Several months ago my friend Shailesh lent me two movies by Indian writer/director Anurag Kashyap, No Smoking and Black Friday. He explained that both films were of somewhat notable status as being… difficult. Difficult for the director to get funded, difficult for him to get distributed and in the case of Black Friday, difficult to be welcomed by the society and its institutions it portrays as… twisted.
In Black Friday, which is about the planning, experience of and fall-out from the 1993 Bombay bombings which, it is theorized, were organized as retribution for anti-Muslim violence which took place in the Hindu-Muslim riots just a few months earlier, Kashyap pulls no punches in portraying the violence and eye-for-an-eye mentality of all sides involved in these struggles.
It is not pretty.
However also in the case of Black Friday, what may have gotten Kashyap the most doors slammed in his face industry wise is his no-punches-pulled portrayal of Bombay’s police as absolute brutalists who will stop at nothing to find those responsible for the tragic events of March 12th, 1993 where almost 1000 people were either wounded or killed as a result of the blasts, all centered around civilian areas (of course). This unwavering aesthetic creates an interesting relationship between the viewer and the film, as it isolates connection/sympathy with the characters to a very primitive stance. When you see someone in front of you being tortured by physical abuse or, perhaps more painfully, being tortured by having to watch as innocent members of their family are tortured before them, you feel for that character; you feel fear, pain, frustration, horror and loss. However, when these same characters being tortured are responsible for staging or helping to achieve random acts of terrible violence that has caused similar pain in other people, you only feel that empathy for them in the moment of the torture, and it is of course under-woven with the part of it you that feels they deserve what they are getting. In Black Friday these complex feelings are then further confused and amplified when you see that the ‘good guys’ of the film are the ones performing this torture so they are in fact, torturers (obviously, bare with me) and thus, bad guys. You can see now how a wealth of emotions get smeared all over the screen and stick to the inside of the viewer’s head, clogging up the traditional narrative sense of good vs./ evil and right vs. wrong. This then reminds us that those gray areas are in fact the tone of our everyday world and that makes us, whether we are consciously thinking about it or just squirming a bit in our seats, even more uncomfortable. This I believe is another reason Anurag Kashyap had trouble getting Black Friday distributed. People don’t like to have the cold, often grim realities of reality paraded in front of their face when many of them are merely hoping to use the three hour film before them for the express purpose of escaping that reality. This of course also makes the film that much more important to those who like to see through the veil and often find kindred spirits with the auteurs who accomplish this for them. It is one of the reasons I and many of the people I know gravitate toward David Lynch – although usually infused with some degree of the magical residue of hope his upbringing in a simpler era bestowed upon him, his films nontheless tread bleak and often painfully subversive ground – subversive to the walls we erect and force ourselves to stare at day-to-day in the hopes they will blot out the swirling mass of chaos that actually follows each of us around, every minute of every day and eventually, one way or another, takes our lives.
With No Smoking there is an entirely different set of similarities which immediately made me equate Mr. Kashyap to Mr. Lynch. No Smoking is a far lighter film, although still dark in ‘mataphysical’ sort of way. It does not concern real-life events but instead is the tale of a super-cool man named K who smokes CONSTANTLY. Really, this guy makes John Constantine look like a spokesperson for the National Lung Association. Everyone around him wants him to quit, most especially his wife, and when he runs into an old friend who recently quit he gets put onto a special place known as ‘The Laboratory’ where he meets Baba Begali, essentially the devil, who explains that The Laboratory will indeed make it possible for him to quit smoking.
K is essentially forced into a contract whereby he must stop smoking immediately. If he suffers any infractions of the agreement there will be dire ramifications for himself and the people he loves. If this sounds familiar it is because (and wonderfully I didn’t realize this at the time I watched the film) No Smoking is based on the Stephen King novel Quitters, Inc., originally published waaayy back in the 1978’s Night Shift collection, and first transformed into film as one of the three stories in 1985’s anthology film Cat’s Eye. I had not seen Cat’s Eye since I was a kid and I’d never read Night Shift, so there was only the faintest tickle of recognition while I watched No Smoking. This is also no doubt due to the fact that Kashyap completely makes the story his own here, adding Lynch-like ambiance and a more supernatural (but not too supernatural) element to his telling of the story. The film is more stylized than Black Friday as well, using dream sequences shot in Siberia, super sleek post-modern dwellings side-by-side with maze-like shanties and disheveled buildings and Kashyap’s keen eye for how and where a simple colored light bulb can turn an ordinary room into something dripping with foreboding and ghostly, haunted atmosphere.
For those interested in Kashyap I would definitely suggest you begin with No Smoking. If you enjoyed the modern urban noir of Lynch’s Lost Highway I think you’ll probably really dig Kashyap’s twisty, not-completely-coherent experience. Black Friday is also definitely worth the watch, but it feels every minute of its running time by the time you get into the second hour. Not that it’s bad – the film just lays so much out on the table that it sits very heavy in the stomach. No Smoking has a far more electric, sinisterly fun vibe and is a pretty sweet piece of eye candy to boot.