Saturday, November 10, 2007
A Masterpiece of Unimaginable Proportions: No Smoking
I have never ever felt so militantly in favour of a movie ever before. The last time I felt strongly about saying something out (I am generally passive and not given to outbursts of any kind) was when I saw Omkara and was seen frantically messaging people I knew to watch the movie if it was the last thing they did before they died. That was one and a half years ago. Again, some months later, I felt that I really had to make people, whose well being was on my mind see a movie. This one was called Oldboy.
Pandu (henceforth referred to as Satyavrat, since I respect blogging identities while transacting business on the blogosphere), who has been seeing every Hindi movie that has been released in the past two months, counted off his fingers the names and characteristics of movies he had watched recently. The conversation left me wondering if I had missed out on so many flicks-all of them, according to him representing an unprecedented paradigm shift in the Hindi Film Industry. I decided to watch the boldest (in his words) of them-No Smoking.
As I progressed through the picture, a part of me stared unblinking in sheer disbelief at what unfolded on the screen. Was I watching a Bollywood movie??? No, I wasn't. No way.
The names of Fellini, and his magnum opus 8 1/2 came so naturally to mind! So did the names of so many others: Guru Dutt, David Lynch and his Eraserhead (I know some of my more knowledgeable and far more talented cinema buff friends would scoff at the name of Lynch and automatically decide not to see "No Smoking" since his name has been associated with this movie. If they do so, they will miss out on what is probably the most important Hindi film EVER made. Too bad folks!), Bergman's classic Persona, Alan Parker's take on the Pink Floyd's masterpiece The Wall, Natural Born Killers (in that brilliant short episode of "Kyunki Bachpan bhi Kabhi Naughty tha", Charlie Kaufmann and his wonderfully warped creations Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Being John Malkovich (incidentally, one should remember, Anurag Kashyap himself has been a brilliant screenwriter known for his taut and brilliant screenplays of Satya, Shool, Yuva, Kaun and several other acclaimed films)...Gawd, I could go on forever.
And the remarkable point is that, it is all done in such a quintessentially Tarantino-like way that at first your brain refuses to believe it. These are deliberate dedications that are being offered to masters of Cinema. Yes it also means that Anurag Kashyap is flaunting his encyclopaedic knowledge of world cinema but can we really find fault with a peacock shedding its inhibitions and dancing in the rain flaunting his fabulously regal plumage? No, we don't. In fact we have it as a National Bird simply because of this.
Tell me, how many movies have you seen whose opening screenshots are quotes from Plato followed by Socrates and Frank Sinatra (‘To Do Is To Be’ ‘To Be Is To Do’ ‘Dobe Dobe Do!’)? Tell me, which movie have you watched which mixed Franz Kafka (the hero is called K-the name of so many Kafka heroes; the mood, the scenes, the settings, the cinematography-you don't have to be a PhD in comparative literature from JNU to recognise the allusions to Kafka in particular and sundry existentialist themes in general) with Stephen King (based on his story Quitters Inc.), surrealism with existentialism, Adnan Sami with Bob Fosse, Rahman's Ae Ajnabi with Dean Martin, Black Eyed Peas' Shut Up with Gulzar's Beedi Jalaile, Schindler's List with Comic Book Bubbles? Mark my words when I say that this is a work of a staggering genius! It takes an extraordinary amount of brilliance to weave such disparate and eclectic sensibilities together in one whole. What we have here is probably one of the most brilliant Directors of not just Hindi but World Cinema. He also pays tribute to the Indian Cinematic Masters. Observe: "Maqbool, Main Hoon Na!”(This is what Abbas Tyrewala says on the phone-both films are written by Tyrewala) "Beedi Jalaile ke Vishal desh mein cigar Gulzar"-a dedication to Vishal Bharadwaj for his directorial and musical acumen and to Gulzar for what he has given to Indian Cinema-beautifully directed movies and volumes of impossibly brilliant poetry. What he is also saying via this is "Thank you for having produced this film".
This is a classic tale of a spurned young man's revenge on Bollywood and its incessant artistic timidity. It is a cry of a tortured genius much in the same way The Wall was Roger Waters', Pyaasa was Guru Dutt's and Grunge was entire generation of apathetic teens'. This is Anurag's way of showing a middle finger to Bollywood. Observe this in particular when he takes K to Uzbekistan (or was it Kazakhstan?). Is this not deliberately lampooning Hindi Cinema's fascination for foreign locales like Switzerland? I bet you it sure is! It is his way of getting back at people like Karan Johar (whom he openly hates) who make glitzy, snazzy soap operas about the rich and the powerful's debaucheries in Fantasyland. Hell, take this trip to another Fantasyland! It doesn't give a rat's ass about sloppy sentimentality that forms the basis of interaction for all characters in Hindi movies-whether male or female. It is an openly, brazenly, brilliantly intellectual movie which wallows in the journey of storytelling rather than the destination. It is an open celebration of all that is good in cinema as an art form.
Which brings me to another achievement. Tell me have you ever seen a Hindi movie with such God level special effects which are comparable to international standards? Have you ever seen such brilliant cinematography in a Hindi movie? Dharavi looks like a synthetic hell hole. The eeriness you feel when Chacha of the Kalkatta Carpet Factory takes K's handprint, the wonderful contrasts of black and white that cast their shadows during K's walks in Dharavi, the obvious debt this movie owes to Film Noir-all these features are first for a Hindi movie. An amalgamation of so many firsts in a movie is an unparalleled achievement. It is as if twenty years of evolution were compressed in a mere two hours. Have a look at the trailer as an example:
Kashyap, in his own blog has written about this movie's autobiographical character. He asks us to take it as his hopeless fight against the Hindi film establishment. His film Paanch was not released and was kept in the dustbins for years on end because it was not what the Censor Board thought of as the purpose of a film which, according to them should provide 'healthy entertainment'. Kashyap says Paanch was neither healthy nor entertaining. Then came Black Friday another brilliant documentary styled movie which was banned by the Government and was rescued only through the intervention of the courts. In addition to the new stylistic devices introduced by Kashyap in this movie, it also featured a beautiful album by Indian Ocean. His struggles for making a movie were cut short when long time collaborator Vishal Bharadwaj decided to bail him out of his financial problems. Observe that K not only alludes to Kafka's influence on the movie but possibly also to Kashyap himself. He says it was his struggle to remain afloat and not bow down before the preacher Baba Bangalis of the Censor Board who were hell bent on doing things for society's good. The only way to stay afloat, as he reveals in the movie, is to 'sell out' (his way of saying what Pink Floyd were singing in the song "Welcome to the Machine"?) and conform the way K does. The question is for how long can Kashyap survive as a non conformist?
It is a brilliant, surreal, Kafkaesque odyssey into the murky recesses of the mind of an unbounded imagination. Performances are very tight as well-from John Abraham's cocky narcissism to Ranvir Shorey's quirky oddities, from the supremely confident Paresh Rawal's grasp of the subtleties of his character, to those many more in small/minor roles-nobody disappoints. The screenplay is Kashyap trademark-taut, compact and supremely engaging, the dialogue-wonderfully character driven. The gloom, the darkness, the dystopia, the mood-a killer combination of all the effects a movie could ask for. All in all, this is a supreme work of art.
As for the interpretation, although I do think I have understood the movie on different levels and have in general, a fair amount of understanding of what it was all about, the thing to realise here is that the interpretation is actually not that important. It is the way the movie engages with its bizarre surrealism that's important. Hell, I don't think smoking's got to do anything with the movie at all! It could as well have been about pornography instead of smoking and everything else would've remained the same. But what 'No Smoking' in particular did achieve, was that it duped the Censor Board into passing it while Kashyap fooled them into thinking that the movie was anti smoking. Another evidence that the Censor Board junta are a bunch of fools.
I take this moment to pay my homage to what is easily one of the top ten Hindi movies ever and probably the most important, paradigm-shift inducing and path-breaking Hindi movie of all times and to its tortured Director. I also prophecy that it shall become a cult classic, much the same way Jane Bhi Do Yaaron did.