I tried very hard to like 'No Smoking'. But at the end of the ordeal it seemed a nation of smokers was preferable to a film that preaches no smoking with such opaque wisdom.
Initially one can giggle at the spousal banter between the chain smoker (John Abraham) and his rather disgruntled wife (Ayesha Takiya). They make a kinetic pair and director Kashyap is good at portraying spousal conflict.
'What do you want for our anniversary?' asks the arrogant husband who looks at the mirror as though it was his crystal ball while she looks at him as though he was a self-absorbed oddball.
'Divorce', she suggests. Cure to divorce? Quit smoking.
The trick was to base the satire on barbs about the whole killing cult of cigarettes. Regrettably, 'No Smoking' is as amusing and entertaining as a root-canal job done by a dentist hell-bent on causing pain.
The smoke gets so thick and the parallels to 'Kafka', Steven Spielberg's 'Schindler's List', Bob Fosse, Guru Dutt and Vishal Bharadwaj's art get so condensed that we're left groping in a smog of swirling ambiguities.
Hallucinogenic images swim to the surface in a tidal wave of cryptic dialogues.
Why the utter lack of transparency in the storytelling? What is Kashyap hiding in the folds of defiant symbolism?
The narrative plays a dismaying mind-game where the smoker-hero gets trapped in a sewage underbelly, an infernal underground borrowed from Dante's Hell...or is it Ram Gopal Varma's cinema? It also has a sinister Baba (Paresh Rawal) presiding over a planet of freaks and oddballs, all photographed in sleets of sepia-toned colours.
The conflicts in Kashyap's scheme of things come not from the heart but the intellect. And there lies the problem with this innovative piece of eccentric cinema. The lines between truth and subterfuge, nightmare and reality get completely blurred in Russia where gun-toting comrades take potshots at poor John.
If anything holds the film together it's the panoramic shots of Mumbai's traffic and John's vain but sensitive performance as a man more sinning than sinned against.
Ayesha Takia is as always watchable and empathetic, though why she shows up in a double role as her husband's secretary is one of the many mysteries.
The film come across as a troubling rubble of dreams, nightmares, illusions and delusions that take the protagonist from chain smoking to a Hitlerian gas chamber where he's suffocated to death.
And after sitting through 'No Smoking', one is sure to know that feeling.