Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Smoke and mirrors

This is plain absurd: yesterday, the government imposed an outright ban on the depiction of smoking and tobacco products in cinemas, TV and (this bit is unclear) in any other visual media. See news stories here and here. It appears that, after a 2-month grace period, even the older creatives telecast on TV or shown in public theatres will have to have cigarettes blurred over (Question: in the next round, will the police go house-by-house with editing equipment for people who may have video cassettes, CDs or DVDs of such offending material? Answer: Don’t bet against it).

Before I proceed further, here’s some relevant background: I am a reformed (actually, trying to be reformed – the urge never goes away for the rest of your life, I am told) smoker myself and can attest to the fact that despite full knowledge of terrible health consequences, it is a difficult addiction to get rid of. I have also, previously, worked in a different industry that trades in another socially acceptable vice: beverage alcohol and know that private commercial concerns usually trump inclinations of being socially responsible: surrogate advertising etc. will flourish unless there’s a coincidence of clear regulation and spirited (no pun intended) enforcement.

There will be a number of arguments from both sides but here’s my simple contention – in their zeal to protect the children (as they see their citizens, no – their subjects), isn’t the government hitting a more fundamental right (in respect of free speech)? As long as smoking is not illegal, how is the depiction of smoking illegal? Please do not confuse this with advertising – which the government, in its zeal to discourage smoking, can regulate or prohibit: the overwhelming majority of instances where smoking is depicted in films are not related to paid insertions instigated by tobacco manufacturers. And, to the extent that these are depictions that influence impressionable minds, let us use the powers of moral suasion to create change where possible. Where it is not possible, let us agree to disagree (“I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it”) and expend our energies on educating citizens about the ills of smoking. There’s the “slippery slope” argument, of course – the nanny state starting with this and moving on to banning, progressively, dangerous driving, conspicuous consumption and other ‘undesirable’ elements from the screen (Why only the screen? Why not the printed word next?). There’s the “too many laws, too few implementation” argument – instead of creating another set of prohibitions, why can’t we have better enforcement of those which already exist in this respect i.e. the one about “no smoking in public places”.

Finally (and should any of you think this is frivolous, remember that there are temples to this living deity), how will you blur out (without jeopardizing its entire artistic merit) a sequence where the cigarette is tossed up, spins many times, is caught between the lips and – in the meanwhile – a pistol has materialized which is fired to light the cigarette! To think that we will be fooled by a blur replacing the cigarette! Rascals!

“Next morning I got up late on account of the big fee I had earned the night before. I drank an extra cup of coffee, smoked an extra cigarette, ate an extra slice of Canadian bacon, and for the three hundredth time I swore I would never again use an electric razor. That made the day normal.” Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye (1953)


Anonymous said...

Well, well, well. The bureaucracy shall never cease to be holier than thou. If smoking and alcohol are such damned vices why not ban ‘PRODUCTION and SALE’ of tobacco, cigarettes and liquor in the first place- and be prepared to forego crores of rupees of revenue in the form of taxes that this “vicious” industry provides the government-?

Why stop at smoking? Why not ban the depiction of rape , violence , any form of crime and titillation in movies and other “visual media”? Why not ban the “objectification” of women and depiction of women in “distasteful and demeaning ” forms in various advertisements? What about corruption, bribery and blackmail? Are all of these not capable of hurting young and impressionable minds or even the general populace ? Why stop at smoking alone?

If there ever was an Oscar for double standards, then surely this imposition deserves it. Wake up Govt. of India. There’s a lot more happening out there, right under your nose, which deserves much greater attention and regulation. There is a lot of rot within the govt. machinery that needs to be fixed first. For a change-Practice what you Preach- First.

Anonymous said...

Consider separating out public broadcast media, such as television, from your analysis -- nations committed to robust protection of speech routinely grant their governments greater regulatory latitude with respect to such media. Your speech-related objection is far stronger in the realm of cinema and print, which requires payment other affirmative action to enjoy, and where content regulation would leave absolutely no avenue through which creative minds can depict the activity of smoking -- which, whatever one's thoughts on the practice, is an important part of the larger world that both artistic and political discourse seek to engage.

Constitutional issues of free speech aside, I would argue the true breakdown here appears to have taken place at the level of administrative decision-making processes (or utter lack thereof). Successive Indian governments exhibit a penchant for regulation that is either so half-baked as to accomplish nothing, or such overkill as to preclude realistic enforcement. What we see here is of the latter variety, and likely the result of a couple of bureaucrats or ministers cooking up some rules in isolation and throwing it out there for all others to accept.

By contrast, broader-based decision-making processes, into which the widest possible array of interest groups offer their inputs, tend to produce regulation more tightly callibrated against the desired ends (in terms of legal analysis, this cigarette rule could be considered grossly "over-inclusive." My basic point, then, goes not to whether depiction of smoking on TV should be blurred out (I consider cinema to be hands-off), but to the fact that a mature political system can pick any of several reasonable policy alternatives, including such blurring; in India's case, our focus for now should be less on the content outcome of the regulation, and more on regulatory process.

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