Would you want to read about cigarettes? Would you not? What cigarettes are and why they exist and how they came to be consumed the way they are today, is a meandering history of economic proportions. And like most other things that are far more important than my opinion, is fairly dull.
Cigarettes are bad, and yet…
Look at the screen and perhaps, if you stare for a couple of minutes and bring your eyes closer to tears than you have been in a while, you would imagine yourself a younger person terrified, and as often is, terribly intrigued by cigarettes. They kill you, yet you look cool. There is something fundamentally flawed about the basic human condition, that finds lustre in the nefarious parts of life.
I remember watching an obscure thriller called “The Good Son”, where the titular, and fairly psychotic, good Son, played by Macaulay Culkin explains to an increasingly paranoid Elijah Wood the reality of human mortality as the latter refuses a cigarette on the grounds of it being a possible proponent of cancer.
Being home alone ruined the little man.
Perhaps too philosophical for an underwritten movie (which I enjoyed back then, whenever), but I was so intrigued by Culkin’s performance as he lit it, held it, and puffed in ways I could only ever dream of.
Cigarettes fascinated me much before a forgettable movie about psychotic children and ignorant families came along. In fact I only stumbled onto this scene while writing this. Cigarettes entered most of our lives with a naked Charminar and a lanky 6 feet tall man, who loomed over all of our childhoods. He dealt with far greater threats to his life, a cigarette be damned.
Imagine being a tiny person enjoying a book that defines the essence of something deeply masculine, perhaps even problematic, and there being a prominent cigarette in the background, smoking on its own between deft fingers. Then there’s a man, looking close to perfection in three-strip Technicolor and he holds a cigarette in much the same way; realities collided in ways our little minds could never comprehend.
If you observe closely, you can see realities colliding.
All the detectives smoked, remember (even the ones who refused to be regarded as such)? It must have been some sort of masculine conspiracy that only exposed itself years later to a general discomfort. No wonder cigarettes became the torches of freedom for a generation of women.
The history of smoking is one of cultural appropriation of native traditions and a slow and steady corporate encroachment that sensationalised it. But the socio-economic history deserves a rest today. Perhaps some other day we could understand how tobacco crawled out of the Native American culture as a ritualistic consumption and became this corporate entity as the oddest yet most resilient symbols of emancipation.
Why is smoking so attractive? To me, and perhaps to the world at large, there’s an association of power with smoking. Is it the phallic shape that becomes the source of this, slightly Foucaldian, power? Perhaps. After all, cigarettes were a staple in Victorian erotic photography. Added to that is the cultural appropriation of the cigarette. Along with the likes of Feluda, Byomkesh, Sherlock Holmes, and Raymond Chandler, we find Albert Camus, Satyajit Ray, Paul Newman and Soumitra Chatterjee redefining what cool looks like. We also have the iconic photo of Audrey Hepburn with a ridiculously long cigarette holder and Virginia Woolf looking absent minded with another one.
cool people smoking. Like. A. Boss!
Popular culture has defined the power that smoking held, and it was very seriously appropriated as one of emancipation when it came to women. Women took to smoking following the First World War, having been reluctantly allowed into the external world, one ostensibly belonging to men, and the taboo surrounding it slowly began to dissipate. Yet, in the pictures shared here, we find the presence of a cigarette holder, as if maintaining a literal distance from the source of power; as if the legitimacy of a smoking woman was limited to one educated enough to maintain that distance and rich enough to afford one.
It seems rather ironic, but as time progressed cigarettes were actually marketed to women, as cigarette makers utilised the second wave feminism as a way to simply develop a better customer base. The cigarette, instead of being a symbol of masculinity between Mr. Connery’s lips as he became Bond, gradually became a statement against oppression in any form whatsoever.
cigarette ad targeted to women circa 1925 from
the archives of Uncle Sam: you know, the Era of
prohibition and legitimized sexism.
It is interesting how fiction used this to depict coming into one’s own. In Aki Kaurismaki’s brilliant piece of cinema, ‘The Match factory Girl’, the titular woman lights her first cigarette when she takes responsibility for herself, sitting alone in her brother’s apartment contemplating the ill treatment she had received from everyone. In Luc Besson’s ‘The Professional’ the young Mathilda follows a path of cigarettes and guns into the independent world of cleaning.
Just watch the damn movie already!
So smoking is a force. Unhealthy? Absolutely! Yet a force. A cultural symbol, a symbol of masculinity that morphed into one of rebellion and intelligence, breaking out of binaries of sex, (or perhaps reinforcing it?) a cigarette is far greater than the health hazard it most definitely is.
But there’s something else.
I once heard Soumitra Chatterjee, talking about his group-theatre days before Apur Sansar and fame in some TV show, mention how they couldn’t afford cigarettes and had to make do with a ‘hookah’. That is the beauty of this decidedly lethal roll of paper.
Ray instructing Soumitra how to smoke a hookah like a pro on
the sets of Ashani Sanket. Yeah, just that. Just. That.
I remember my first days in college, when inhaling smoke still induced coughing fits. One of my classmates taught me how to smoke, as we spent time together rehearsing for the Fresher’s play. I even emulated her way of ashing for a while. She was one of the first friends I made there, sharing literary interests, fears, and cheap cigarettes. Over the years, I have made more friends over cigarettes, as we broke the ice over inability to light one, sharing preferences, and grieving about the increased taxation. During one of my numerous attempts to quit, I regularly accompanied a particular person to the shack and bought her cigarettes as penance for my actions while she bought me chewing gums. Similarly, while rehearsing for plays in our theatre group, we spent our breaks sharing cigarettes and intimacy as the clock struck beyond respectability in deliberate steps. We embodied clichés of the cigarette smoking artist while being acutely aware of our severe shortcomings.
My favourite memory of the last few years is a recurring nocturnal walk during my study leave, smoking cigarettes on deserted streets. It never cleared my mind as everyone claimed, leaving me with the dull warmth that is customary and a feeling of being alright, that a simple walk wouldn’t provide (as I discovered during another one of my attempts to quit).
Customary warnings will always be there, and I am not qualified to discard them, although I wish I could. But cigarettes are much more than health hazards. They are a part of a long history of struggle, of rebellion, and most importantly, one of real social intimacy. And it makes one looks exceptionally cool.
So, if you don’t smoke, it is a judicious decision. But if you do, counter it with me, will you?
WRITTEN BY- SHAKYA BOSE