Screen sans smoke
CINEMA always made statements. The cigarette proved to be a handy tool, which this 19th Century medium used to make declarations. It did not really care if, in the bargain, it promoted the bad and the ugly.
Admittedly, the cigarette helped create an aura of mystery and romance even in the very early years of film. Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall surrounded themselves with rings of smoke on the screen. And, even off it. Ultimately, the cigarette killed Bogart, but the image of a suave and debonair gentleman (remember him in "Casablanca" where he puffs away, but plays martyr by giving up "his kid", his love?) fascinated his fans endlessly.
Later, Sharon Stone's cigarette-between-the-lips pin-up from "Basic Instinct" drove young girls to ape a lethal habit. Many blew rings in the air as a mark of supposed liberation, which really came with a deadly price: enslavement, disease and death.
In India too, movies sought to build icons through a haze of smoke: Rajnikanth or Shahrukh Khan tossed their cigarettes in such dizzying ways that they tempted audiences into lifelong addiction.
Cinema could hardly care, it seemed at one point of time, about tobacco's dangers. Films made light of — what many warned time and again — a serious health hazard.
With big tobacco companies finally on the mat, movies have begun to tread cautiously. A Utah-based organisation, Phoenix Alliance, has just asked Oscar winner, Catherine Zeta-Jones, to stop smoking, at least, on the screen.
Last June, the Tamil film industry promised to wage a war against the cigarette. Their pledge coincided with the World Health Organisation's (WHO) "No Tobacco Day" theme for 2003.
In a nation of a billion-plus people, where health and medicare are least of the worries — or so it seems, the industry's campaign against nicotine appeared immensely relevant. A cause of this is certainly cinema, which glamorises tobacco. A WHO study has pointed out that cigarette companies have "shifted their focus from Hollywood to Bollywood... Hollywood has been a prime target, but other film industries around the world are now being targeted...By virtue of its size, popularity and tremendous reach, Bollywood has the power to influence attitudes and behaviour especially among the youth".
The figures that WHO presents are frightening. There are five million children in India who smoke. And most of them continue smoking for the rest of their lives.
In fact, most addicts begin early, usually in their teens, a time when they form impressions, and these are built around movie stars and sports heroes whose mercenary ambitions blind them to the good of the community.
This is precisely what the WHO has been telling us: a mere five per cent of the smokers take up the habit when they are 24 or beyond, the rest earlier, often in their teens.
Big Tobacco took advantage of this, and pushed the poison stick among the impressionable young. Sports played the devil's advocate, by letting cigarette manufacturers sponsor tournaments.
However, one can now see a light at the end of a smoky maze. On May 1, advertisements of all tobacco products will be banned. No smoking in public places, no sales to minors. It may not be exactly easy to enforce the last two. We have seen how the rule against lighting a cigarette in some public areas has been flouted. Fly into, for instance, New Delhi, India's capital city, and one can easily spot blatant violations by, mind you, the country's elite and educated classes.
The other evening, a group of foreigners in Chennai's Spencer Plaza was having a cool smoke right under a no-smoking sign. Perhaps, the guards on duty were too intimidated to tick them of.
As much as the coming advertisement ban is to be welcomed, importance to education must not be ignored. Schools and colleges can play a useful role here. A legendary principal of Kolkata's renowned St Xavier's College used to chastise boys found smoking. He would chase them out of the college campus and mark them absent for the day. This was 30 years ago, and that principal stopped many from turning into nicotine addicts. Educational institutions can certainly go a long way in curbing the evil of tobacco.
Cinema can strip it of its allure. If motion pictures can resist the temptation to seek shine and sparkle inside a piece of rolled paper, the cigarette will lose some of its stardom.
Joe Eszterhas, one of the highest paid American screenwriters credited with such works as "Showgirls", "Sliver" and "Basic Instinct", said sometime ago: "A cigarette in the hands of a Hollywood star is a gun aimed at 12 or 14-year-old kid. The gun will go off when the kid is an adult. We in Hollywood know the gun will go off, yet we hide behind a smokescreen of phrases like creative freedom and artistic liberty."
What these men in tinseltown forget is their common sense and individual responsibilities. Perhaps school and colleges can help the young realise theirs, and stop the first drag.
(This story appeared in The Hindu dated February 29 2004)