For Indian cinephiles, dreams of seeing Woody Allen's latest acclaimed feature have gone up in smoke.
"Blue Jasmine," Allen's drama starring Cate Blanchett, will not be released in India. The announcement was made on October 3, a day before the film's planned release. The cancelation has led to a furor in the country, bringing to boil an issue that has already provoked much debate.
Watching a film in an Indian theater is a strange experience, to say the least. In the state of Maharashtra (home to Bollywood), it is mandatory for theaters to play the national anthem before each screening. In some theaters, this is preceded by a request that audiences stand. The notice stems from dicey legal territory: The Indian Constitution lists "respecting the national anthem" as a citizen's duty but no means of legally enforcing the statement. Irrespective of this, if someone chooses to remain seated, widespread booing or outraged jeering by other, more jingoistic patrons is a common sight.
Indian films are renowned for their length, usually longer than films from around the world. In the U.S., it may have raised eyebrows when "Avatar" clocked in at 162 minutes, but in this subcontinent, it is par for the course if a film is three hours long. Fortunately, Indian films feature intermissions without fail. While many audiences may appreciate the opportunity to give their bladders a reprieve, theater owners see the opportunity as another window to sell snacks and make money. Indian films are even structured to account for this interval: On various occasions the film benefits from the break, using the intermission point to make a shocking reveal or set up the climax.
This practice clashes with films from elsewhere in the world, which are made not only without an intermission in mind but do not provide an easy point for splitting either. However, Indian theaters do not make an exception here, cutting such films at their own discretion. This wanton splicing leads to a viewing experience that is disjointed at best and jarring at worst.
Alfonso Cuarón meant for "Gravity" to be watched in a single sitting; the film's true impact of a relentless survival tale does not take hold if every viewer is forced out of the experience with a 10-minute break, in which the theater staff peddles their wares and the screen plays ads. It is hard to imagine any filmmaker being satisfied with such mutilation of their work.
Indian audiences may have accepted the fact that the situation wasn't going to improve, but they hadn't expected it to get worse.
The Ministry of Health issued a directive last year that made it mandatory for films to feature an anti-smoking disclaimer before the start and during the interval. This video contains brutal imagery to inform viewers about the perils of smoking. There is interview footage of a lung cancer patient featuring close-ups of cancer-deformed faces; a narrator states that this patient later succumbed to the disease. Several people voiced protest at this imposition, considered scary for younger viewers. Along with this ruling, every scene wherein a character smokes is obligated to feature an on-screen disclaimer that underlines smoking's health hazards. Any theater that fails to comply with these rules fails to certify for the Censor Board, a must for theatrical screenings in the country.
The efficacy of this move is obviously debatable. More than a year after its implementation there has been no market survey to analyze the impact it has had on people. Beyond that, the basic application of the rule is troublingly haphazard. The length and content of the video varies per film. At times, it plays out in its full gory ugliness; on some occasions, it is cut to a brief snippet with just rudimentary graphics. Some filmmakers have revolted in their own way. Director Vishal Bhardwaj created his own disclaimer for his film "Matru ki Bijlee ka Mandola": a jingle listing other things that could be dangerous to human health...like an overdose of popcorn.
There is no regulation regarding the textual disclaimer. The wording, font, placement and the duration of the warning on the screen are left up to the filmmaker. Some films take the safe-but-intrusive route and plaster the text in huge size across the screen; others position a curt "Smoking Kills" warning in the corner that's nearly transparent and barely visible. An August release, "Issaq," had a caption in one scene reading, "The hermit is smoking herbs, not tobacco."
Woody Allen had no interest in playing by those rules: The filmmaker objected to the country's anti-smoking disclaimers and refused to insert any warning into the two smoking scenes in "Blue Jasmine." "He felt that the smoking by the characters enhanced those scenes, but we have to go by the law of the land,” said Deepak Sharma, the COO of PVR Cinemas, the company tasked with distributing "Blue Jasmine" in India. One can't accuse Sharma of timorousness: The Indian government has the right to cancel a theater's license if rules are flouted.
And the rules are about to get worse. Starting this week, theaters in Delhi, the capital, may be forced to show a 15-minute video encouraging viewers to vote in the upcoming general elections.
Theater owners have come close to reaching a breaking point. "Unless the order comes from someone whose order we can’t reject…we are not going to follow it, no matter what," said one venue manager, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Judging by the uproar caused by the "Blue Jasmine" situation, Indian audiences may have had enough as well.
Deepak Sadarangani provided some information for this report.