By Pankaj Sachdeva

Anurag Kashyap’s No Smoking is one of my favourite films. When I first watched it at the time of its release, even though I did not fully understand everything about the film, I remember being fascinated that a film like that could be made in the Hindi film industry. No Smoking is based on Stephen King’s short story titled Quitters, Inc. It is the story of K (John Abraham), a narcissistic businessman, who is addicted to smoking. His wife Anjali (Ayesha Takia) wants him to stop smoking. K’s friend Abbas (Ranvir Shorey) recommends him to a rehabilitation center called Prayogshala, run by a godman named Baba Bengali (Paresh Rawal). When K visits Baba Bengali for a consultation, he is forced to sign a contract, that recommends extremely harsh punishment if K continues smoking. The film, then, transcends into metaphysical realms, where K eventually not only loses his habit of smoking but his own identity, too.

John Abraham’s character K is named after Josef K, the protagonist of Franz Kafka’s The Trial. The novel is a critique of totalitarianism in which K is put under arrest for an unknown crime for an unspecified period of time. Anurag Kashyap has mentioned that Franz Kafka is one of his favorite writers. Kafka’s novels are known for their surrealist themes. Surrealism is often described as literature in the dream state, where a different kind of logic prevails, that connects the real with the imaginary. Andre Breton, the founder of surrealism, has written, “I believe in the future resolution of these two states, dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality, if one may so speak.” This surrealism is a motif in the works of Kafka which has spawned its own term known as Kafkaesque. In an interview with The New York Times, Frederick R. Karl, author of a biography of Franz Kafka says, “Kafkaesque is when you enter a surreal world in which all your control patterns, all your plans, the whole way in which you have configured your own behavior, begins to fall to pieces, when you find yourself against a force that does not lend itself to the way you perceive the world.” These words also perfectly describe the crux of the plot of No Smoking and its Kafkaesque themeThe real and the unreal world of K collide to form a surreal world. K is often found near a bathtub as it is the device through which he travels between the two worlds. Additionally, the logic of the real world does not hold true as K’s life goes through major tribulations that have no rational explanation. K is constantly traversing the two interconnected worlds, and the film depicts K’s surreal world merging the events of his dreams and his reality.


To be is to do.“—Socrates

To do is to be.“—Sartre

Do be do be do.“—Frank Sinatra

The film opens with the above three quotes. There is an interesting history of how these quotes came into existence. This list of quotes first appeared in the bathroom stalls in the 1960s and 1970s, but many a time, different authors were specified for the first two quotes. The phrase attributed to Sinatra was derived from his version of the song Strangers in the Night. At the end of the track, Sinatra sang a sequence of nonsense syllables that were transcribed as “Do be do be do.” However, the appearance of quotes in No Smoking is most likely due to another reason. The quotes were made popular when they appeared as a graffito in the novel Deadeye Dick by Kurt Vonnegut. In the book, the protagonist named Rudy sees these words scribbled on the walls of an airport toilet where he is trapped. In Sanity Plea: Schizophrenia in the Novels of Kurt Vonnegut, Lawrence R. Broer suggests that the scene represented Rudy’s catharsis, his release of guilt, and his recognition that he is free to author a new essence in life. All of Kurt Vonnegut’s novels are known for their anti-authoritarianism and their randomness. Thus, it is entirely befitting that No Smoking opens with these quotes as the film, too, has a strong theme of anti-authoritarianism and is a riot of randomness. In addition, the film represents a sort of catharsis for Anurag Kashyap, as he has himself said, that he made this film because his earlier films faced problems and never got released. Smoking, itself, is a way of letting out something. Characters are letting go of things in the film. At one stage in the film, there is K’s wife, Anjali, sitting on a toilet seat and the film shows us her flushing after doing her job while she speaks on the phone. It is also noteworthy that the individual quotes are also in line with film’s leitmotif of individual freedom and randomness; hence, the three quotes are consistent with the film’s concept.


K gets a recommendation from his friend Abbas that he got cured of his smoking habit by going to the Prayogshala. Anjali threatens to leave K if he does not stop smoking. Therefore, K decides to visit the Prayogshala. It is located in the slums of Dharavi in Mumbai. When K reaches the spot, the man at the counter directs him to an underground bunker through which K has to pass to reach the Prayogshala. He descends into the manhole, and thereafter, he has to take more stairs to go further down. There is nothing at the same level and he has to keep going down. This descent is nothing but the representation of K going to hell. Once he reaches the Prayogshala, Baba Bengali actually tells him that there might be democracy in the dharti above but this place is paataal ghar, and his writ runs here. Prayogshala is, therefore, symbolizing hell, where people come to get rid of their smoking habit.


Initially, at an early point in the film, K looks in the mirror and tells himself that no one can tell him what to do. This is the idea of the film that one should be free to do whatever he wants. It is his life, and he will live it on his own terms. K is narcissistic and is not really a nice person. At one stage, he throws out an old lady from an elevator because she wanted him to stop smoking. Even if the activities he likes to do are harmful, he does them out of his choice. Smoking in the film is only a metaphor for freedom. This freedom could be of anything and is a basic right of every individual, even if that person is not really a good human being. The film, thus, tries to show how a person loses his soul if he is forced to do something that does not suit his character. This is why we see that there is a running theme of totalitarianism in the film. Baba Bengali, a godman, has been given the responsibility of curing the people of their addiction by his predecessor. Baba Bengali has met Hitler, the most (in)famous icon of fascist ideology, and he proudly displays his picture with Hitler in his Prayogshala. Baba is himself a dictator and forces people to sign a contract by hook or by crook. K’s recurring dream occurs in Siberia (Russia) where he is surrounded by military personnel, which is again a hint towards another military dictator of Russia, Joseph Stalin (or Putin). If Baba Bengali (Hitler) and military personnel (Stalin) stop him from smoking, the film also shows K’s friend Alex forcing him to smoke. Alex has come from Cuba where the writ of another famous dictator, Fidel Castro, runs large. Even if K likes to smoke, Alex is forcing him to have a cigar. He even names his cigars after Castro. The argument, again, is about individual freedom and choice. And, those who don’t listen to Baba Bengali literally start losing their hearing, and then, continue to lose their sense of being, which includes their creativity, the feeling of love, and then their own character. To be is to do. To do is to be.


Early in the film, Anjali is watching Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List on the television. The scene playing in the movie shows the Jews in a concentration camp in Hitler’s Germany. The same scene foreshadows the climax of No Smoking as well, underscoring the comparison of Baba Bengali’s methods with Hitler’s policies. In the dream, when K is running away from the soldiers, he jumps into the bathtub and enters into a surreal place where he becomes a prisoner. When K had visited the Prayogshala for the first time, he had seen some prisoners looking at him. This time, K has reached that spot and has become a prisoner. The other prisoners tell him that they will be taken for a bath soon. In the prison, K sees his reflection, which a fellow prisoner tells him is his own body on the other side. He can talk to his body using the phone if he has loose change. The lady announces that those who paid the full treatment amount will not be asked to take a bath. Thereafter, K and other prisoners are sent to take a bath, in which they are gassed like the Jews. Essentially, it was K’s soul that was exterminated in the Prayogshala. A human has a body and a soul. In an earlier moment, Baba Bengali had told K that the soul is frivolous and indulgent. If one has the power, the soul can be controlled, but if one is weak, the soul needs to be exterminated and let go to cure people of their addiction. The Prayogshala, like Hitler’s concentration camps, is a hellish place where he does that. K loses his soul. This is why the place is of sepia shade representing the color of the dirtiness of his soul. In that sense, No Smoking is a subversive film which makes a significant point that a human without the soul is just the body. Baba forced K to become someone with a soul. Aatma hai to shareer eeshwar hai, aatma nahi to nashwar hai. A body is divine with the soul; it is dead without the soul. 


In an interview after the release of the film, Anurag Kashyap had said that he made the film to express his anger and disappointment as his earlier films ran into problems with the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC). This is his personal story as well. K is Kashyap himself. The Minister of Health at that time, Anbumani Ramadoss, wanted to issue a fiat to ban the portrayal of smoking in films. So, Kashyap made a film titled No Smoking, which people thought advocates people to stop smoking, but in reality, it champions the cause of artistic expression. In the script of the film, there is a point in the film, where it is mentioned that Baba Bengali has a picture with Ramadoss, but it was not shown in the film’s theatrical version. In the last few years, before the starting of any movie, the government has mandated anti-smoking disclaimers and advertisements, which are absolutely bland. In a satirical response, No Smoking opens with a disclaimer that says, “A thousand people stop smoking every day, by dying. Smoking kills.” This is also shown in the metaphor of the cut fingers in films. Baba Bengali used to cut people’s fingers if they did not follow his orders. In the end, K’s soul was purged, and he loses his fingers. Baba explained to K that his writer friend Abbas cannot write. People use their fingers to smoke, but they use the same fingers to write as well. Thus, by issuing such diktats, one is cutting their writing fingers, and curbing artistic expression. The government should have no role in dictating its moral choices to people. In a contrast, perhaps, Alex represented the other side representing the cigarette companies. If forcing people to not smoke makes them lose their fingers, coercing people to smoke is like castration. His cigars have the brand name Infidal Castrated. Alex was the mirror image of Baba Bengali. Alex was also surrounded by men and women who used to wear sunglasses, like Baba’s lackeys. Baba Bengali idolized Hitler, and Alex too inspiration from Castro.


Baba Bengali is, thus, a representation of the dictatorial government. When K visits him, he asks his men to bring a massive red-colored rule book that he will have to read which is nothing but a symbol of the bureaucracy and the red tape, where governments try to force people to sign a contract with its complex rules (like the Aadhar). Then, Baba says there is a Rajagopalchari version (abridged) as well, which I found to be extremely funny. Baba’s Baba Bengali’s full name is Shri Shri Prakash Ji Baba Bengali Sealdah Wale. This name is quite similar to Sri Sri Ravi Sankar of Art of Living. Baba has people from both the religions working for him, the men in red chaddis (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh?) and the women in burkha, displaying another aspect of authoritarianism—religious—in this case. At some other point, K’s doctor friend tells him that he was put in jail for some time under POTA that stands for Prevention of Terrorism Act, which was another controversial law that gave draconian powers to the government to control terrorism, highlighting another reference to authoritarianism in the film. We also get to know that K’s brother can converse only in German, as Hitler was from Germany.


Not only is there is a theme of fascism, but the film also shows the extent of omnipresent surveillance that can curb individual expression. In retrospect, the film is so ahead of its time as some of the things portrayed in the film actually turned out to be true. When K enters the carpet factory, the man sitting there scans his hand on a tablet, and it immediately identifies K, something that is becoming increasingly common today. There is a video record of the life of all the people who come to Baba Bengali. This massive Orwellian surveillance was recently uncovered by WikiLeaks. The point is that whatever one tries, no one can really escape the Big Brother. K tried to follow a meticulous plan where he did not tell anyone where he is going, but even then the acolytes of Baba Bengali were able to follow him in Africa. Anyone who enters into a contract with Baba Bengali is followed at all times by the same man. Abbas is surrounded by a man who is wearing sunglasses. The same man follows K in his different avatars. He was the taxi driver who brought K to his office after K loses his hearing. There was also a carpet kept on the top of the car, which was another symbol that this is Baba Bengali’s man as his Prayogshala was located under a carpet factory. The same man is the guard at his office, who tells K that he has eight siblings. I kept counting if the man actually appeared at nine different places in the film. The same man also meets K in the elevator. Not surprisingly, he was the same man who dressed as a transgendered woman and met K at a traffic signal and threw some coins at K. The script mentions another quirky detail that the man’s different characters have different voices. Ram. Shyam. Balram.


Baba Bengali’s fee for curing people of their addiction was twenty-one lakhs, eleven thousand, and one hundred and ten rupees with an additional one rupee in change. Baba insisted that the one rupee be paid separately in cash. K signed the cheque for the amount but he did not have one rupee with him in cash. This nonpayment of one rupee will turn out to be a decisive moment for K later. When he is sent to the prison, the lady announced that only those who paid the full fee amount will not be asked to take a bath, that is, their souls will not be purged. In the prison, there is also a telephone booth that required one-rupee coins if K’s soul wanted to talk K’s body. K ignored Baba’s advice, thus, has to bear the consequences. At an earlier stage, the man who was following K everywhere met him in his eunuch avatar at a traffic signal, and threw coins at K. He ignored those coins even then, which eventually would lead him to lose his soul.


As the film is autobiographical as well, almost all the characters in the film are inspired by the life of Anurag Kashyap. The letter K is not only an allegory to Kafka, but also to Kashyap. At one point, Kashyap himself makes an appearance in the film where he is standing in an elevator with K. K’s wife Anjali and his secretary Annie are actually the same people. He thinks they are two different people, but in the end, Anjali tells him that they both are the same. In real life, at that point, Anurag Kashyap was married to Aarti Bajaj (the letter A like Anjali), who was also the editor of his films. Like Anjali and Annie, his own wife played two roles in his life. Abbas’ full name is Abbas Tyrewala, who is no one but director Abbas Tyrewala, who was supposed to play the part of Abbas before it went to Ranvir Shorey. At some point, K and Abbas meet in a bar, and K says to Abbas that he has changed after his marriage. And, then, in the background, the words Paakhi Paakhi from Ae Ajnabi from Dil Se start playing. This is another inside joke as Paakhi is the name of Abbas’ wife. Paakhi from Ae Ajnabi is referring is Paakhi Tyrewala, who has acted in Jhootha Hi Sahi, and also turned director recently. The song comes at the precise moment when K is talking about Abbas’ marriage. At another point, Abbas mentions Maqbool and Main Hoon Na in a dialogue, and Baba Bengali when he is talking about Abbas mentions Salaam Namaste and Munnabhai M.B.B.S, which are also the two films among the many for which Abbas wrote the dialogue and the screenplay. There is also Vikramaditya Motwane in the film. He plays an employee with the same name who refuses to stop smoking in the office. Interestingly, the script also mentions Raj Kumar Gupta, as the employee who comes for an interview at K’s office, but the same is not mentioned in the film. Raj Kumar Gupta has actually assisted Anurag Kashyap in the film, and also directed his own films, such as Aamir. At the launch party of his cigars, Alex says, “Beedi Jalaiyele ke Vishal desh me cigar Gulzar,” again a wordplay on the people associated with the film. Vishal Bhardwaj is the producer of No Smoking, Gulzar has written the lyrics, and the song Beedi from Omkara is associated with these two men.


Dreams and delusion constitute a significant part of the film’s universe. K’s wife and his secretary are the same people, but K thinks that they are different. These elements are interspersed throughout the film in different ways. At some stage during the end, K sees a group of men dressed as Santa Clauses roaming on the streets on New Year’s Eve. Santa Clauses are, after all, a kind of representation of human delusion. At different points in the film, the screen keeps forming some kind of bubbles as if trying to portray that there is some kind of an illusion, separating the real and the imaginary. During the zero minute, when all the addicts are allowed to smoke for only one minute in the year, K reaches the place, which is called The Dead Factory, a perfect name for a place for the congregation of men who have lost their souls and are symbolically dead. In the same sequence, K tries to crawl between the legs of men to reach Baba Bengali. Immediately, in the next scene, there is a rat crawling in the pipes that gets trapped, representing the trapped mental state of K. Thereafter, K enters his dream state again, and as he was advised earlier by his psychiatrist friend, he jumps into the bathtub, moving down the pipe to hell. After he jumps into the bathtub and starts swimming, I was reminded of Mary Jane (Alia Bhatt) swimming towards the light in the climax of Udta Punjab.


Any Anurag Kashyap film is full of references and tributes to some of his favorite filmmakers. In No Smoking, too, we see something similar within the context of smoking. In the film, the song Jab Bhi Ciggaret is shot in a bar that is called The Bob Fosse. Bob Fosse was an American dancer, choreographer, director known for his award-winning musicals, such as Cabaret (1972). He has won eight Tony Awards for choreography and an Academy Award for his direction of CabaretJab Bhi Ciggaret is a cabaret-style number that pays homage to him. The other noteworthy fact is that Bob Fosse was a known chain-smoker. According to his biographer Sam Wasson, while choreographing The Pajama Game in 1954, Fosse chain-smoked as many as six or seven packs of cigarettes a day. It is quite befitting to then pay a tribute to Fosse in a film related to smoking; perhaps, making the point that for some people, smoking is a way to sharpen their creative instincts. It is also interesting that a male voice is used for lip sync for a female dancer. This androgynous representation was also seen in the character of Ardhnarishwera in Kashyap’s Gulaal (2009). There is a particular line in the song, Upale jaisa sulagta hu. Only Gulzar use a word that means cow-dung cake in the lyrics of a Hindi film song. The other songs, such as Phoonk De, are absolutely gorgeous.


There are a lot many other references to songs that are played in background mirroring the events happening in the film. When K and Abbas are reminiscing about the time when they were young and smoked a cigarette, Those Were The Days by Mary Hopkin plays. The particular sequence is titled Kyunki Bachpan Bhi Kabhi Naughty Tha, a spinoff to Ekta Kapoor’s iconic show Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi. The part one of Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur (2012) opened with the title song of the same show. At some other point, K calls Abbas and Ghungroo Ki Tarah Bajta Hi Raha from Chor Machaaye Shor (1974) is playing in the background. When Anjali asks K to stop smoking, he plays Shut Up by The Black Eyed Peas in his car. At other stages, we hear Dean Martin’s Ain’t That A Kick In The Head and That’s Amore being played. The script mentions many other songs related to smoking.

There is another set of symbols used in the film which only Anurag Kashyap can explain. Perhaps, some of them have an underlying meaning associated with them, while some of them are used for indulgence. For instance, there are white dialogue bubbles, like seen in comics, in which the characters of the film are conveying their real thoughts during conversation. Or, like the fact that Anjali wears two rings always. We also see the door in the room in Serbia where K is trapped opens only if you push it from the side you are on. There are dwarves with funny voices in Baba Bengali’s Prayogshala. The prison number on K’s shirt is written 8077 in Hindi numerals; perhaps, it has something to do with the Holocaust.

No Smoking is one of Anurag Kashyap’s finest films. It, truly, is what we call a subversive film. It constantly makes one think on its deeper meaning as nothing in the film is without any reason. For the last month or so, I have watched and rewatched the movie, and I learnt something new every time. Many films are often called as ‘ahead of their time.’ No Smoking was not only so far ahead of its time, but the things shown in it are turning out to be prescient. Ten years ago, two films released on the October 26th—Imtiaz Ali’s Jab We Met and Anurag Kashyap’s No SmokingJab We Met got its due immediately, but here is hoping that No Smoking will also get its recognition in due course of time.

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