An open letter to Hollywood Director Woody Allen

Woody Allen refused to remove smoking scenes in his movie Blue Jasmine before release in India as per regulatory requirements.

11th October, 2013

Dear Woody Allen,

I am a cancer surgeon working in a premier cancer centre in Mumbai named Tata Memorial Hospital. Your movie ‘Blue Jasmine’ did not debut in India because you are against the Indian law that requires cinemas to run a scroll and play an educational clip in films that feature smoking scenes. You refused to make ‘customisations’ and this led the distributor PVR Pictures to cancel the release. You seem to have given voice to several disgruntled bollywood people for whom “freedom of expression” is superior to “the right to live”. Your spokesman told Reuters: ‘Due to content in the film, it cannot be shown in India in its intended manner. Therefore, the film is not scheduled to play there.’ I on behalf of tobacco victims and entire medical community, express my deepest sense of appreciation for not releasing your movie in India because it may have added few thousand more smokers to the ever growing numbers of youth picking up this lethal habit. Needless to say that smoking is the number one cause of preventable death amongst youth. 

I have 10 questions for you and your supporters that are as follows – 

  1. Any new law follows a complicated and long process that considers opinions of all sections of society who are impacted by such laws. After intense negotiations, consultations and discussion Indian Government agreed to mandate such warnings in the public interest. Shouldn’t you respect the law of the land? Let me quote you on this “Confidence is what you have before you understand the problem.”
  2. While tobacco is estimated to kill one billion people in this century, you are defending smoking as expression of creativity and artistic freedom. I refuse to believe that a talented actor requires cigarette to express his emotions and creativity? Has your directorial skills gone so low that you need smoking scenes to make your movies popular and profitable? In your own words “Life doesn’t imitate art, it imitates bad television.” 
  3. Compared to rest of the world, cinema has got tremendous influence in India? Indian actors / actresses are treated as Gods/Goddesses and it is not surprising that some construct even Temples for them. They influence day to day behaviour of Indian youth such as their dress sense, hair style etc. Many youth promptly got their heads shaved to emulate Amir Khan in his movie Gajani. Their positive portrayal of smoking is bound to make positive impact on their followers.  Will you please leave Indian Government alone to decide what is best for India? You were not wrong when you said “I believe there is something out there watching us. Unfortunately, it’s the government.” 
  4. The current graphic clips being shown in cinema halls are mandatory only if there are smoking scenes in the movie. The patients shown in that ad are my patients in my own surgical ward. I was instrumental in getting that graphic ad made with the help of World Lung Foundation for the Government of India. The best way to avoid that “disturbing” clip is by avoiding glamorizing of smoking in the movie. Needless to say that, the choice of clips was based on a scientifically conducted public research. For smokers the government approved “lung and tar” clip and for smokeless tobacco they preferred the clip with graphic pictures.  This may seem draconian and extremist by Allen et al but I call it a bold step by a government that is always thrashed for its inaction. How can you ignore science over your unfounded perceptions?
  5. Tobacco was introduced in India in 1600 by Portuguese.  Its cultivation and promotion was regularized by British who made a huge fortune in international tobacco trade. With declining business in the west, Cigarette industry is strategically targeting India’s burgeoning population.  American Cigarette companies are desperately trying to get a foot hold in India. Am I suffering from delusion in thinking that the stance of the Allen et al is part of the international conspiracy?  
  6. In the past, villains used to smoke in Indian cinema but recently lead actors / actress smoke more than villains. The number of smoking scenes have shot up dramatically in last 2 decades. There are proven instances where tobacco industry has paid to the producers for favours. Will the Allen et al publicly share the financial support that they receive from the socially downbeat industry such as tobacco and alcohol?
  7. Most Indian actors/actresses make a fortune by advertising everything from a pencil to an automobile. To give an example – one of the song writer erred by mentioning the name of a particular balm in the lyrics. The particular balm made a massive profit. Still you believe that such celebs are innocent when they smoke on screen?
  8. Only 2% of Indians are able to quit tobacco that too after getting fatal illnesses. Most Indians start this habit between 14-16 years when they are not expected to make correct choices. That is the age when they try everything that is forbidden in the society or in their family. Tobacco kills I million Indians every year leaving behind hundreds of thousands of widows and orphans who continue to live in misery for no fault of theirs. Do you still believe that smoking is a matter of personal choice? You had once said “There are worse things in life than death. Have you ever spent an evening with an insurance salesman?” Do you know that smokers pay higher insurance and some don’t even get insurance cover for some diseases.  
  9. I sincerely hope it is not a publicity stunt to popularize your movie before it is released. Your current stance has given you massive publicity and it may translate into huge profits in the largest english speaking population of the world living in any country. I am sure Hollywood producer can never ignore Indian audience in India or abroad. If that is the case, why did you resort to such a cheap publicity strategy that may help subvert the historic law that Indian government enacted?
  10.  Will you promote your kids or grand children to pick up smoking? Any sensible man will say “no”. How can you promote smoking amongst millions of vulnerable youth world over? You once said in one of your speeches “More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.” Tobacco is a weapon of mass destruction that is perhaps the biggest threat to life and wellbeing of our next generation. 

Dear Allen, you must visit a cancer centre some day and see the disaster unleashed by the devious tobacco industry. Please help us save those innocent lives rather than promote this killer industry. Let me quote you once again – “Death doesn’t really worry me that much, I’m not frightened about it… I just don’t want to be there when it happens”. Tobacco is all about 1 billion people dying miserably and being around when it happens.

With best wishes,

Prof Pankaj Chaturvedi

Cancer Surgeon

Tata Memorial Hospital



Published by Prof Pankaj Chaturvedi

Deputy Director, Center for Cancer Epidemiology, Tata Memorial Center, Mumbai. Professor, Department of Head Neck Surgery, Tata Memorial Hospital, Mumbai

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