Imagine some TV channel is going to rerun BBC’s exquisite Sherlock Holmes series. The first episode begins. You have insisted that your teenage son/ daughter watches it and shares the pleasure with you. The credits end, Holmes turns to the camera and lights his pipe. But a large pixelated blob appears over his mouth and his pipe, as if the great detective is performing fellatio.
This is not a sick joke. This is what’s going to happen. The Health Ministry is taking some new steps to discourage smoking. If anyone is shown smoking in any Indian film from now on, an actor will have to mouth a 30-second-long health warning before the film ends. In old films, the cigarettes will have to be blurred out. This will apply to both the film and TV industry.
The new rules boggle the mind. You are engrossed in a film and suddenly, the hero stops beating up the bad guys, and turns to the screen and starts talking about how smoking affects your lungs. And then he goes right back to his mayhem. The word “surreal” comes to mind.
Well, I suppose if this becomes law, no one will ever smoke in Indian films any more. After all, till just some years ago, our film makers had to keep up the pretence that lovers never kissed, and we lived with that. It didn’t stop people from kissing in real life—and I don’t think not seeing anybody puffing on screen will have any impact on tobacco consumption habits.
A few questions, though, come to mind: What happens in the case of a torture scene where the villain administers cigarette burns on a victim, but is not shown smoking? Do we still get the warning that cigarettes are bad for the lungs? What about a shot of an ashtray with a cigarette stub in it, which may perhaps lead one to conclude that the hero smokes, though he has not been shown doing so? Will we still be subjected to the 30-second harangue? Or, say, a documentary on the sadhus of Benares, and they are puffing away at their chillums?
But more than anything else, what this misbegotten decree will do to old films should enrage anyone who derives any enjoyment from cinema. Think of Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca -- everytime you see his face, his mouth will be a blur. Think, in fact, of any Hollywood classic, any noir film, or any French New Wave or great European film -- the characters, both male and female, are smoking half of the time, and all you’ll get when you watch them on TV will be hazy patches. Think of all those cartoon films with funny cigar-chomping villains! Will they also censor newsreels that feature Winston Churchill or Fidel Castro?
Think of those haunting back-lit shots in Guru Dutt movies with the cigarette smoke curling upwards as an immortal song plays in the background. And what will they do with Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj Ke Khilari in all the critical scenes where Sanjeev Kumar and Saeed Jaffrey face off over a chessboard, puffing away at their hookahs? Under the new rule, one will have to blur out not only the hookah pipes that the actors are holding in their hands, but also the hookahs themselves—that is, about half the screen will be pixelated for more than half of the film!
This is as ridiculous a piece of law as I have ever heard of, and as ignorant of every form of art and culture that one can imagine. What next? Start censoring references to smoking in books? And what will they do on the net, where, if you search Google Images for “Jawaharlal Nehru smoking” (the new law is slated to come into effect from November 14, Nehru’s birthday), up pops some very interesting pictures, such as these?
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