No Smoking is about tobacco addiction in the same way that Murder
was about murder. Cigarettes and smoke are present in more or less industrial quantities in the former, and the latter does show one homicide. But the murder in Murder was entirely incidental, just a plot device on which the director could hang Mallika Sherawat's clothes.
The difference between Murder and No Smoking is that in one, the audience knew exactly what they were getting (Ms. Sherawat), and didn't have to do any thinking on their own. With their heads, anyway. No Smoking is a very different kettle of fish.
Anurag Kashyap lets the movie go into free fall (especially in the second half), and almost petulantly refuses to do your thinking for you, merely presenting scene after carefully sculpted scene, and you have to sit in the darkness and wonder what it's all about.
The laconically named K (John Abraham) is a high-flying, narcissistic, Howard Roarkian MCP (as his car number plate testifies) in some unspecified profession. His relationship with his secretary Anjali (Ayesha Takia) who moonlights as his wife is precariously poised - she is on the verge of stubbing out their marriage mainly because she can't take his chain-smoking any more.
When Abbas Tyrewala (Ranvir Shorey), who introduced K to nicotine in their childhood, claims that he (Abbas) quit smoking after going through a "course" with the mysterious Sri Sri Sri Baba Bangali Sealdahwaale (Paresh Rawal), K is persuaded to check out said Baba's establishment.
This turns out to be in a virtual (or is it real?) parallel universe in the bowels of a Dharavi-ish slum, lurking below a warren of seedy and decaying tenements. Ostensibly to save his marriage, K descends physically and metaphorically from his sleek, wealthy world of softly lit apartments and artsy offices into a gritty hellhole where he needs to sign contracts he can barely comprehend, with the enigmatic Baba, merely to survive.
No Smoking catches you off guard by degrees. For about 2 minutes near the beginning, you may actually think the movie is
about the ills of smoking. Once you follow K into Bangali's burrow, a whiff of mystery/thriller creeps in, and pretty soon you're wondering whether it's actually a sci-fi flick. And that's just the first half.
Thanks to the fantastic quality of the visuals, and the generally absorbing progression (storyline would be the wrong word) of No Smoking, the acting didn't exactly need to be superlative. That being said, John Abraham is really quite good. While you start off with no sympathy for K and his egotism, his fall from grace is scripted and acted so well that by the end you actual feel for the poor sod. Paresh Rawal as the Baba is also more than competent, but then again the credit must lie in equal measure with the scripting.
Visually, No Smoking ranges from merely very unusual to stunningly unusual, by Bollywood standards. In 1987, 'dream sequence' meant Sridevi wrapped in Garden Vareli gyrating under a sprinkler and the unsurprisingly dumbfounded gaze of Mr. India.
20 years and many dhak dhak
s later, you have a Siberian landscape with a bathtub and a pack of cigarettes lying in the snow. K is incarcerated inside a dirty grey/brown building, with only a TV showing the news in incomprehensible Russian (although you can catch snippets of "Maria Sharapova" and "Sania Mirza" if you're listening carefully) for company. There's nary a puff in the offing. Out of desperation, he smashes his way out and dashes madly across the tundra, while a Soviet style security guard pumps bullet after bullet into his receding back. Whew.
There are quite a few notes that jar. For what essentially seems to be a serious and deeply personal movie, there are several annoying "homage" moments and references to Hollywood and Bollywood. Case in point, Tyrewala (who shares his name with a Bollywood scriptwriter) on the phone: "Arrey Maqbool, main hoon na
?" Or "Bidi jalaile ke vishal desh mein
something something ka gulzar laaye hain.
" Unnecessarily juvenile, we thought. Even Johnny Gaddaar
which was all about homage and tribute wasn't this randomly unsubtle.
If you are chummy with terms and phrases such as "Kafkaesque", "surrealism", "stream of consciousness", "Faustian", "rabbit hole" and "Travis Bickle", and the thought that a Bollywood movie could involve any/all of the above excites you, definitely check out No Smoking. Even if you only have the time to get yourself a Wikipedia education, given that it is a virtual certainty that the movie will vanish before the week is out.
No Smoking can be accused (and possibly fairly) of being much too self-indulgent and supercilious, and of being obscure simply for the sake of being obscure. If you're sure you prefer down-to-earth, conventional filmmaking you should definitely avoid it, but if you aren't averse to experimentation and cerebral exploration, try it out.
There's no guarantee that No Smoking itself will be your cup of tea - quite likely the contrary. But at least your ticket will send the Industry a signal that there is a market for courageous movies, actors and filmmakers who are willing to stick their collective necks out and make something different without resorting to the standard issue industry checklist.