The last celluloid cigarette

The last celluloid cigarette

Narayan turned this coffee and cigarette after a movie into a sublime ritual for his hero in The Bachelor of Arts. In college, my friend and I did our best to imitate Chandran, taking care to puff contentedly on our cigarettes as we sipped coffee and discussed the movie we had just seen. (It wasn’t until many years later that I found out he would never inhale — all along it had been purely just the ritual of it for him). In my case the seduction had its inspiration in descriptions from a novel; for many others it was watching characters puff away on screen. In either case, we did it because it felt stylish to smoke. In both cases, it was pure fiction. Cigarettes never feel as good as they look. We smoke it only partly for the tobacco: Cigarettes are never what they appear to be.

On screen it looked stylish, in a book it was a private ritual of sublime pleasure. Both were about poise and focus. Though you eventually become unconscious of the pose, the very act of holding a cigarette in your hand made you feel you had a grip on yourself, helped you be more philosophical about things. In our movies it’s the bad guys and the vamps and the heroes who smoked; the heroines seldom. Which is why it gives us a transgressive kick to see modern heroines smoking. (And also, alas, now that our heroes and heroine are smoking on screen, it has to be accompanied by that flashing statutory warning — what is this, the government’s Brechtian devise to remind us of reality?)

The most perceptive book about the thrill and danger of smoking is Richard Klein’s Cigarettes Are Sublime. Klein notes that the allure of the cigarette is “a darkly beautiful, inevitably painful pleasure that arises from some intimation of eternity.” He argues that smoking is really about a person’s personal and sexual freedom (which is why it is monitored). When I read this, I thought it made sense in the context of young, contemporary middle class Indian women who now feel liberated to smoke in public.

In all those black and white Hollywood classics, the heroes were forever lighting up a cigarette, standing in some dark street corner, cupping their hands over a match. And their heroines were always waving a cigarette stylishly and talking. No actress in the history of cinema held a cigarette more stylishly or sensuously than Lauren Bacall. An iconic image of her style is from a screen moment in To Have and Have Not, when she asks, “Anyone got a match?” The moment is not without its erotic charge, as were most scenes that combined cigarettes and sex: The hero and heroine sharing a smoke after love making. The seduction is definitely the physical ritual — where’s the style in chewing nicotine gum or wearing nicotine patches? 

I guess my favourite movie cigarette moment is from Now, Voyager when Bette Davis and Paul Henried realise they can’t be lovers anymore, and he bravely says, “Shall we just have a cigarette on it?” And then it’s Bette Davis who takes out her engraved cigarette case, and offers it. He takes out two long, sleek cigarettes, lights both of them, and hands her one. They draw deeply, and move to the window and look out at the night. And as the smoke curls around them, he asks her if she will be happy, and she answers in that most beautiful line, “Oh, don’t let’s ask for the moon. We have the stars.”
Humphrey Bogart smoking in Casablanca, another movie cigarette icon. Everyone smoking in Casablanca — and as someone pointed out, if smoking had been banned, they’d have nothing to do in the movie but stand around looking for something to do. Or that cigarillo that’s always dangling in the corner of Clint Eastwood’s mouth in the spaghetti westerns. Yeah, man, cigarettes made you look cool. That’s why Shah Rukh Khan won’t listen to Dr A Ramadoss and quit smoking on screen, but Rajinikanth has.
The superstar is now content with just saying, ‘Cool’. But there was a time when he marked his style with how he lit a match and twirled a cigarette.

Anurag Kashyap made a great little movie about smoking in No Smoking, Paul Auster and Wayne Wang’s Smoke is a talk-fest about smoking, Jim Jarmusch made a movie called Coffee and Cigarettes that lovingly photographed cups of black steaming coffee and cigarette smoke. The movie critic Roger Ebert was recently bemoaning the disappearance of a certain kind of romanticism that went out of cinema when characters stopped smoking in cinema. It won’t be the same, he observes, with characters now stepping out of a building or café to have a smoke. Ebert further pointed to the release of a revisionist postal stamp showing the legendary Bette Davis theater diva character from All About Eve holding a…..nothing. Yes, nothing, because the government had digitally erased the cigarette from that famous pose. 

 The film noir movies were really about the aesthetics of smoking (and camera lighting). Desperate heroes and heroines puffing away, their large shadows flickering on walls, coils of smoke around their faces, adding mystery and allure to the scene.

Ah, Robert Mitchum as the definitive Philip Marlow in the Raymond Chandler movie. And all that flirting between Bogart and Bacall in The Big Sleep over several fags — cigarette as a metaphor for sex, and indeed cigarette as a metaphor for many things. You also have the delinquent movie hero putting off doing something with, “One more cigarette and then I’ll go.” And classically in the movies, a man facing execution asked for a last wish, says, ‘Can I have one last cigarette?’

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