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Dear Woody Allen, thank you for standing up for SMOKING

October 07, 2013 17:07 IST

Cate Blanchett in Blue JasmineWoody Allen, I salute you for taking a position against the anti-smoking messages in theatres, writes Aseem Chhabra.

Dear Woody,

I hope you don’t mind me calling you Woody. I don’t know you personally, and you are more than 20 years older than me. But we are both New Yorkers -- you were born in The Bronx in 1935 and I made New York my home in 1981.

I hope you are doing well. This last week must have been tough for you. Your former partner Mia Farrow revealed to the press that your estranged son Ronan may not be your biological child. As a father, I know that must hurt. I know in the past she has accused you of other familial crimes. I am sorry to bring this up. I don’t want to pry into your private life and, hey, none of us is a saint.

But I want you to know that despite your difficult life that has often been a fodder for tabloid gossip -- and many people judge you for that -- I have a lot of respect for you. I love your films. Well, most of them.

I still remember going to seen Annie Hall in New Delhi’s Archana Theatre in 1978 after it had won four Academy Awards. While I did not get all the New York Jewish humour (I had never met a Jew, especially one from New York, until I came to the city in 1981), I thought the film was delightfully funny and a reflection on the human condition that even college students in New Delhi could relate to.

That was the first time I saw a Woody Allen film.

And this summer I saw Blue Jasmine, which I found devastatingly brilliant (I am still haunted by the last shot of the film). It’s amazing that at 77, nearly 50 films old, you still have the bright spark and the deep talent in creating such rich and diverse characters, and in observing their lives with all the humour and pathos. 

I appreciate how much you care for your characters even when they are flawed, and sometimes despite their crimes and misdemeanours.

So Woody, I am writing to thank you.

Your decision not to show Blue Jasmine in India has upset many of your fans, several of them I follow and engage with on Twitter. Some might be cynical and say that your films really do not have much of a market in India. After all, Blue Jasmine is not a Dark Knight Rises or Iron Man 3 and your decision will not have much of an impact on Blue Jasmine’s combined worldwide box office receipts.

But no matter what, thank god there are genius storytellers like you who value art over commerce.

I know that you are a purist. You believe in the fact that a film should be shown the way the filmmaker intended to show it.

I remember you were vehemently opposed to colourisation of films and you wrote a strong op-ed in The New York Times expressing your opinions. In your Senate testimony, you called the act of colourising old classics as “sinful.”

So your protest against the India’s Central Board of Film Certification is the right decision to take by an artist.

The Indian censors, possibly on the directive of the country’s ministry of health and family welfare, have the very annoying habit of posting irritating anti-smoking messages each time a character in a film smokes. It is an insult to the filmmakers and to the audience -- very few of them actually pay attention to the message.

It is disrespect to cinema, art, the filmmakers and the audience.

I don’t support smoking (although I have the habit of borrowing a cigarette from a friend after a few glasses of wine or, as I say, when I am feeling happy). But I do not believe in banning cigarettes. Rather I believe in freedom for individuals and that adults should be allowed to smoke if they wish to. I know people around the world smoke, even though they know the harm that cause to their bodies.

I know your Jasmine loved her cigarettes along with vodka, and that made her a real believable character that we can all understand and relate to. I know many actors -- Indian (including some big Bollywood stars who have huge following and can be real role models) and Hollywood -- smoke. 

No, the Indian government does not discourage the actors from smoking.

But each time they play characters who smoke on screen, the anti-smoking police aka the Indian censor board, comes out in full force and labels this message on the screen: 'Cigarette smoking is injurious to health'.

The Indian government hardly does anything to stop the sale of cigarettes. Unlike in the US, where stores carry signs that people below the age of 18 will not be sold cigarettes, teenagers can easily buy cigarettes in India. This is so even when it is illegal in India to sell cigarettes to those who are younger than 18.

A few years ago, I realised that a packet of Marlboro Light cost only Rs 75 in New Delhi -- that is slightly over a dollar. In New York, a packet of cigarettes costs over $10 because of the taxes the government imposes. It brings revenue to the government, while the exorbitant cost is supposed to deter smokers from buying cigarettes. It is not always successful but it is a strong measure.

Why can’t the Indian government do the same -- make cigarettes very expensive or go through a major education campaign in schools, discouraging teenagers from forming the habit of smoking at a young age? But no, they will not do anything smart that is tried and tested in other parts of the world.

Instead they penalise filmmakers like you Woody, and other Indian and foreign directors, by messing up their films.

All films in India are required to show the obnoxious and amateurishly made documentary about a young man who is dying of lung cancer, followed by a hilarious shot of a sponge soaked in something that appears to be chocolate syrup, but is supposed to represent a nicotine-layered lung. And then throughout the film, they keep showing anti-smoking messages. 

Woody, I do not know if you have ever gone to see a Bollywood film in New York City. You will be shocked to know that the same anti-smoking messages are also shown in New York City. Indian film distributors should at least make separate prints for the foreign markets. We really do not need to be overloaded with anti-smoking messages from India.

I understand the intentions of the Indian censor board are good, but they are very stupidly executed.

I hope the Indian censor board will change its position, although I do not see it happening soon. I really want young Indians to discover your films, or experience your near-masterpieces like Blue Jasmine, just as I did when I saw Annie Hall in 1978.

That film changed my life and I have revisited it a few times since then at revival theatres in New York City. 

Woody, I salute you for taking a position and thanks for your films. Your films bring joy to my life and they enrich my existence. And I will always be your big fan.

Aseem Chhabra

Aseem Chhabra in New York