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Blowing away the message

chandigarh Updated: Oct 13, 2013 11:33 IST
Aarish Chhabra
Aarish Chhabra
Hindustan Times

What’s that guy’s name? The one in the anti-tobacco ad before the movie begins? Mukesh? He seems to have lived a miserable life - chewed gutkha, smoked away his lungs, suffered cancer and died a painful death. Even in death he hasn’t found peace, I am sure.

Every time he shows up, he is greeted with disgust or laughter. I don’t blame him; he does his best in telling us, “Main ab shayad kabhi bol na paaun (I may not be able to speak again).” But it’s the whole construct of the ad that blows away the very point of the social awareness campaign issued in public interest by our diligent government.

It gets funnier — sorry, but it does — when these advertisements play out even when you have gone to see a movie like Besharam, which takes misogyny to a whole new level and tries to make harassment seem a legitimate romantic move. And it does not stop there. Every time someone lights up, the words ‘Smoking is injurious to health’ pop up at the bottom even before the poor chap has flicked the lighter. Drinkers have life easier, so far, as antialcohol messages have not made it to the screen yet. At this rate, though, the genie will soon be out of the bottle.

Before the statistic-flashing, noble-intentioned anti-smoking lobby shouts its lungs out at me, I must declare that my dormant annoyance over the ads has erupted primarily because my favourite filmmaker, the wonderfully awkward Woody Allen, has refused to release his latest creation ‘Blue Jasmine’ in India because he does not want that ticker diverting attention from the scenes in which his characters take a drag or three. Even though the movie stars Cate Blanchett, our government won’t allow the release without that ticker.

Allen once wrote, “Life is full of misery, loneliness, and suffering — and it’s all over much too soon.” So if a seemingly nonchalant but extremely in-tune person like Allen is taking a stand, he deserves to be taken seriously, with perspective.

Indeed, an effective deterrent like the ban on smoking in public places is a step worthy of applause. A ban like this has tangible results for nonsmokers who no longer have to endure a cloud of cancer in the coffee house. But understanding the psyche of a smoker is necessary to understand why the pre-movie ads induce laughter.

Take a look at PETA, which has used provocative images of sexy vegetarians to make vegetarianism the new fad, rather than just pontificating that killing animals for your culinary pleasures is not good. Closer home, there’s that beautiful ‘MP gazab hai..’ ad by the tourism department about Madhya Pradesh. But ad gurus also know that even brilliant campaigns can get annoying if repeated too many times; MP now has an equally good, new ad.

The pre-movie anti-tobacco message, thus, is doomed to begin with. The cheap production value, the repetitive structure, too many gory pictures, that sarkari voiceover, the same-old narrative, and the pointlessness of ruining everyone’s movie experience – all of that is so terribly ‘uncool’ that even young non-smokers would not want to be seen attached to a message delivered so boringly. It’s much like parental advice delivered in a patronising monotone, which always ends up making the wrong things sound more exciting.

For smokers among moviegoers, these disclaimers only underline the I-don’t-care-if-I-die attitude that comes with the coolness of a cigarette dangling from your lips. For nonsmokers, these are as annoying as second-hand smoke — killing your experience with nauseating images of torn lips, cut-up cheeks, puss-filled tumours, just because someone else does not value his/her lungs/life.

Filmmaker Santosh Sivan makes a profound point: “Maybe we should start censoring news on television and in newspapers… captions saying, ‘Please don’t bomb public places. It is injurious to health.’ Censorship should not be discriminatory.”

I have my own suggestions. Every time a character scratches his crotch, we must flash, ‘Don’t go there!’ Every time someone shoots a gun, we must halt the movie and display full text of the Arms Act. Every time someone kisses on the lips, we must write that we even have laws against such ‘indecent’ acts. At the very least, for the kids’ sake, please, every time a heroine dances in the snow-capped mountains of Switzerland with nothing but a flimsy sari to guard against the cold, a ticker must tell, ‘Hypothermia kills!’

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