Smoking – Dev Anand to Aamir Khan

Smoking – from Dev Anand to Aamir Khan / Mohan Deep*

When I see the girls, many in their teens, lighting cigarettes; not to talk of Meow Meow and other drugs, I remember the days I started smoking.
It was in Mumbai’s western suburbs Kandivali of early sixties. Being a sort of a rebel, I began early. I think the decision had already been made for me when I saw the first film of my life ‘Taxi Driver’ at six. The film started with a taxi driver sharing a match with Dev Anand. It was much later that I learned that sharing the same match stick between three was considered a jinx, could lead to a fight.
The film had Sheila Ramani who was my father’s cousin and played a bar dancer singing, “Ae meri zindagi, aaj raat jhoom le, aasmaan ko choom le / Kis ko pata hai kal aaye ke na aaye, ae meri zindagi”.
In fact, Dev Anand created an entire generation of smokers with his song in ‘Hum Dono’ – “Mai zindagi ka sath nibhata chala gaya / Har fikr ko dhune me udata chala gaya.
This was a period of stress for Indian youth. Jawaharlal Nehru’s policies had failed. His call for more engineers had been heeded by the people but his government failed to provide the promised opportunities for jobs that resulted in massive unemployment.
There would be long queues in the employment exchanges. One would bribe the clerks to get a call for interview, travel and stand in long queues only to be rejected at the end of the day.
Satyajit Ray showed this situation in one of his films where the unemployed Bengalis stand in the queues, the stark sun burning on their heads and making the struggle much more difficult. Like happened recently with the people in bank queues, young candidates would faint in the queues with occasional deaths. Hindi films of this period often reflected this reality with the boards of ‘No Vacancy’ outside the offices.
Smoking may have helped the worry to momentarily go away in smoke but this was never a solution.
We knew it and Dev Anand knew it. In fact, years later, I asked him about glamourising smoking only to be told that he used cigarette as a prop! Dev Anand wasn’t addicted to smoking.
But Ashok Kumar certainly was.
He saw the cigarette burning in my hand when I went to his Union Park bungalow to interview him and immediately asked eyes twinkling mischievously, “Cigarette hai na? Chalo, pichhware chalte hain.”
He had suffered from some heart issue and had been advised not to smoke. His wife Shobha Devi wouldn’t have liked it. Behind the bungalow, over the clouds of smoke, he gave me one of his most candid interviews.
Smoking certainly is an equaliser. If a desperate for nicotine Ashok Kumar grabbed my cigarette pack, Haji Mastan did it with a police constable. He had been arrested in a midnight swoop on his Juhu apartment, where he lived with his second wife, a look alike of Madhubala, Sona. Locked up, he finished the half complete cigarette packet of State Express. Unused to a life sans nicotine, even for an hour, he tapped the shoulder of the constable guarding his cell and asked him for cigarettes. The cop had only beedis. Mastaan, the don known for smuggling on the biggest scale, lit a beedi after decades.
“Mujhe mera bachpan yaad aa gaya!” Mastan told me. Yusuf Patel, sitting across us told me, “This is why I tell you not to smoke. Ye aisi aadat hai ke Haji Mastan ko bhi haath phailana pada.” Yusuf Patel never smoked and was a teetotaller.
I nodded. I knew enough.
Jawaharlal Nehru was a chain smoker. He tried quitting but always failed. He settled for cutting his cigarettes in two parts with a pair of scissors. He would smoke one half but within minutes reach for the other. Even yoga didn’t help. Nehru was an intense person who couldn’t do without his half hourly dose of nicotine. He found himself short-tempered without cigarette between his fingers. And he was at his charming best with Edwina Mountbatten sharing the flame with her.
Not only Nehru, even General Charles De Gaulle, the head of the State of France found it so difficult to quit cigars that he announced his resolution – not to smoke – in front of the entire army. He thought that such public announcement would strengthen his resolve. It didn’t. The army saw him lighting his cigar again, on the very next day.
It was as difficult for Shammi Kapoor who used to smoke 40-60 cigarettes a day. He could quit only when internet came to India! “Mouse replaced the cigarette,” he told me. Kapoor started spending long hours in front of the monitor. However, his nephew Rishi Kapoor didn’t need the mouse. When he decided to quit smoking – I too quit at the same time but about that latter – he made his whiskey pegs longer! He would sleep for long hours. A few days without nicotine, but with alcohol, were enough for him to get rid of the deadly habit.
When I asked him about his worsening dependence on alcohol he said irritatedly, “Cigarette chhod deeya na! Ab kya drink bhi chhod doon?” Rishi Kapoor is like a stubborn brat even at his age.
It was during the same period that I decided to quit. A little episode from the life of Gautam Buddha came to my mind. Buddha wrote about his ‘weakness’ for apples and how he overcame it. He removed all the apples from his room but retained one. He placed the apple on a high pedestal, visible from everywhere. He would do his daily chores and meditation everyday, occasionally watching his favourite fruit.
Slowly, the apple started rotting and decaying. He saw it happening everyday. In a few days the apple turned totally rotten and inedible. He realised that the apple didn’t mean as much to him now. Soon, he could do without it.
I did a similar thing with a little twist. I kept the half used cigarette packet on my bookshelf, visible from all corners.
I knew that 48 hours of abstinence was necessary for the nicotine to exit from the blood. The withdrawal symptoms reduce after this period. So, in reality, one has to cope with the withdrawal system for just 48 hours.
I spent time sleeping or sucking toffees and occasionally looking at the packet. Forty eight hours later I realised that I had parted from lady nicotine. It was cold turkey.
This was in 1990.
I never took a drag after that. Not a puff.
And must say that some friends were very encouraging. Shatrughan Sinha, for instance. He was shooting when I dropped in. He had already heard that I had quit. As soon as he saw me approaching him, he extinguished his cigarette and told everyone to do the same. He didn’t want to tempt me!
The latter generation of film stars too has loved smoking as much. Shah Rukh Khan is a chain smoker. Aamir Khan too is a heavy smoker. But while SRK hasn’t made any resolve to quit, Aamir quits after his films release, and returns to nicotine during the tense days of marketing the film.
Saif Khan got a health scare a few years back and was admitted in Leelavati Hospital. The doctors – I think it was cardio-surgeon Hemant Kumar – advised him to quit. His mother Sharmila Tagore further urged him to live a nicotine free life. He has almost quit. His first wife Amrita Singh too was an addict. She lit a cigarette when I interviewed her and continued with more cigarettes. She requested me not to mention it in the interview as her mother Rukhsana Sultana would ‘kill her’. I ignored her request and, just for some fun, mentioned it in the article. Amrita continues to be angry with me.
The list of those who smoke is rather long. Anil Kapoor takes a puff, doesn’t inhale and extinguishes the fag in a minute. Amitabh Bachchan used to be a heavy smoker but after his brush with death on the sets of ‘Coolie’ followed by other ailments, he stopped smoking.
I am not easily shocked but got a shock when, seeing that my cigarettes were over, I picked up the packet of an actress.
“Mohan, smoke at your risk!” said the girl. The cigarettes were laced with hash. I won’t name her.
*****
* Mohan Deep, a former journalist, pioneered the genre of star biographies in India with his trilogy of Madhubala, Meena Kumari and Rekha, still considered benchmarks. He started with fiction and continues to write it. His latest novel is ‘Color Me Rich’ and an anthology of his short stories, written over the last five decades, is in the pipeline.

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