Shah Rukh Khan’s comment about smoking being creative licence was both disingenuous and in terrible taste, especially since a landmark study, sweeping in scope and ambition, states that one million Indian smokers will die every year starting in 2010. Why single out Khan? Bollywood’s reaction to the smoking on screen issue is shocking and embarrassing. Rahul Bose called it “infantile”. Rahul Bose? I used to like his oeuvre.
Bollywood is used to taking the pulse of the people; reading the public to figure out if their films will fly or bomb. Surely they should know that millions of youngsters will follow Khan’s lead, copy his moves and imitate his screen persona. If the hero of a hit movie smokes on screen, it is very likely that—conservatively speaking—10 newly minted 10-year-olds in Orissa or Oraiyur will take to the habit. Not for a day or a month but for a lifetime; knowing or not knowing that, as banner ads say, “Smoking Kills”.
What Khan does in his private time and space is his business. Minister Ramadoss is merely attempting to impose a ban on smoking in the movies. I believe that the minister is actually being reasonable. The US has imposed a ban on smoking in all public places. Americans who can hardly be called timid, it turns out, are paranoid about second-hand smoke. Catch our Mumbai smoking brigade—the Khan included—being subjected to a public ban.
Khan says his daily quota has dropped from 70-80 ciggies to 3-4
I know that there is the whole issue about whether the government should engage in moral policing. If you ban smoking in movies, why not violence and swear words and guns and revealing clothing, the argument goes. My view is that while you or I might find a whole laundry list of things offensive about the movies, a cigarette is both a tangible object and a gesture—easier to pinpoint, easier to extricate out of the storyline than, say, violence. Plus, with cigarettes and the movies, causality has been established. Read on.
A few years ago, several heavyweight American institutions including the Cancer Prevention and Control programme and the National Institute of Health decided to find out if there was a direct link between movie stars smoking on screen and “adolescent smoking initiation”. In other words, they wanted to figure out if teens watching their favourite movie stars smoke on screen would pick up a cigarette for the first time. After an exhaustive three-year study in which they questioned more than 3,000 children all over the US, they found that “if movie stars smoke…they are effectively encouraging young girls to smoke.”
These results puzzled me, especially the bit about girls smoking, because in India, smoking is more prevalent among the male sex than the female. Then I looked at the list of favourite movies that the study listed and it all made sense. Here they are:
Sandra Bullock (In Love and War, The Net, Speed, A Time to Kill); Leonardo DiCaprio (The Basketball Diaries, Marvin’s Room, Romeo + Juliet); Winona Ryder (How to Make an American Quilt, Reality Bites); Demi Moore (The Juror, Now and Then); Drew Barrymore (Bad Girls, Batman Forever, Boys on the Side, Mad Love); Pamela Anderson (Barb Wire, The Best of Pamela Anderson); Sharon Stone (Casino, Diabolique, Intersection, The Quick and the Dead, The Specialist).
I won’t insult your intelligence by asking if you see a pattern here. The reason why more American pre-teen girls smoke is because there are more female stars smoking on screen. In India, the biggest culprits are the male stars: in particular, Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan, and before he reformed, Rajinikanth.
According to the US study, the reason why girls are more likely to pick up a stub is because of movie genre preferences. “Girls tend to like romance movies where smoking is common. Boys prefer action films which contain lower levels of star smoking,” said the US study. Funnily enough, action movies in India usually involve the male holding a cigarette. Which segues nicely to my next point.
Even Khan’s argument about creative licence is a tired one. Smoking on screen is the oldest cliché there is. The hero getting out of a car surrounded by a cloud of smoke has been rehashed so often that it is hardly creative. It is a lazy screenwriter’s tool. True creativity involves changing the paradigm; turning something that was so far not associated with sexiness into a deeply sexy gesture. Rene Russo did it in The Thomas Crowne Affair by drinking her green goop, her health drink, her soy shake, whatever it was and making it look sexy. Thousands of young things in New York proudly downed green goop after watching the movie. Not only was it sexy, it was actually healthy for them. Double bonus.
Khan too has been affiliated with movies that changed the paradigm. I doubt that anyone would have believed that a movie about a girl’s hockey team would be a super hit. Chak De! India changed the paradigm; brought in a new term into a lexicon and got a whole generation interested in a sport that was relegated to the background. My 11-year-old daughter and 30 other striplings like her now play hockey in our gali every other day. I have Khan to thank for that. He ought to be justly proud of that movie; of influencing young minds, that sort of thing.
But smoking. Come on. As a father, Khan should know that his kids are not immune to what they see on screen.
Let me leave you with one last thought. In the US today, a big concern is how young schoolboys are carrying guns into school and killing hundreds of their classmates a la Columbine. Now, I have not done a double-blind or controlled study but just from watching a random sampling of American movies over the last several years, I have noticed that they have become more and more violent. Their heroes carry guns and don’t hesitate to use them. More guns and shooting in the movies; more guns and shooting in the schools. I rest my case.
I don’t know if Indian law allows the health minister to ban smoking from the movies, but if I were Anbumani Ramadoss, I would certainly look into it. Millions of parents including myself will thank him for it.
Shoba Narayan is waiting for Shah Rukh Khan to make chewing on neem-twigs sexy. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org