Thursday, November 01, 2007

No Smoking - Arrogance isn't such a bad thing

Why this floccinaucinihilipilification of Anurag Kashyap's phantasmagorical expression in the form of incongruous juxtaposition of surreal images that beat comprehension?


Anything that beats comprehension at first glance is invariably dismissed by others as worthless. No surprise then that Anurag Kashyap's No Smoking has met with universal rejection.

Let me come back to the very first sentence above.

What do you make of that sentence? It is without doubt self-indulgent, meant to flaunt one's vocabulary (which probably doesn't come naturally), and definitely contrived to sound complicated. If you have a good vocabulary, you will find that it is actually a very simple statement. Alternatively, you could flip the pages of the dictionary only to realize that the effort wasn't really worth it (you might not find one of the words in some dictionaries). But for a moment, just forget the meaning, go over each word slowly and try to grasp the inherent rhythm and rhyme contained within the sentence.

Why this floccinau…
Of Anurag Kashyap's
Phantasmagorical expression
In the form of
Incongruous juxtaposition
Of surreal images
That beat comprehension
Get it?

If you do, you have the key for enjoying and appreciating Anurag Kashyap's No Smoking.

The film opens with a brilliantly conceived sequence, which is so bizarre that you know it has to be a dream (nightmare would be a better word). Desolate landscape of Siberia, a trapped man watching himself on TV, Russian soldiers, Vodka, a bath tub in the middle of nowhere, a cigarette packet out in the snow, chase, shoot....Smoking Kills! What else would a smoker dream of if he is constantly been asked to quit smoking by all and sundry? But why Siberia, Russian, bath tub? Does it really matter? Do dreams ever make complete sense? If they did, Freud would be out of business. All of us who have dreams can relate to the fact that dreams have this intrinsic quality where seemingly disparate elements from the subconscious get uncannily juxtaposed. There's just no point in trying to find a cohesive thread through a dream.

The protagonist (Mr. K, an obvious reference to Kafka's protagonist) wakes up from his nightmare, and we, the audience, expect the regular sequential narrative to take over from there. But no, the director is in no mood to oblige. He structures pretty much the entire movie in exactly the same fashion - surreal, jumpy, lacking a cohesive thread. That can be very taxing for a viewer to bear for a duration of 2 hours plus. Well, not if you choose to get into the intrinsic rhythm of the film and refrain from applying logic or finding a reason for everything that unfolds on the screen. See it as a dream, try to get into the protagonists head. Even seemingly illogical things might start making sense then. I cannot claim that I have still 'understood' the entire film. It's been 4 days since I watched it, and I'm still trying to decipher the finer elements and unravel the narrative, but it has been an intellectually stimulating experience. For me, the film was thoroughly engrossing, and even though I had a momentary feeling of being cheated by the open-ended closing, I came out of the theatre supremely satisfied.

During those 140 minutes, Anurag Kashyap took me on an intense round of mental calisthenics, after which I emerged exhausted - not tedium but a euphoric state of intense hang-over. Did I just come out after watching a Hindi Film? If this is not the quintessential 'hat ke' film, then what is?

The feeling I had was just like the one I had when I watched Pink Floyd's The Wall (directed by Alan Parker) for the first time. While The Wall was all about the protagonist's insecurities and shadows from the past, No Smoking goes a step further than just being a surrealistic dream. It is metaphorical – with smoking being a metaphor for freedom and independence. That makes this a very personal film for Anurag Kashyap (as he mentions in his blog), and in way pardons the self-indulgent texture of the film, which most people have found annoying.

Of course, the film is unashamedly self-indulgent. In complete disregard of the audience, Anurag Kashyap films what he wants to, how he wants to. He eschews any possibility of providing any pointers that might help the audience share his vision. He simply leaves it for the audience to use their own interpretative skills to make sense out of the film. That, in my opinion, opens up a plethora of possibilities. In a way, that's the freedom the director metaphorically depicts in the film. You're free to interpret what unfolds on film just the way you can, or want to. There's no handholding, no spoon-feeding, no explanations – almost like a swimming instructor who pushes you in deep waters so that you learn on your own. Learn without being taught. Obviously, such arrogance (if one can call it that) on the part of the director will not be taken positively by an audience that has been dumbed down for ages by most of our filmmakers, who believe that everything needs to be hammered down the heads of the audiences in order to make them understand.

I talked about flaunting one's vocabulary a while ago….I got that feeling while watching No Smoking. There are so many references to other films that it almost seems like the director is boasting about his knowledge of world cinema. Not a problem for me, as I derived great pleasure in catching those references. However, some of the in-jokes seem very forced and contrived. What does one make of a dialogue like "Beedi Jalaile ke Vishal desh mein cigar Gulzar"? Of course I get this in-joke, but it is definitely contrived. But again, as I said, the key lies in ignoring the 'vocabulary' and getting into the flow and rhythm of the film.

On the whole, I found myself completely immersed in the flow of No Smoking, so much so that I brought a lot of it along even after leaving the theatre. That is my yardstick of a good film. And that's the kind of film that would find a prominent place in my DVD collection.

Talking of arrogance, I'm reminded of an arrogant verse….

न सताइश की तमन्ना न सिले की परवा
गर नहीं हैं मेरे अश`आर में म`नी न सही

Neither a longing for praise, nor a care for reward
if there's no meaning in my verses, then so be it

(Translation by Frances W. Pritchett)

Immortal words of an arrogant man, a man who didn't care two hoots for appreciation from others, a man who believed his thoughts were way beyond anyone's comprehension, a man who toed the line sometimes but largely remained fiercely independent , a man we now consider a genius – Mirza Asadullah Khan 'Ghalib'.

With No Smoking, Anurag Kashyap tries to follow the same path. Whether he will be considered a genius at some point later is debatable, but he surely shares the same attitude. Don't get me wrong here….I'm not putting Anurag Kashyap on the same pedestal as Ghalib, for that would be blasphemous…just trying to say that arrogance isn't such a bad thing afterall.