in India. The process is universal.


The reasons for smoking are many. Some are psychological. A cigarette pack is the cheapest status symbol. If you can’t drive a Mercedes, you can at least carry a pack of Marlboro lights in your pocket. Smoking by college girls in Mumbai is a statement of expression. When Indian women have started sensing independence from the centuries-old male repression, it is a normal expression of rebellion. Indian female smoking will continue to grow for years, until such point where women don’t see the need for making a statement any more.




Smoke Screen

At the end of the above 183 page document, WHO had recommended six steps to combat smoking in films. The steps did not include a ban on smoking in films.


WHO is an agency of United Nations. Its recommendations have no legal force. (As we saw before the Iraq war, UN has no power except making noise). Such organisations have their political agenda, and they relentlessly carry it through political negotiations. Indian government, on the other hand, is a democratically elected representative body. The laws made by them are binding on the people it represents.


Historically, the scale of smoking is influenced by demography, level of smuggling and counterfeiting; not by restrictions and bans.


In India, half of the tobacco consumers chew rather than smoke it.


When the American government was told about the ‘tobacco free films’ initiative for Hollywood, they said it cannot be done because America believes in ‘‘freedom of expression.’’


Who gave the Indian Health Ministry the right to rob the Indian population of their freedom of expression? What makes them impose restrictions on a medium of Art? What makes them attack fictional characters who cannot defend themselves?


The Health Ministry possibly has its own, unknown to masses, agenda. In an area where the USA and Hollywood didn’t give a damn, the Indian ministry has tried to appease the WHO for mysterious reasons. The action smacks of sycophancy.


The action is based not on facts, but on lobbying by a biased, impotent world body. The crusade assumes the ministry has powers that neither the voters nor the constitution have granted to it. The action is illegal, and must be fought in the courts of law. Mahesh Bhatt has already filed a petition last year. The issue at stake is not about health or smoking or Bollywood. The issue is about the attack on democracy, on the free choices made by adults, on freedom of expression; the attack on defenceless fictional characters.

© Ravi Abhyankar, September 2006 


About the Author: Ravi Abhyankar qualified as a Chartered Accountant and a Russian language graduate. Dreading the thought of spending an entire life with figures, he preferred working as a Russian interpreter, until the collapse of USSR left him unemployed.


He later worked for British American Tobacco for 10 years, in Russia and Poland, and sold some 220 billion cigarettes.


Since 2003, Ravi works for soul, by taking up writing as a full-time profession. He has begun attempts to get his first novel published.

Ravi Abhyankar

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