Edited by: Maitree Jain
Anurag Kashyap’s 2007 film No Smoking is a psychological thriller about K (John Abraham), a chain-smoker who visits Prayogshala, a rehabilitation center run by Shri Shri Prakash Guru Ghantal Baba Bangali Sealdah Wale (played by Paresh Rawal, hereinafter referred to as “Baba Bangali”), to quit smoking as his wife/secretary Anjali/Annie (same person, played by Ayesha Takia) threatens to leave him if he does not quit smoking. The film is shot as K’s surrealist narrative where he often cannot distinguish between dream and reality.
There are many filters of reality through which the viewer is required to watch No Smoking. At 31:22 minutes, we see a filter gather over the screen, indeed over K’s reality, as he enters Prayogshala. We see this filter again at 37:34 minutes when it seems to be emanating from Baba Bangali, and at 48:25 minutes when Baba Bangali says “Atma hai toh sharir ishwar hai, atma nahin toh nashwar hai” (translated as “If the body has a soul, it is god, if not, it is mortal”). The fact that Prayogshala is actually many levels underground and referred to as “paatalghar” (translated as “hell”) by Baba Bangali adds another dimension to K’s reality. When he is behind the glass at 1:35:00 minutes, K is even further removed from his own reality. We see him as he is seen by the police officers. Additionally, water seems to be a medium through which he enters the different dimensions of his reality. One minute, he is in the bathtub, another in Siberia, and neither he nor we are sure whether it is his dream, imagination, or reality.
The surrealism is exacerbated by the Kafkaesque bureaucratic elements that are clear from the operations of Prayogshala where Baba Bangali plays the role of Big Brother from George Orwell’s 1984 as he constantly watches his patients. The dusty rooms full of VHS tapes also add to this Kafkaesque bureaucratic element. In the dream/reality song sequence around 1:40:00 minutes, K becomes the leader of all the men who seem to be the patients of Prayogshala. When he points at Baba Bangali, everyone runs towards him as if with the intention of attacking him, but as K makes his way through the crowd to get to Baba Bangali, the scene cuts to a shot of a rat running through a tunnel which seems to imply that no matter how much he tries, he will always be a rat in Big Brother/Baba Bangali’s scheme of things.
The viewer needs to employ attention to glean emotions from not only the actors but also from their body language. The close-up of the rings on Anjali/Annie’s shaking fingers as she grips the bedsheet while K presumably tries to have sex with her but ends up coughing up phlegm springs to the mind of the viewer the shaky state of their marriage. Similarly, the exchange between K and Anjali in the thought bubbles when she calls him a “bastard” and he calls her a “bitch” reveals the reality of their marriage to us.
The element of cut-black is made meta by being made explicit on screen when Baba Bangali plays for K scenes from his own life on VHS tapes to show him how much he has spent on cigarettes. Baba Bangali also invokes forward glances by showing K what will happen if he smokes a cigarette (No Smoking 46:36). Lastly, the color tones in the movie also draw our attention towards and away from the different aspects of K’s reality. As we see K drive through the narrow lanes of Mumbai, we see the color palette change to warmer shades. As he makes his way to the Prayogshala, the camera flits from him to the occupants of Mumbai bastis and the color of the film becomes a dull yellow which reveals to us the dullness of their life as perceived by K (No Smoking 27:58).
The references to Hitler whom Baba Bangali refers to as his friend and to Steven Spielberg’s 1994 film Schindler’s List which Anjali/Annie is watching at the beginning of the film complement the Kafkaesque character of the ending. K is made to enter a chamber in Prayogshala that resembles the gas chamber in the concentrations camp in the shower scene in Schindler’s List, but the chamber’s vaults open onto boiling lava which evaporates his and other patients’ souls, and apparently, it is these souls which we see flitting across the screen as filters at various points throughout the film. Right after this, the film ends with a shot of K waking from his bed next to Anjali/Annie, going into the bathroom, and looking at his two missing fingers in the mirror, a punishment meted out to him by Baba Bangali for smoking. We are left wondering, just as he is, what was real? No Smoking closes the gap between art and life by muddling both categories in equal measure.