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Product placement of cigarettes in movies is nothing new, though for a time, following the publication of hard evidence of tobacco companies’ efforts to get their cigarettes into popular movies in the hands of young people’s screen idols, there was a temporary reduction in this insidious form of promotion. It has crept back again, of course, if with a little more subtlety than before. In Sri Lanka, though, an extraordinarily overt promotion of smoking was a major and continuing theme in a recent box office success, whose Sinhala name Thani thatuven piyabana translates as Flying with one wing.
The main character in the film is a woman who lives the life of a man. “He” smokes throughout the film, saying that smoking is one of the characteristics of masculinity. Other scenes seem to have the express purpose of promoting smoking—a girl who tells her boyfriend, who has put out his cigarette when she arrives, “Why did you put out your cigarette? I like men who smoke”; and a doctor who offers his patients cigarettes during consultations. Despite the fact that the director is well known for including smoking in his work, the sheer weight of it in the film generated heated debate in the press.
A group of medical students complained about it, noting that the brand smoked was always Gold Leaf, a higher priced BAT brand. A journalist responded that they had failed to see the way smoking, so far a predominantly male habit in Sri Lanka, was being used to highlight issues raised in the film about definitions and cultural expectations of manhood and masculinity. Whatever the director’s intentions, no one seems to doubt the saturation of smoking in a film that has been packing them in all over Sri Lanka. Many insist it was irresponsible of the director and that it will play a part, however small, in perpetuating the social acceptability of the habit. Those who know about tobacco industry promotional tactics are deeply suspicious of how Gold Leaf got there. For them, Flying with one wing would have been better named Gasping with one lung.