Tuesday, 31 July 2007

The many meanings of smoking

The many meanings of smoking

“Smoking kills” – this is not only a compulsory statutory warning flashed on all cigarette packs but also a fact. And people go ahead buying those packs (by turning blind to that message) is also a fact. Smoking is an act, a habit, and for a lot of people an addiction. On a simpler level, it appears, and in some way it is, a personal and individual habit, of course with damaging repercussions for those who have to keep company with the smokers by choice or by default. I assume this is the logic behind recent spate of bans on smoking in public places, so that the non-smokers don’t have to suffer. But, smoking has also come to acquire a social meaning. It is an act which has moved beyond the realm of individual into the social. It has been donned with certain social attributes over a period of time. The role of media in different mediums like adverts, films, and songs are crucial in this exercise.

As a kid I remember watching an advert in which a boy and a girl holding their hands together were seen enjoying the rain. The caption said: “Made for each other”. This advert however was not for a perfect couple, but for a perfect cigarette – the Navy Cut Filter Wills. Filter and tobacco were “perfectly matched” which produced a taste that “truly satisfied – time after time”. A couple endorsing the practice of smoking actually elevated it from an individual practice to a social conjugal space, that space which needed not to go “smokefree”. In 1969, in fact the ITC (Indian Tobacco Company) introduced the “Wills Made For Each Other Contest” to find a perfectly matched couple. The brand was then changed to Wills Navy Cut from Wills Filter, and the blending of right tobacco with right filter was described as a “marriage”, of course with an image of a couple in the advert.

There are many such adverts promoted by the tobacco companies that legitimised smoking as a social practice and through them put across certain cultural attributes. For instance, the advert of Wills Classic showed men playing polo with a caption: “Discover a passion. For those who value taste.” One could be slightly amused at this forged relationship between masculinity, sportsmanship and smoking. (I can’t even run fifty meters and I think part of it is because of smoking). And then of course, there was the image of “The Man with a Smooth Edge”, who drove the car while a girl gasped at his manliness. This was the advert of Four Square brand.

Nonetheless this world of media representation is changed or changing. Now we have adverts from the Health Ministry and the World Health Organisation (WHO) warning against the dangers of smoking. And they are equally innovative, like this one: “Cancer Cures Smoking”. The Health and Family Welfare Ministry together with the WHO took up the campaign against passive smoking by putting up the images of a child, a pregnant woman, and an old man affected by smoke; the pregnant woman one being really catchy: “Between the two of them, they smoke fifteen cigarettes a day”. This awareness drive is crucial for any ban or prohibition to work.

If adverts are fast changing or striving to change the social meaning of smoking, so is our Bollywood. Later this year we will see a film called No Smoking, in which John Abraham plays a chain smoker and Raj Kumar Santoshi, a doctor who helps him quit smoking. In their personal lives, actors like John, Saif and Aamir have given up smoking. But the social struggle is going to be more prolonged. In June 2005, the Health Ministry put a ban on use of images of tobacco from all Indian movies and television shows. Amidst the criticism from libertarian artists who championed for the cause of “artistic freedom”, the deadline was extended to January 2006. But seemingly, that is still ineffective; we have seen smoking scenes in recent movies like Don.

The yesteryears songs and movies made smoking fashionable, doable, and cool. The casual, indifferent attitude towards life in one of the most famous songs of Md. Rafi from the movie Hum Dono (1961): Main zindagi ka saath nibhata chala gaya, har fikr ko dhuwe mein udata chala gaya (I puffed out all my worries in smoke and now take each day as it comes by) became a trend-setter. The song picturised on Dev Anand, who puffed cigarette throughout the song, typified an image of the youth who cared for nothing. And this youthful adventurism and smoking remained inseparable since then. Be it Prem of Maine Pyar Kiya, who had returned home after finishing his studies, stealing cigarette from his Dad’s packs or Haider Ali’s Purani Jeans – a song that became the anthem of college goers in the decades of nineties – which brilliantly captured the youthful activities that amongst other included smoking in hiding from parents. And how could one miss to mention the most stylist actor of Indian cinema – Rajnikant’s inimitable style of flipping the cigarette and tossing it into his mouth: a skill par excellence which many tried to imitate in their real lives, although unsuccessfully.

If smoking became voguish among youth, the off-beat films as they are called now, or what was earlier known as “parallel cinema” in the decades of seventies and eighties associated smoking with a “thinking” intelligentsia. The seriousness, depth and intensity of the character relied on the number of cigarettes or at best on the fact that they smoked. Quite remarkable is the gender configuration around smoking. A “bad girl” or a “vamp” can only smoke in our movies; for men it was an OK or rather preferable thing to do.

The mediums of mass contact like films and adverts thus have imputed a meaning to this act. Good or bad, that depends on the perspective, but one thing is sure: smoking is not just a medical/health issue; it has deeper social connotations.