There's a huge debate going on about the proposed ban on smoking on-screen in Bollywood films. While I agree there is a freedom of choice issue involved, one has to also realise that tobacco marketers have methodically used films to circumvent the ban on advertising tobacco through practically all other mediums.
I researched this for an article titled 'Smokescreen' which was published last October in Businessworld.
When all other promotional avenues dry up, there remains a potent 'P' in the tobacco company's arsenal: the People factor. Who is smoking - and how cool that person is perceived to be - is the Invisible Salesman still in operation. Smoking in movies has been linked to adolescents trying their first cigarette, according to a new study by a team from Dartmouth College and Dartmouth Medical School. As a 1989 Philip Morris marketing plan noted: "We believe that most of the strong, positive images for cigarettes and smoking are created by cinema and television."
There is documented evidence of the company paying to get Marlboros placed in Superman II and a host of other popular Hollywood films. When the US Congress threatened to make product placement illegal, the tobacco industry pleaded 'self regulation' and pay-offs officially stopped. But placements didn't. In fact, 82 per cent of the top 10 grossing PG-13 films each week in theatres from May 2002 to May 2003 included tobacco.
A World Health Organization (WHO) study of tobacco exposure in Bollywood films conducted last year revealed similarly shocking figures. The research, conducted by Ambika Srivastava, president, Strategic Mediawork, concluded that 76 per cent of top-rated Hindi films portray smoking as 'the cool thing to do'. It's not just villains and vamps who smoke: today, 50 per cent of tobacco incidents are depicted by the 'good' characters. And increasingly, smoking is being used to demonstrate an assertive and independent mindset.
Documentation of money changing hands in India is unavailable, but last year's Quentin Tarantino-inspired Kaante certainly merits investigation. "Collar ko thoda sa oopar chadha ke, cigarette ke dhuaein ka chhalla bana ke..." goes a song from the film, which became far more popular than the film itself. Noting these guerilla tactics, the WHO decided to focus on the entertainment, films and sports industries on World No Tobacco Day last year.
Actor Vivek Oberoi, who has smoked in both good guy and bad guy roles, decided to 'kick the habit' onscreen and appeared in a series of anti-smoking ad films last year. However, Shahrukh Khan, Ajay Devgan and Sunjay Dutt are all chain smokers, and it is a known fact that the actor/director who smokes at home is more likely to smoke in public and light up in movies.
So yes, you can debate the issue to death but ... there may be a case for the on-screen ban. It's more easily enforcable than trying to restrict sale of cigarettes near schools and colleges (who's to check that anyways!!)
Bottomline: Directors and actors will just have to get more creative. A stick in hand won's be a code-prop to signify gangster or vamp.