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Censoring smoking in film is tantamount to propaganda

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Why Woody Allen was right to pull Blue Jasmine from Indian cinemas.

The cultural sea-change from smoking’s salad days as life-giving digestion assistant to deathly mainstay of society’s pariahs seems to have neared completion. As they count their dwindling change, smokers huddle in doorways to escape the elements and make quiet conversation amongst themselves. They press their faces up against the windows of restaurants and sigh. Like a dog that shat on the living room carpet one too many times, they remember the day when they, too, were still allowed inside the house. Truly, it is late in the day for the ancient brotherhood of smokers.

Smoking isn’t as healthy as it is delicious. Science tells us that. It’s a moot point – so the least we can afford the few smokers remaining is a quiet exit, without a lot of fuss. Woody Allen recently pulled his new film, Blue Jasmine, from Indian cinemas. And rightly so: The Indian government insists on running anti smoking ads not only before the movie, but in any scene where smoking is shown. Another nail in the coffin.

To be fair, India has a large smoking problem (to the tune of 100 million) and the link between smoking seen on film and the prevalence of youth smoking seems fairly strong; so the rationale is sound enough. But that’s not the point. Similar policy prescriptions have been issued in the UK and the US, with not insignificant political capital behind it. In 2011, The British Thoracic society advised that smoking in films be put alongside violence and sex as grounds for higher BBFC classification.

bogey smoking

The MPAA has already incorporated smoking into its rating system. And everywhere there are shrill voices calling for legislation that would further prohibit or penalise the depiction of smoking, some even saying that it should automatically warrant the highest age rating possible. For a little clarification – Peter Pan counts, 101 Dalmatians counts, and so does Pinocchio.

Smoking has had a long history in film; Bogey, Lauren Bacall, James Bond, Clint Eastwood and so on have all been seen effortlessly choking them down.  The cigarette may say something about the character, it may speak to their lacklustre sense of self-destruction, it might mean nothing at all. No matter – the filmmaker decided to put it in. And that’s sacred. Certainly, the history of cinematic tobacco is greased with sweaty wads of cash. And producers’ swimming pools have filled with green as children’s lungs have blackened – but then they too are guilty of the same crime.

It’s beyond mere editing – it’s being someone else’s shill. Let me be clear: censorship and propaganda – morally legitimate or not – are the same thing. They are not matters of degrees, either. Once one principle is diluted, it by definition ceases to exist. Quite simply, it is not the job of filmmakers to realise the cloying preferences of your parents – filmmakers owe us articulacy, clarity of vision and nothing else.

Woody was right to pull his movie from Indian cinemas, pompous though it may seem. That kind of conceited integrity, not to mention conviction, seems rare these days. It is however, the tell of a great filmmaker. I won’t tell you smoking is good for you; I won’t tell you that it keeps you regular; I won’t tell you that you’d be cooler if you did it too. While you might feel it necessary to remind the smokers around you of the fate they may encounter should they continue to exercise their own free will, let me assure you – we have been told.

 

Featured image: Sony Pictures Classics

Inset image: Warner Bros

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