No Smoking is a “self service” movie. You have to try (and try really hard!) to figure out the story and the message by yourself. The movie is not likely to work well at the box office since we are so used to being served (spoon-fed) in Bollywood, where everything in the movie has to be clear and easy to understand. Abstract metaphors and symbolic references are quite rare and often frowned upon.
“I hope the movie finds its audience” says Anurag Kashyap (the director) because he knows that for an average Joe it’s going to be inconvenient (and in some cases, impossible) to come out of those explain-me-everything and I-am-here-only-to-be-entertained mind-sets.
This is a bold and quite “arrogant” movie that refuses to spoon-feed the audience. It’s like when someone throws you into the water and expects you to learn swimming without providing any help. You either swim, or drown. There’s no third way out.
The movie is full with many metaphors and surrealistic moments.
- The protagonist’s name “K” is a reference to (1) Anurag Kashyap – the director himself, and (2) the main character Joseph K from Kafka’s novel: The Trial.
- The bathtub is a symbol of worldly comfort, and ciggaret of freedom. (You have to choose between these two. In the dream sequences, every time when K leaps for his ciggaret/freedom, he ends up getting killed by the soldier. Towards the end, when he finally decides to go for the bath-tub/worldly comfort instead, his freedom is thus sacrificed and that kills his soul – which is shown in the red bathroom scene where K dissolves into the air. It is his soul, which was trapped in a dungeon, that dies in that scene.)
- Initially you see K smoking in his bath-tub, which indicates that he has both: worldly pleasures and his freedom. He is having dreams (or, nightmares) in which he has to choose between these two.
- The two fingers that K uses to smoke his ciggarets, are also the same ones that Kashyap (or any other artist) uses to write his movies. K loses his finger (after he compromises, quits smoking, and hence loses his soul) – which is akin to a writer loosing his ability to write because of prohibitions.
- The dream sequence in Russia is a reference to Stalin’s dictatorial Communist government – i.e. violation of personal liberty.
- The secretary and wife both played by Ayesha Takia are two different and opposite characters. The wife is a self-determined & strong individual while the secretary is submissive (she follows orders unquestionably and takes out K’s shoes in one scene.) It is not clear whether both are the same person (K’s wife) or not. It might be that K starts to get schizophrenic because of the forceful prohibitions by Baba Bengali.
- K arrogantly talking to himself in the mirror (“Hi, I am K”, “Nobody tells K what to do”) is reference to Martin Scorsese classic Taxi Driver (the immortal sequence “Are you talking to me?” by De Nero).
- There is a direct references to Vishal Bhardwaj, Gulzar (the music director and lyricist in this movie), which I felt, was somewhat forced. (“Bidi jalai le ke Vishal desh mein…” utters one of the characters – giving a nod to Vishal/Gulzar’s Bidi Jalai Le song from Omkara.)
- Baba Bengali’s threat of hurting or killing K’s family members is probably symbolic reference to (a) the fact that K’s smoking hurts his family (both emotionally and physically as in his brother’s case), and (b) social pressure to give up your liberty often takes the form of emotional-blackmail too.
- In the last scene, K is shown quiet and composed for the first time in the movie. He has quit smoking. Baba Bengali has won. But K’s soul is gone. We see that his index finger is cut – which is probably a way of showing the fact that his soul is now cut off from himself.
- The cinematography, lighting, background score and song lyrics – the overall ambiance of the movie is very “dark” which gels with the melancholy theme of the movie. The movie’s visual appearance & format suits its character & content.
The movie actually takes off when K plunges into the water in the custody. His soul and his body take two different but coherent journeys after that moment. The soul experiences bizarre moments and try to find ways to continue smoking (i.e. stick to his individual freedom.) But finally in the battle of K’s soul and his mind, the mind wins when K chooses to opt for the bathtub (instead of ciggaret) and not get killed by the soldier.
There are obvious flaws in the movie too. I think Kashyap has tried too hard to not spoon-feed the audience. He ended up making a movie that lot (or worse, most) of the people will not “get” completely. I doubt if there’s anyone except Kashyap himself who can claim to have understood the whole movie. But may be that’s the idea. May be that’s way this movie was meant to be.
This is probably the first time in Bollywood when a director made a very “personal” self-referential, and rather arrogant movie. Through K’s character, Kashyap talks about his own frustration and anguish (with the industry). In order to understand the analogy, you would have to know some background of Kashyap. This movie is from a director who is still waiting to get green flag from the censor board to let his first to movies released (Paanch and Gulal). It’s a movie from the director who had to unwillingly make several cuts in his last movie (Black Friday) to get censor board’s approval. It’s a movie from the director who felt as if his liberty to make movies (in the way he wants to make them) is taken away from him (as if his fingers with which he writes his movie were cut!). And that’s the central theme of this movie. How a person has to sacrifice his own self(ish) desires in order to follow the societal norms. And how that comes at the cost of your own personal soul! (By this, Kashyap is not saying that smoking is good. He makes this very clear before the movie begins. “A thousand people stops smoking everyday. By dying. Smoking Kills.”)
This is a movie that bothers you, provokes you, makes you think, it’s like a jigsaw puzzle that you try to put together even after (and especially after) the movie is over.
I loved this movie for its libertarian theme, style, wonderful songs, witty dialogues, bold and unusual way of storytelling.
PS. Two great quotes from two great philosophers (Socrates and Plato) are shown before the beginning credits:
“To be is to do.”
“To do is to be.”
You are defined by your what to do. Your actions define you, not your looks.
Addendum: See the man himslef answering questions from people about No Smoking: Part I, Part II, and Part III. (He talks about the significance of mirrors in NS, the idea behind Baba Bengali’s one-rupee fee, the usage of rather awkward blurbs etc.)