I swear on my favourite noire film I tried very hard to like No Smoking. But at the end of the ordeal it seemed a nation of smokers was preferable to a film that preaches no smoking with such opaque wisdom.
Initially, I giggled at the spousal banter between the chain smoker (John Abraham) and his rather disgruntled wife (Ayesha Takia). They made a kinetic pair. Director Anurag Kashyap is good at portraying spousal conflict. Scenes from his marriage (including an inventive bedroom interlude where we see the girl's hand and the guy coughing his way to sexual non-performance) reminds one of Basu Bhattacharya's Aavishkar. "What do you want for our anniversary?" asks the arrogant husband who looks at the mirror as though it was his crystal ball while she looks at him as though he was a self-absorbed oddball. "Divorce," she suggests. Cure to divorce? Quit smoking.
So far, so tongue-in-cheek. But then the cheek goes into the shriek. The trick was to attire the satire on smoking in lots of delicious barbs on the whole killing cult of the cancer -stick inhalers. Regrettably, No Smoking is as amusing and entertaining as a root-canal job done by a dentist hell-bent on causing pain.
The smoke gets so thick and the parallels to Kafka, Steven Spielberg's Schindler's Lis t, Bob Fosse, Guru Dutt and Vishal Bharadwaj's art get so thick and condensed we're left groping in smog of swirling ambiguities.
Hallucinogenic images swim to the surface in a tidal wave of cryptic dialogues and missing scenes that leave you stunned with their abject abstruseness. Why the utter lack of transparency in the storytelling? Why not tell it like it is? What is Anurag Kashyap hiding in the folds of defiant symbolism?
The narrative plays a dismaying mind-game where the smoker-hero gets trapped in a sewage underbelly, an infernal underground borrowed from Dante's Hell…or is it Ram Gopal Varma's cinema? An oily sinister and diabolic Baba (Paresh Rawal) presides over a planet of freaks and oddballs, all photographed in sleets of sepia-toned colours representing the disembodied images taken from a perverse pauranic portrait of the conflict between Man and Conscience.
The conflicts in Kashyap's scheme of things come not from the heart but the intellect. And there lies the problem with this innovative piece of eccentric cinema. The lines between truth and subterfuge, nightmare and wake-up crawls into the snow in Russia where gun-toting comrades take potshots at poor John Abraham are so slender, they snap like over-dry twigs in a forest of bewildering ambiguities.
If anything holds the film together it's the panoramic shots of Mumbai's traffic and John Abraham's clenched vain but sensitive performance as a man more sinning than sinned against. Ayesha Takia is as ever -watchable and empathetic, though why she shows up in a double as her husband's secretary is one out of many cryptic codes to be unlocked at a later date when more intelligent civilization would be able to explain the intricacies of Anurag Kashyap's cinematic vision.
I know I've missed something vital here. But I don't know where to look for it in the troubling rubble of dreams, nightmares, illusions and delusions that take the protagonist from chain smoking to a Hitlerian gas chamber where he's suffocated to death.
After sitting through No Smoking we know that feeling.