The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Stars going up in smoke

At the London offices of ASH (Action on Smoking and Health), Deborah Arnett, the organisation’s director, and her colleagues have taken note that Amitabh Bachchan has now apologised to the National Organisation for Tobacco Eradication in India for being shown holding a cigar in a poster for his forthcoming film, Family.

ASH, Britain’s leading pressure group against smoking, has done a tremendous amount of good over the years because it is led by sensible and mature people ' unlike its crackpot Indian equivalent which threatened legal action against a convalescing 63-year-old Bachchan.

When I spoke to Arnett, she was in the House of Commons where Tony Blair has signalled he will allow Labour MPs a free vote on the question of smoking in pubs. Everyone now expects that all pubs ' not just ones serving food ' will have to ban smoking.

On the question of smoking in films, Arnett tells me: “We have heard India wants to ban smoking (in films). We are not campaigning for censorship but smoking must not be glamorised. We are not happy with the guidance given (by the British Board of Film Classification).”

ASH wants a toughening of the current guidelines of the British Board of Film Classification which state: “No work may promote or encourage the use of illegal drugs. Works which promote or glamorise smoking, alcohol or substance abuse may also be a concern, particularly at the junior categories.”

However, the board has told the government that it is reviewing the guidelines and that “one aspect of that review includes the public’s attitude to smoking in films with particular appeal to children and young people, and the potential impact on their smoking behaviour”.

According to the government, another important organisation, Ofcom, the independent regulator for the UK communications industries, with responsibilities across television, radio, telecommunications and wireless communications services, “has proposed tightening the rules so that smoking would be prohibited in children’s programmes”.

Although tobacco advertising is not allowed in Britain, ASH points out that “smoking is still allowed on television and in films. While we would not argue for complete censorship, research shows that TV viewing can significantly increase the likelihood of smoking among young people, an effect that continues into adulthood.”

Basically, ASH would much rather that stars like Bachchan didn’t smoke on film. “Research also shows that children and young people are heavily influenced to try cigarettes by viewing role models smoking. In fact, role model smoking is more likely to have an impact than advertisements, which is why we are so concerned about this issue.”

In years to come, Bollywood films which depict gratuitous smoking may not get past British censors.

Will it bomb'

Mahesh Bhatt hasn’t won any friends in the British establishment by announcing he is to make a new movie called Suicide Bomber, starring his son, Rahul, 21, inspired by London bombings on July 7 last year.

It is worth remembering 56 people, including the four suicide bombers, were killed and 700 injured, some horribly, on a day which changed British history forever.

Bhatt is highly regarded among Indians and Pakistanis as is his daughter but he would be hauled over burning coals by British commentators if his film, however nuanced, is seen even remotely as being sympathetic to the suicide bombers.

Though filmmakers do have a duty to tell uncomfortable truths, the subject matter is still too recent and too raw. The trial of the would-be bombers of July 21 in London has yet to take place.

The Guardian has already served notice by commenting that “Bhatt has a reputation as an expert self-publicist and a prolific director of steamy melodramas, several of which have been banned. His recent pronouncements have done little to counter this view.”

The Guardian included a quote from a previous interview by Bhatt: “I am looking for money, be it by fair or by foul means.”

And The Guardian is considered one of Britain’s most “liberal” newspapers.

ART FOR ART’S SAKE: French actress Audrey Tautou

Unfair passage

Natwar Singh, India’s leading expert on E.M. Forster, should catch the next flight to London.

BBC Radio 4 is broadcasting a 10-part adaptation, each 15 minutes long, of A Passage to India in its “Book at Bedtime” slot. It is being read very well by actor Samuel West (except when he irritates me with his fake Indian accent).

What someone should organise is a Natwar-Naipaul (literary) boxing match. The Nobel Prize winner has dismissed A Passage to India as “utter rubbish” and Forster as a nasty “homosexual”.

What a code

This season Brown is in fashion ' Dan Brown, that is.

The first publicity puffs have started appearing, promoting the May release of the $100 million film of The Da Vinci Code, directed by Ron Howard and starring Tom Hanks in the lead role of Professor Robert Langdon and Am'lie star Audrey Tautou as French cryptographer Sophie Neveu.

Brown’s The Da Vinci Code was doing well even before the decision to make a film of the book. The novel ' one I most enjoyed last year although it is not the done thing to admit that in pretentious literary company ' is now number 2 in the bestseller list where it has become a permanent fixture.

At number 3 is Angels and Demons, followed by Deception Point at 5 and Digital Fortress at 6. All are by Brown.

To have one book in the bestseller list is a considerable achievement but to have four at the same time seems positively greedy.

I don’t think it has been done before in the history of British literature.

FACE OFF: Mallika Sherawat

Watching you

Sooner or later, a version of Celebrity Big Brother, a reality show in which a collection of 10 personalities is locked up in a house and watched 24/7 by TV cameras, will come to India.

A Channel 4 researcher says that if it repeated its programme in India, its mix of interesting people would be something like: Uma Bharti, Mallika Sherawat, Monica Bedi, Jagmohan Dalmiya, Maneka Gandhi, George Fernandes, Saif Ali Khan, Navjot Sidhu, Taslima Nasreen and Robert Vadra.

Over here in its current show, Faria Alam, 39, the Bangladeshi secretary selected for her affair with Sven-Goran Eriksson, has been a disappointment, I’m afraid. She has been foul-mouthed. Her main contribution has been to disclose how she once got her own back on a boyfriend she didn’t like “by peeing into his cup of tea”.

I’m not surprised that bookmakers have made her the housemate who is least likely to win.

Tittle tattle

The Big B can relax. Jessica Hines has decided not to complete her biography of Amitabh Bachchan after all. I reckon it was a no-win situation for poor Jessica. If she wrote a warts and all biography, Bachchan wouldn’t like it (and he would probably send the boys round to see the author), and if she didn’t, it would be trashed by British critics as a hagiography.

Instead, she has written a “comical” book on what it is like trying to write a book on Amitabh Bachchan.

By the way, I predict the hero of Lagaan will rush to the index to see what the book has to say about him.

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