No Smoking: A Review
All fire and some smoke
This review is only for those who have seen the movie, since the movie is not about its plot.
As the first sequences of No Smoking end, with K (John Abraham) predictably asking the Russian soldier for a light and being shot, one was wondering which direction the film would take; at that point I was thinking I hope there isn’t more of similar predictable smart-alec stuff. I do not have any problems with smart-alec movies provided it is smart.
The scenes that followed after the titles, where K’s character is revealed in-your-face (both in terms of the screenplay as well as K’s character itself) were particularly insipid. Both the dialogue and the screenplay were surprisingly pedestrian and uninspired given the director’s undeniable writing and filmmaking talents (Satya for the writing and Black Friday for the filmmaking).
It is only when K starts walking into the world of Prayogshala does it seem like the director is coming into his own. The references are numerous, over-flowing and obvious; Hindu and Muslim fundamentalism (a Hindu pedagogy spewing Paresh Rawal in a Narendra Modiesque stubble, and burqa clad women etc), fascism and all its methods (surveillance, archiving etc), call centers, but they lack subtlety and sophistication. The dialogues were still not as consistently top draw as one expects from the writer. They were sparks but no major fireworks.
Gradually the movie meanders, trying valiantly to create the surreal horror of totalitarian regimes and the breaking down of a man’s revolt against it. But trying as much as he was, lesser directors would have surely done worse, the director is unable to present it in an imaginatively new form. The cigarette metaphor remains a metaphor only in the sense of the script. It was never realized visually. We know how totalitarian regimes work. There have been enough movies on Soviet, German and American fascism. Metaphorical representations of the totalitarian regimes have already been done in many books. So in order make the film interesting and gripping both the metaphor and its visualization should have been much more imaginative.
Both the plot and the visuals lose whatever steam they have after the interval, the many references and genre salutes notwithstanding. In fact excessive unsubtle referencing only brings the lack of strength in the script to the foreground. The parts with the Cuba returned friend being the low-point. For a non-mainstream film there were too many songs. There was been films that were more mainstream than this with fewer or almost no songs. I guess it is a function of Bollywood economics, a film’s budget is directly proportional to the number of songs it has.
One is almost sleep-watching through the last third of the movie and the closing scenes in the dungeons grab your attention. They are decent but one can’t help but feeling let down at the amount of money that would have been spent on it to no avail.
All through this time I watched the movie shaking off the pain of the knife that the director plunged into the heart right at the beginning, calling the character K. It is a sacrilege to name your protagonist after one of the most groundbreaking names in world literature. In doing so the director reveals the lack of a deeper understanding of art and its aesthetics in general and it is as pathetic in its lack of imagination as the repetition of Vijay, Rahul or Prem. To do that the film has to be as great as the author’s book. The last twist of the dagger is that it is John Abraham who is K. If it were an actor of caliber and character, it would made the film much better by covering up its weaknesses and would have insulted Kafka lesser.
It was a disappointment, a major one. The movie should be seen by all cinephiles and aspiring directors who want to put themselves and India on the world-cinema map. One can watch, enjoy, learn and fundamentally understand cinema by watching world cinema. But in order to make world-cinema one has to build one’s own idiom, brick by brick, questioning the relevance of each brick as you place it.