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India: movie shoots at women

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In the early days of the spread of cigarette smoking, there must have come a point in the United States, Britain, and other industrialised countries when tobacco executives woke up and realised they were missing out on half the market. As many as half the men, or even more, were smoking, but it was not considered “nice” for women to smoke. The taboo said that smoking was a sign of women being “fast” and disreputable. One result of this revelation was the appearance of advertisements, of varying degrees of subtlety, showing that even nice women, often pictured as part of a happy, secure married couple, were beginning to smoke. Helped by social changes accelerated by the second world war, tobacco companies managed to eradicate the taboo, before going on to associate their products as a symbol, even an accessory, of the increasing social liberation and emancipation of women.

Despite the familiarity of this aspect of western social history, it is still deeply shocking to see exactly the same process being repeated now in developing countries. Less than 10 years ago, delegates at a health conference in Africa could hardly believe their eyes when shown a videotape of a BAT ad from comparatively liberal Kenya, showing women being offered cigarettes by their menfolk, and smoking them. Now the same assault on the taboo of women smoking is beginning to be seen in more strongly traditional India.

The well known Hindi actress, Ms Shabana Azmi, and two scenes from a film based upon the real life story of Santokben Jadeja, a woman from Gujarat who is currently a Member of the Legislative Assembly of India, and who comes from the traditional Mehr community where her smoking would be strictly taboo. Ms Azmi herself is considered the most socially conscious and socially active Hindi film actress — no better role model could have been found for introducing Indian women to smoking.

Last July, a row blew up in India over the evidently desperate attempts by a movie producer to stop the censor's scissors from cutting out scenes of smoking by the heroine from a new Hindi film “Godmother”. As the title suggests, the film is about a woman whose husband is an underworld boss. Among other bad influences on her, he introduces his wife to smoking. When the husband is murdered, the woman, despite being illiterate, decides to take over his business. How to convince the male dominated world that she is every bit as competent as any man? By smoking. She smokes when she is under stress, she smokes when she is happy, and she even smokes in front of her young son. Most of the other characters seem to smoke, too; in fact, smoking, especially by the heroine, is apparently a central theme interwoven throughout the film. BAT's international brand State Express 555 is clearly visible in at least two scenes.

The film was based upon the real life story of Santokben Jadeja, a woman from Gujarat who is currently a Member of the Legislative Assembly of India, who comes from the traditional Mehr community, where her smoking would be strictly taboo. The film makers had evidently gone to great lengths to research and realistically portray the culture, traditions and beliefs of the community—except for the smoking, together with drinking and bad language shown in some scenes.

Before the film's general release, Ms Jadeja filed a case of defamation against the film producers; apart from smoking, drinking and swearing being taboo for Mehr women, she said that she herself had never indulged in any of these activities. The court issued an order preventing the release of the film. Stung by the financial implications, the film director, together with the well known Hindi actress portraying the Jadeja character, Ms Shabana Azmi, and her husband, a renowned poet, set off for Gujarat to try to placate Ms Jadeja. Their first attempt failed, but somehow the deadlock was eventually broken; perhaps the resources of the world's second largest tobacco company had something to do with it. In any case, compromises must have been made, not least by Ms Azmi. She is recognised as by far the most socially conscious and socially active Hindi film actress, was nominated as a member of the upper house of the Indian parliament for a five year term, and has made a celebrated and widely aired advertisement about AIDS. All in all, tobacco companies could not have a better role model for introducing Indian women to smoking.

India's film making capital Mumbai (formerly Bombay) is reputedly the world's largest movie market. “Bollywood”, as film folk call it (now perhaps more appropriately “Mollywood”) is merely following the traditions pioneered by its US mentor. With spiralling production costs and increasing difficulties to raise the money for movies, commercial interests have got an eager partner for the promotion of their products. As the federal and state governments show greater interest in the control of regular tobacco advertising, tobacco is bound to be among the greatest beneficiaries of the trend. As they say in show business, this one will run and run.