No Smoking is the story of a non-conformist. More accurately, of the attempts of the world to beat his non-conformity out of him. Nothing wrong with that, one might think, where the non-conformity consists of an addiction as harmful and extreme as K’s to smoking. One might think that, but one would be hard-pressed to maintain that equanimity in the face of the methods used in K’s “treatment”, which involve liberal doses of severed digits, threats to loved ones, and bombs, courtesy the "doctor" Baba Bengali (Paresh Rawal). But the point is not (or not merely) that it is the extreme nature of Baba Bengali’s methods that render them problematic. Rather, it is that Baba Bengali is at the heart of a regime that privileges “normalcy”, a regime that must depend on suitably docile subjects in order to perpetuate itself. (Indeed, smoking is simply one of many vices that Baba Bengali's Kolkata Karpets cures.) We don’t ordinarily “see” the ethical compromises, the fraud and violence, this sort of regime entails. The director of No Smoking, however, does, and seems to want nothing more than to represent for us -– with unabashed literalism -- what he sees.
And there surely is a lot to see here. Beginning with Kolkata Karpets, the site of a rehabilitation program for smokers trying to kick the habit. We are introduced to the program at the same time the protagonist K (the well-cast John Abraham, in what has to be one of his most effective performances) is, as he discovers that the city he lives and works in contains unsuspected layers. In what is a hallmark of director Anurag Kashyap’s vision here, K’s discovery is startlingly literal, as he descends, akin to an archaeologist, layer by layer and staircase by staircase, into the lair of Baba Bengali, the man at the core of Kolkata Karpets. Baba Bengali is a rather nasty Hindu godman, one whose staff includes dozens of burqa-clad women manning the switchboards. The switchboards are a giveaway, signaling that Kashyap does not see Baba Bengali’s outfit as un-modern in any way: indeed, technological modernity -– specifically, the technology of identification, surveillance, and destruction -- is essential to what Baba Bengali does. That is, Kolkata Karpets might not be the pre-modern “other” of the world inhabited by sleek yuppie K, but might in fact be the un-nameable secret of that world, acknowledgment of which is so deferred (like the deepest traumas) that it must go by the name of an establishment selling carpets. No Smoking, in short, is alive to the possibility that the fanaticisms (religious and otherwise) that plague our world aren’t necessarily at odds with the modernity we like to think of as epitomized by technology, and might even be enabled by it. Kashyap telegraphs the end game rather early in the film, when he shows us K’s wife (and somewhen secretary) (Ayesha Takia) crying as she watches footage of Auschwitz. By film’s end, we know that Baba Bengali’s program has been leading up to the gas chambers all along, not Hitler’s death-chambers so much as modern techno-industrial sites for the effacement of (the kink that is) individuality in favor of a bland smoothness that is more comfortable for all concerned. More comfortable because fitting in always is. And if it is all a dream -- each time K (and we) think he has woken up, he hasn't -- then one is reminded of Stephen Dedalus' words in Ulysses to the effect that history was a nightmare from which he was trying to awake. In short, if the world of No Smoking is a never-ending dream sequence, the political stakes might even be higher: this is no exercise in mere navel-gazing (though on the evidence of this film, Kashyap is a passionate defender of the fimmaker's right to stare at anything he chooses), but a warning of what we risk losing amidst the seductions of conformity on the one hand, and unvarnished narcissism on the other.
The story goes like this: K smokes. All the time. His marriage is going down the tubes, and to top it all even Kashyap's (and K's) longtime friend Abbas Tyrewallah (Ranvir Shorey) seems to have crossed over to the other side: not only has he given up smoking, but pitches to K the treatment that has led Abbas to quit (without telling him what the program entails, making of Abbas a curiously empathetic Judas-figure). K is initially dismissive, but changes his tune once his wife leaves him, and tells her he will quit in order to get her to come back (introspection is clearly not one of K’s strengths). K decides to see what Kolkata Karpets has to offer, but sadly for him Baba Bengali does not offer any trial runs, and K soon finds himself an unwilling participant in a brutal program intended to cure him of smoking once and for all. To add insult to injury, K has to pay for the privilege of being cured (he is a rupee short, the sort of seemingly trifling cost that exacts a heavy toll at every step of K’s downward spiral into losing his soul).
No Smoking’s K is no romantic rebel figure, and his smoking fetish is nothing if not pointless. K himself is a mean, sullen, and somewhat authoritarian man (at one point outlawing smoking at his office because he can no longer indulge the vice). In keeping with the autobiographical allusions that litter the movie, it is tempting to read K as constructed out of the Hindi film industry establishment's caricature of Kashyap as enfant terrible (aided in no small measure by Kashyap's own penchant for fashioning a persona as Bollywood's Misunderstood Genius). A more political reading offers greater rewards, however, and, as noted above, certain of K's own characteristics suggest an intimate link between K’s world and Baba Bengali’s domain. If so, then K is no mere innocent. One might even speculate that his non-conformity, the difference that is K, falls victim to his own choices (not for nothing does No Smoking evoke the specter of Faust). Fittingly, by film’s end, it seems that K (if we may call the remaining shell K) has made his peace with the world around him: he hasn’t sold out; he’s just bought in.
Not Kashyap though: No Smoking is itself, in its whimsicality, its allusiveness, its obscurity, its almost offensive invocation of the Nazi death camps, nothing if not “different”, the very antithesis of the factory-approach to filmmaking that increasingly dominates film industries the world over. And if it doesn’t always make sense, if the pieces don’t always fit together into a coherent whole (no, not even into the enframing architecture of my review, or any other that I have read, a reflection not so much of the film's rich ambiguity as of some scattershot thinking on the director's part) I am nevertheless inclined to cut No Smoking slack. For Kashyap is not about feeding the audience a pill labeled “cinema”, with a list of ingredients one can read on the packet. If the seams show -- to me they did, both in terms of the film’s pacing and somewhat muddled tone as well as of sequences that just don’t add up -- Kashyap deserves my indulgence, for his continuing belief in cinema that does not “owe” the audience an idealized representation of what it already believes, of worlds it would like to see, but that instead revels in the opportunity afforded by the medium to enlarge the audience’s experience by positing strangeness, and by using the unfamiliar to illumine the world we think we know.