Please give up smoking to let people watch the new Woody Allen, pleads an exasperated Indian actor to his smoking countryfolk. This non-smoker has been waiting for the release of Blue Jasmine in his local cinema, and now Mr Allen has refused to let the film be vandalized by the Indian government for the sake of nicotine-free wholesomeness. If warning people against reckless habits is the point of such “customization” (a word that would annoy all artists and entertainers), then Mr Allen’s films ought to be bristling with scrolls trying to save people from every kind of death-wish. But Mr Allen’s decision to let go of the Indian market instead of compromising the integrity of his work is a public, and political, gesture that demands serious attention, especially from the authorities it is directed at. Of course, given his stature as a film-maker and the sweep of his market, this is something that he can afford to do — unlike, say, a young, independent film-maker from India, who would be forced to accept such intrusions into his work.
What Mr Allen’s decision underlines, therefore, is the illogical, even absurd, nature of such regulatory zeal in the State; how unacceptably meddlesome such ‘concern’ is, essentially, when it comes to creative expression. As many Indians have articulated in response to this incident, the visual media in India, especially cinema, thrive on forms of entertainment founded on a wide range of life-endangering behaviour. Think of how glamorous violence, often of an extreme kind, happens to be in popular Indian cinema. And why should such measures not be thought through more rigorously? For instance, why stop at cinema then? Why not insert warnings in works of literature as well? And why the lurid — and some would say, perverse — excess in putting on show the terminal suffering of an actual person for people settling down with their popcorn to be entertained? Good taste and respect for aesthetic integrity cannot be inimical to good health in a modern democracy.