The Indian film industry, by and large, comes out strongly against the ban.R. KRISHNAKUMAR in Thiruvananthapuram
THE announcement by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare that the government is going to outlaw images of smoking in films and television has re-ignited old arguments.
The 2003 study by the World Health Organisation (WHO), "Bollywood: Victim or Ally" on which the ban is based, recommended the adoption of stricter tobacco control policies, as it found that the increasing portrayal of smoking in films had a significant impact on young audiences. The study recommended six policy imperatives that the government and the Indian film industry should adopt "to reduce the influence and negate the impact of tobacco portrayal in films".
They included the strengthening of rating guidelines to eliminate smoking scenes in youth-oriented U (Universal) and U/A (Universal Adult) movies by working with and encouraging the entertainment industry to adopt strict measures for tobacco portrayal; certification at the end of every movie that nobody in the production unit had received anything of value from a tobacco company; a ban on sponsorship of film-based events by tobacco companies; running strong anti-smoking advertisements before and during the intervals of films showing "any tobacco presence in it"; a decision to stop using tobacco brand names in films; and the showing of "embedded warnings" every time a smoking scene occurred in a film.
The WHO recommendation did not include a ban on smoking scenes in all films. Such censorship has not been adopted even in countries like the United States where the anti-tobacco lobby and Smoke Free Movie campaigns have been very strong and film producers are subject to stricter but self-imposed controls. India is the first country after Thailand to propose such a ban.
The reaction from the film industry is sharp, with only a handful of people supporting the move. Film critic Shamik Bandopadhyay said: "I am not concerned so much with the impingement of creative licence, nor do I see it as a censorship issue, but the whole idea is so stupid. There is absolutely no rationale behind it. It is fine to discourage people from smoking, but it is not possible to do that by banning smoking on screen. Smoking is a part of reality and it is ridiculous to ignore that. It is not that cinema glorifies smoking either. It is puerile to think that a change can be brought about in this manner."
The WHO study reported that the highest number of smoking incidents in the 12 years from 1991 was recorded in movies featuring Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan. Khan, however, would not speak to Frontline. His secretary said: "He will not be able to speak to you about this. It is the last thing he wants to talk about."
Others in the top "culprit" list included Rajnikanth, Gulshan Grover, Ajay Devgan, and Chiranjeevi. South Indian idol Rajnikanth, whom the study found had portrayed the second largest number of smoking incidents, could not be contacted immediately.
However, K. Balachander, who has directed several trend-setting films in Tamil since the late 1950s, is all for the ban. His film Moondru Mudichu (Three Knots) in the early 1970s had Rajnikanth enthralling audiences with his cigarette trapeze act and it set off a fad among youth in the South. Said Balachander: "Times have changed. I was an avid smoker then [in the 1960s and 1970s when he directed movies that had characters smoking as a fashion statement that caught on] and had not realised the consequences. Now I have given up smoking. And I think it is for the good. The film industry should also accept this censorship as good. I have no two minds on that."
But, describing the proposal as "ridiculous", director Goutam Ghosh told Frontline: "Where does the list end? Why ban smoking from the screen and not violence? Are not children influenced by the violence in films? Besides, when we talk of democracy and freedom of expression, a ban like this makes no sense. Any ad hoc decision taken without understanding the issue is very funny. But first I challenge censorship in our country. Why are there two kinds of laws as far as censorship is concerned for cinema and television? True, there was a time when cinema was more popular, but that is not the case any more. Television is as popular today as cinema. If you go through the censorship law, you will see how ridiculous it is."
In Bangalore, film-maker Girish Kasaravalli called the proposed ban a "stupid move" that would not serve any purpose. "There are numerous other and more effective ways to curb smoking. The ban on smoking in films will not stop people from smoking. And anyway the percentage of people who are influenced by smoking in films (and ape it) is very small. The government should be ridiculed for bringing in this sort of legislation," he said.
Actor Sharmila Tagore, Censor Board chairperson, has mixed views on the ban. "I understand the concerns of the Health Ministry. Obviously they've done a lot of research. They have found instances of the tobacco industry using the film industry for surrogate advertising. There are recent films like `Lucky', `Shabd' and so on where they show Marlboro footage. The Health Ministry feels that it has an impact on impressionable minds. But if they say don't smoke [on screen], it becomes a little difficult to accept it. We are in the entertainment industry, competing with foreign films as well. Films also depict life and what happens in the larger society. It is going to be a difficult thing to implement. There are period films, foreign films, documentaries, as well as films about street children and tribal people where it will be difficult to enforce the ban."
Balachander said that he could not agree with his colleagues in the film industry who argue against the legislation banning smoking scenes in films: "I feel that it [such scenes] has to be stopped some time or the other... Of course, implementation of the ban is one big hurdle, especially with films of the bygone era showing such scenes. I feel that we must all make up our minds to accept that this [ban] is done in the best interest of posterity. And, anyway, it has got to be done some time."
Rituparno Ghosh, the director of films such Raincoat and Utsav, said the ban was "impractical" and "naive". "True, cinema has a lot of influence on the masses, but cinema is not just for entertainment; there is also the aspect of artistic fulfilment. Cigarettes are a part of everyday products. So, many times, through the act of smoking, things are suggested or hinted at. Anyway, there are many problems (for filmmakers) already because of censorship. Now on top of it, we have this [ban]. Tomorrow if it is decided that sitting and writing causes spondylitis, then we won't be allowed to depict anybody sitting and writing in cinema, because it is supposedly bad for health. The list will never end then," he said.
"But is it really plausible to think that if showing smoking is banned in cinema, then people will start quitting the habit? That's ridiculous. Why only cinema? Why not literature? Why not poetry? Do the people in our country not read?" he asked.
Director Shyam Benegal said that over the last 15 years people all over the world have been smoking less. This is reflected in films. "Just look at the films over the last 15 years and you will see a lower incidence of smoking on screen. Smoking on screen does legitimise smoking but that is not an argument for the ban. The ban is an attack on creative freedom that is not going to yield any result."
According to filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt in Mumbai, the industry would perhaps have been more open to the idea of a ban had the Ministry of Health tried to discuss the issue with it. "My point is that we are willing to take action. We are willing to listen. Two years ago [then Minister] Sushma Swaraj made a similar attempt but she did not impose restrictions on us. She just quoted the WHO report that slammed smoking and asked us to be more aware of how we depicted it in films. In any case, the incidence of smoking the world over has drastically reduced. It is passe. It is no longer fashionable. But to accuse us of surrogate advertising is as bad as George Bush accusing Saddam Hussein of harbouring weapons of mass destruction and then bombing out the place," he said.
Dr. Mihir Bhattacharjee, founder Professor of the Department of Film Studies (the first of its kind in the country), Jadavpur University, told Frontline: "I am against smoking, mind you, but that does not mean that representation of human practices or social practices can be banned from any public media. It does not serve any purpose. Habits of smoking are contracted from social surroundings, not necessarily from images on the media. There are surely stray or individual cases where young people will imitate screen action, but the number of such cases is insignificant. If you want to reduce smoking, it should be banned from public places, particularly academic institutions, shopping arcades and so on and there should be a widespread campaign on this rather than a ban on its representation."
"Besides, there is a logic of narrative that may demand that a person is shown smoking. That cannot be obliterated without affecting the logic of narration or characterisation. Curtailing the freedom of creative artistry cannot be a solution to a social and health problem," he said.
Girish Kasaravalli, however, disagrees with the view that the ban curbs artistic freedom: "It may be a sort of censorship and from this point of view we [film industry] should object to it, but it does not curb artistic freedom or expression. To say that it curbs artistic expression is laughable. Today out of the 1,000-odd movies that we make in India, how many directors really use smoking as a metaphor? Very very few. Smoking is used just as a detail. The ban might deprive these directors of some sort of detailing. Smoking is also used just as an exploitation of the market and to pander to some people's taste."
Balachander said he could not buy the argument that the proposed ban infringed on the freedom of expression and would affect creativity. "In such a case, censorship in films itself can be viewed as an infringement on the freedom of expression. Don't we accept that? Similarly we should also accept this as part of the censorship measure. I sincerely think that an honest attempt can be made by the film industry to ban smoking scenes in films instead of opposing the ban."
He said the arguments that films reflect society and that the ban should be on the selling of tobacco rather than on scenes showing smoking are also untenable: "Society has so much obscenity, crime and so on. Can we show all that in films? There is censorship isn't it? Similarly, the film industry should accept this ban as a part of censorship and abide by it as well."
Cinematographer and director Balu Mahendra told Frontline that the decision on a ban on cigarette-smoking seems to be a hasty one. He said: "Tobacco is an identified killer. There cannot be a second opinion about that. Likewise, the impact of cinema, especially on the younger adults, is also a known fact. But, will the ban on cigarette-smoking in cinema make a considerable difference in the prevention of this vice? I am not sure."
According to him, if the government is genuinely concerned, the first thing it should do is ban the production of tobacco. If not, it should at least restrict the sale of tobacco in public. The government permits the production of tobacco and allows the `killer' to be sold freely. But it does not want film directors to show it in their films. There is something that does not jell here. "I have a suggestion to the government: instead of imposing a ban on smoking scenes in cinema, it should extend the ban to include the sale and promotion of tobacco. The government, through a law, can insist that the producer should show a sub-title, `Cigarette smoking is injurious to health', in English and in the language of the film, on shots depicting cigarette smoking. Then there will be uniformity in the government's actions in this matter, not double standards."
Health Ministry sources told Frontline that there was no going back on the decision to amend the Cigarettes and other Tobacco Products (Prohibition of Advertisement and Regulation of Trade and Commerce, Production, Supply and Distribution) Rules, 2004, though the "modalities" had to be worked out along with the Information and Broadcasting Ministry. The new rules are to come into effect on August 1. Informed sources said that while there was no ambiguity about the rules and about the powers of the Ministry to frame the rules, the modalities of implementation will be discussed after the return of Union Health Minister Anbumani Ramadoss from the U.S.
According to the Film and Television Producers Guild of India, the introduction of such a draconian step by the Health Ministry would only hamper the growth and development of the entertainment industry. "Given the fact that the Censor Board for Film Certification has already laid down guidelines which are sufficient to tackle this issue, it is rather strange that this sudden high-handed decision has been clamped down on this industry," it said. Spokesperson Anindya Dasgupta said the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting was in agreement with the Guild's view that the ban was unrealistic and was a curb on artistic freedom.
As a prelude to likely discussions within the government, Sharmila Tagore suggested that a film (depicting tobacco use) could be preceded by anti-tobacco warnings soon after the appearance of the Censor Certificate notification as well as during the interval. In addition, the actors could make an appeal to the viewers.
"There is no doubt that the tobacco companies have targeted developing countries. However, I am totally against the showing of embedded warnings as suggested by the rules. It will take away the creativity of the medium itself," she said.
She said that later on the Health and I&B Ministries as well as two or three members representing the film industry could work out the modalities. "Everybody including the film industry is socially responsible," she said. On the issue of the need for depicting smoking in films, she said that it was not "necessary that a villain could look menacing only with a cigarette in his mouth." And even if a ban were to come into force, the industry had to be given sufficient time to work it out, according to her.
WHO spokesperson Harsaran Pandey told Frontline that the WHO considered the proposal only as one among the many steps in the right direction. Asked to comment on the criticism that the government had gone overboard with the announcement of a total ban, rather than follow the path of countries like the U.S. and force filmmakers to regulate themselves, she said: "In the case of countries like the U.S. where NGOs and anti-tobacco movements had far more teeth, they could monitor the scene much more effectively. Here government intervention perhaps was hence necessary. The WHO was concerned about the health of the citizens and had made several recommendations. How to do it, how much to do etc., was the lookout of the government."
With inputs from T.K. Rajalakshmi in New Delhi, Lyla Bavadam in Mumbai, Asha Krishnakumar in Chennai, Suhrid Shankar Chattopadhyay in Kolkata, and Ravi Sharma in Bangalore.