Smoking is to French cinema what dancing is to Bollywood. Or so the reputation goes. The prop has always been cherished for adding immediate allure, elegance and sensuality to characters. Think of Catherine Deneuve puffing away with her eternal pout. Or Jean-Paul Belmondo chain-smoking and strolling the streets of Paris with a filterless Gauloise dangling from his smirk. Or think of virtually any Nouvelle Vague movie. French cinema has established the act of smoking as part of the country’s national heritage. Accordingly, when the French health minister suggested on October 16 to ban cigarettes from French films, the country altogether choked up in disbelief.
The controversy was triggered by Socialist senator Nadine Grelet-Certenais during a parliamentary debate about the need to curb smoking habits. To a baffled audience of senators, the representative denounced on-screen smoking as an insidious attempt by the tobacco industry to promote smoking among young audiences – a dubious perception that made its way up to health minister Agnès Buzyn. Buzyn assured that she agreed with the senator, and that the matter would be considered by her cabinet, promising strong action against “the trivialising of smoking in films”.
After banning smoking from public spaces in 2007 (smoking in parks make you liable to a fine of € 450 or about Rs 34,000), introducing neutral packs in 2017 and hiking its price to a staggering minimum of € 10 (Rs 770), prohibiting cigarettes in movies would be just an extra step – regarded as preposterous by many – in the government’s decade-long plan to deter people from smoking. But the policy is unlikely to have any swift effect as a recent study found that 80% of French films feature a reference to cigarettes.
The proposal was greeted with incredulity and sarcasm. Journalists and intellectuals alike led the uproar, defending freedom of creation in the face of a crawling form of hygienic tyranny. “Road violence is a scourge as much as tobacco; we ought to ban car chases to prevent bad habits”, suggests a tongue-in-cheek Twitter user. “We will also prohibit guns, drugs, alcohol and cursing”, offers another.
The backlash forced Buzyn to backpedal in the form of a sheepish apology on Twitter: “I never considered nor suggested the prohibition of cigarettes in movies. Freedom of creation must be guaranteed”. She also called for the cinema industry to take its responsibility as it is “one of the last areas where smoking goes unrestricted”.
There is little chance this proposition will ever be followed through. But regardless of the genuine motive, this debate has sparked yet another controversy that the French media never gets tired of: should artistic work be in tune with morality and the idea that we have of the common good?
The controversy strangely echoes a similar recurring debate in Indian cinema where Victorian sensibilities still abide: should the authorities get in the way of art in the name of public health? Critics in France haven’t picked up what is happening in the country is nothing but a re-enactment of India’s pioneering prohibition of on-screen smoking.
In October 2005, the then health minister Anubumani Ramadoss had banned smoking from films and television shows after the World Health Organization held Bollywood responsible for “glamourising smoking”. The reasons put forward were essentially the same as Buzyn’s: the aim was to “protect the lives of millions of people who could become addicted to smoking under the influence of movies”. At the time, the ban was the most comprehensive of its kind. It also added a mandatory health warning that ran at the bottom of the screen for movies predating the ban. This policy had left the Indian film industry aghast. But it was short-lived as the Act was overturned by the Supreme Court in 2009, who cited it as a form of censorship.
The strong influence that Bollywood exerts on the masses has always worried the authorities. It has created an odd belief that viewers are weak and subject to influence, and that their ‘decency’ and morality therefore had to be preserved from vice at all costs, even if it meant denying the audience the possibility to see reality on screen. Historically, the comforting banner under which the authorities have operated hasn’t been so much one of public health but had more to do with tradition and morality. Hence, the censor board’s habit of chopping off scenes that showed cursing and physical displays of affection (mainly kisses, let alone nudity).
By stubbing out on-screen smoking, our societies miss the point, be it in France or India. The purpose of cinema has always been to offer a harmless outlet to our everyday fantasies. Forcing art to be a model for citizens to follow belittles the audience’s intelligence and, more importantly, smothers its ability to dream.
As French philosopher and commentator Raphaël Enthoven sums up elegantly: “Injecting morality into the seventh art is like pouring Coca-Cola in a Château-Lafitte”.
Paul Gasnier is a French journalist based in Paris. He makes reports for French television and occasionally collaborates with foreign news outlets.