Monday, February 4, 2013

No Smoking (2007)

Maverick Indian filmmaker Anurag Kashyap ventures into surrealist territory with his ambitious but strange little film titled "No Smoking". This film was unanimously panned by critics and audiences alike upon its initial release in 2007 (much to Kashyap's dismay who has called it his favorite amongst all his directorial ventures). That certainly doesn't come as a surprise in a country that thrives on trademark Bollywood potboilers full of song and dance and essentially a mix of genres of slapstick comedy, romance and action. With "No Smoking", Kashyap pushes all boundaries and and presents to an unprepared audience, this Kafkaesque nightmare, partly inspired by films of David Lynch and some other filmmakers who don't mind messing with their audience's minds!

The story revolves around a central premise directly lifted from the Stephen King short story "Quitters Inc." (,_Inc.). A man named K (John Abraham) is an arrogant, self-centered, narcissistic, filthy rich tycoon spoiled sick by his chain-smoking habit. He smokes practically everywhere, in his plush bathroom tub, in his bedroom, all over his house, his office and even the elevator in the building as he rudely asks a poor old woman who requests him to stop smoking, to take the stairs! 

His wife Anjali (Ayesha Takia), sick and tired of his habit and refusal to quit plans on divorcing him. But so arrogant is K, that he throws attitude standing in front of the mirror, talking to his reflection: "Nobody..tells me..what to do!" ("Taxi Driver" anyone?). An old pal Abbas Tyrewala (Ranvir Shorey) who seems ill at ease and visibly troubled, runs into K and mentions that he had successfully kicked the butt, thanks to Shri Shri Prakash Guru Ghantal Baba Bangali Sealdah Wale (Paresh Rawal), a god-man at the helm of a rehabilitation center simply called Prayogshala (The Laboratory).

After an initial reluctance and after his wife actually leaves the house, K agrees to pay Baba Bangali a visit. And this is where things start to slip into a nightmarish universe. This Prayogshala is unlike anything you may have seen. It has a call center/customer care run by women clad in veils. Several levels beneath the floor of a ramshackle shanty, strangely equipped with a single hi-tech gizmo, a palm-print identification device, lies the Prayogshala inhabited by the sinister Baba Bangali and his strange looking team of men and women assistants.

K soon realizes that once you get inside the Laboratory, you can’t get out on your own free will. Baba Bangali will always be watching you. Baba Bangali’s method of curing the addict involves the mechanics of fear. The addict is threatened with dire consequences to himself or a loved one, every time he/she succumbs to the vice! 

As it turns out Baba Bangali keeps the entire record of the addict’s history of smoking and the knowledge of people close to him in VHS tapes archived in an old dusty library..! A twisted complex maze of a journey now commences; K’s De-addiction program, one that would defy rationale and threaten to change K’s life as he knows it, forever!

Anurag Kashyap astonishes from the initial few frames and does it with aplomb, kicking off the proceedings with a bizarre dream sequence set amidst snow-clad landscapes in Siberia. At the culmination of this dream, as the soldier prepares to shoot K, the latter asks him for matches to light his cigarette! Kashyap holds our attention for almost three-fourths of the film despite the far-fetched nature of the plot. There are some spectacularly quirky traits of the director in the film-making which is perhaps the first of its kind in Indian cinema. We see some comic strip like speech/thought balloons appearing on screen to indicate a character's thoughts in sequences where there is no dialog.

Adding to the idiosyncrasies are some flashback sequences filmed in some crude black and white cinematography, with equally old tunes playing in the background and an accompanying sitcom-like laugh track in some darkly hilarious flashbacks, a la "Natural Born Killers". The dark humour infused within is extremely clever and there are some subtle jabs at older Bollywood films as well. The best thing about these oddities is that they work remarkably well in the black comedy context of the film and add a special touch to the proceedings, almost never found in Indian cinema.

There are some even darker comic moments in sequences between Paresh Rawal and John Abraham in the first visit to the Prayogshala, also involving the meek little midget assistant (Chaurasiya, played by Zahir) of Rawal. Kashyap's use of surrealism and seemingly irrational situations is actually a sign of some great symbolism-heavy, intelligent writing. There is a lot of spiritual meaning to be deciphered from the jargon used in the film about sin, redemption, forgiveness, and freeing of the soul from the root of all evil!

There are other themes running about too, those of a personal freedom and the thwarting of it by a greater power; perhaps the dominance of society and censorship on artistic freedom? In a rather brilliant piece of writing, Rawal's character tells K that his fee from the huge amount of money being charged is only INR Re. 1, which he accepts only in cash! In the film’s terrifying culmination, some light is thrown on what this Re. 1 is actually intended for. "No Smoking" is filled with sequences which are an absolute delight for lovers of surrealist films. There are moments that will make one respect Kashyap’s panache for writing and his commendable imagination and creativity.

Sadly, where Kashyap disappoints slightly, is in his own handling of his brilliant script. Apart from most deftly executed sequences including the aforementioned, eccentric but unique touches, sometimes Kashyap loses his way and behaves rather clumsily with some of the material, especially in the last act. There were some sequences which could’ve been better filmed or at least better edited to save it from spiraling down to the nadir of incoherency! It is considerably clear what Kashyap is trying to say as a whole, and it is very much appropriate that he chooses not to spoon-feed the viewer. But if you have chosen to let the images speak instead of blatant words of explanation, then it is imperative that it be done with a kind of finesse to make the images rich or substantial enough for the viewer to derive a satisfying theory or multiple ones at that, in a manner convincing enough, if you sit down to dissect each scene.

And this shift to incoherence is so abrupt, that Kashyap seems to be in a hurry to transport the viewer to the shockingly unreal climax in a flash, even forgetting that the viewer needs to go there in a steadily paced fashion in order to grasp what he is trying to communicate. Kashyap, also, unfortunately resorts to an unnecessary cabaret performance filmed on Jesse Randhawa, that heavily slackens the pace and kills the urgency of the narrative! In fact, most of the scenes after this have some irritatingly misfit, jarring songs accompanying them, most with lyrics related to smoking that are sometimes quite funny to hear, and that really mar the quality of these sequences. One particularly shocking sequence involving the protagonist’s brother comes off as rather flippant and unintentionally comic thanks to the horribly misplaced song in the background! A better choice of ambient accompanying score or sound design could’ve rendered these sequences much more effective.

Technically the film excels, especially in the sound design, art direction and the cinematography department. John Abraham shines in a performance of a character tailor-made for him. He fits the arrogant K to the T, even in some demanding sequences. This is arguably his greatest performance so far. The plump Ayesha Takia who doubles up as K’s wife Anjali and also his buxom, Barbie-doll secretary (curve-enhancing wardrobe, gaudy lip gloss, spectacles, the works!), doesn't really get much to do except make sad faces while watching Steven Spielberg's holocaust drama "Schindler’s List" and putting heavy makeup on! Paresh Rawal chews the scenery in whatever few scenes he has and gets to mouth some of the best lines in the film. Special mention must be made of Ranvir Shorey for his fantastic performance, albeit in a tiny role, as K’s paranoid friend Abbas.

"No Smoking" is a solid effort from one of the few Indian filmmakers who dare to embark on a path devoid of conventionalism. As far as the handing is concerned, unfortunately, it falters somewhat. But the idea that is "No Smoking" is far too extraordinary to nitpick based on minor flaws of the craft. A few mistakes notwithstanding, Kashyap has made an important film, and I wish he and other Indian filmmakers take cue and make more films like these.

Score: A solid 8/10

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