Mumbai: Woody Allen isn’t the only filmmaker who would rather scrap the India release of his new film Blue Jasmine than run anti-smoking disclaimers in scenes a character reaches for a cigarette.

The release of Anurag Kashyap’s Ugly, a police procedural about the hunt for a missing girl, has been indefinitely pushed after the director protested against the anti-smoking spots that appear at the beginning of the movie as well as the disclaimer that must be carried at the bottom right-hand corner of the screen every time a character reaches for a cigarette. According to a Union ministry of health and family welfare directive, which was issued on 21 September 2012, films that refuse to run the health warnings will be denied certification by the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC).

Kashyap could not be contacted since he is travelling abroad. Ugly’s co-producer, Phantom Films, refused comment on its strategy, or whether it plans to move court against CBFC and the health ministry. Kashyap’s 2007 movie No Smoking equated attempts to clamp down on smoking with curbs on creative expression. John Abraham’s lead character undergoes an oppressive nicotine withdrawal programme that robs him of his body and soul.

PVR Pictures was supposed to release Blue Jasmine, an acclaimed update on A Streetcar Named Desire, on 4 October. Allen’s argument against running the disclaimers on artistic grounds—his publicist told news agency Reuters that “Due to content in the film, it cannot be shown in India in its intended manner"—has several takers in the capital of the Hindi film industry.

Filmmakers in Mumbai chafe, mostly privately, at having to run the anti-smoking spots before and during movies. The health ministry, which has been pushing filmmakers to stub out smoking for several years, tightened the screws in 2011. At first, the ministry asked one of the actors to read out a health warning linking smoking with cancer at the beginning of the movie. Last year, the ministry ordered two spots to be shown at the start of a film as well as warnings in every scene that directly or indirectly features smoking.

The first, called Sponge, is an adaptation of a health warning used by the Cancer Institute of Australia, said Nandita Murukutla, country director of the Indian chapter of the American organization World Lung Foundation, which developed the spots for the health ministry.

The non-governmental organization (NGO) also made Mukesh, the sorry tale of a mouth cancer patient. “Mukesh was the result of a visit to the Tata Memorial Hospital in Mumbai," Murukutla said. “Following ethical clearances from patients and the doctors, we captured the story of Mukesh as part of a larger public safety advertisement called Surgeon. Mukesh unfortunately died a few weeks later, and we decided to focus on his story."

The spots Child and Dhuan, which were developed in 2008, have replaced Sponge and Mukesh since 2 October, following a new health ministry directive. Child is about the dangers of passive smoking, while Dhuan is about tobacco-related legislation.

Opinion on the efficacy of these graphic and crudely made messages is divided. “I don’t think these ads are effective—they are humbug and look horrible, and young people make fun of them," said Vincent Nazareth, chairperson of a Mumbai NGO called Crusade Against Tobacco, which conducted media-supported raids on hookah parlours and cigarette stalls located near schools and colleges in the city a few years ago. “It is more effective to include anti-smoking messages in the school curriculum."

Director Vikramaditya Motwane, whose Udaan and Lootera have characters who smoke, added: “The messages anger me not just as a filmmaker, but as an audience member. It’s not about the anti-smoking message—it’s about being treated like a kid and being told what to do."

The anti-smoking campaign can be interpreted too literally at times. The recently released 1976-set racing car drama Rush, about the professional rivalry between James Hunt and Niki Lauda, carried a textual warning throughout the film since the vehicles were sponsored by the cigarette brand Marlboro. Period films that attempt to depict a world in which attitudes towards smoking were far more relaxed also suffer from the blanket rule.

The textual warning is usually inserted into the final film by visual effects studios. In the case of Blue Jasmine, the revised print containing the warnings was sent for approval to Allen, who chose to withdraw the tampered film from circulation in India.

The revulsion created by the spots is entirely intentional, Murukutla said. “The intention is to be conscientious and responsible in what we depict," she said. “These advertisements create discomfort and concern over the habit, and we do know people who have expressed their intention to quit after seeing these warnings."

Indian filmmakers who don’t agree with the health ministry’s logic that smoking on the big screen increases cigarette consumption off it don’t have a choice in the matter. Or maybe they do.

“The health warning didn’t affect my film at all, and I am completely for it," said Barfi! director Anurag Basu. Ranbir Kapoor’s character in Barfi! puffs on beedis in a couple of scenes. “People don’t know the reality, they should see the rise in the number of cancer patients," added Basu, himself a cancer survivor.

No character will smoke in his future projects, including the forthcoming detective comedy Jagga Jasoos. “We will know of the impact of these health spots only after five years," he said. “Nobody will smoke in Jagaa Jasoos because of the disclaimer and that is a good thing. By the end of five years, nobody on the screen will be smoking at all."

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