One could say that the success of the biggest Indian movie of 2023 — Jawan, directed by Atlee — hinged upon a cigar. The Shah Rukh Khan-starrer that released in September featured the superstar in a double role, playing a father-son vigilante duo.
The son, jailer Azad, has clean-cut heartthrob looks, doesn’t smoke or drink and appears to have no vices whatsoever. The father, ex-soldier Vikram Rathore, on the other hand, is distinguished visually with make-up of course, but most of all, by his signature cigar. It’s a bit of a superhero accessory almost, because as Rathore cuts his way through a swathe of enemy combatants, the cigar remains magically in place. There’s even a visual joke where Rathore hides the cigar inside his mouth for a second, bashes his latest foe, and then flicks the cigar back into place with his tongue.
I found the cigar in Jawan especially significant because it’s a way of demarcating generations, not just two men with the same face. Rathore belongs to the generation where public smoking was not just acceptable, but ubiquitous. Folks smoked in offices, lounges, waiting areas everywhere. It makes sense that Rathore would be inseparable from his beloved cigar, even in the middle of a hectic fight scene as bodies are dropping everywhere around him.
The year’s second-biggest earner, the Rajinikanth-starrer Jailer, was even more brazen and in-your-face with its cigar symbolism. Rajinikanth’s protagonist ‘Tiger’ Muthuvel Pandian follows in the footsteps of his past characters with his stylised way of lighting and smoking a cigar. Here, too, the overarching theme is a clash of generations: Muthu’s clean-cut, no-vices son turns out to be a criminal who ends up going to war against his father.
In the film’s climax, there’s a revealing montage of Muthu’s friends — played by South superstars Mohanlal (Malayalam) and Shiva Rajkumar (Kannada) — helping him mow down his enemies. These two actors are, of course, at the top of their respective industries. They both light and smoke cigars with the same swagger as Rajini, sitting resplendent upon ersatz ‘thrones’ even as their foot-soldiers kill their foes with rhythmic precision.
The scene is also a kind of allusion or visual metonym for the state of these three film industries: Tiger and his superstar buddies, old-school to a fault, still ruling the filmdoms in their States whilst fighting off a horde of ‘pretenders to the throne’. They are brothers-in-arms united by the cigar.
Cigars projecting a very specific brand of masculinity is nothing new for film and TV. In the highly successful TV shows Boston Legal and Mad Men, there are any number of ‘male bonding’ scenes featuring men smoking cigars in front of high-rise office windows and balconies.
Closer home, in the OTT series Aarya, Sushmita Sen smokes a cigar by the poolside in the third season which released last month. Her character is that of a drug kingpin, and she channels the cigar-smoking brand of masculinity we see in Mexican drug-lords in shows like Narcos and Breaking Bad. Recently, we also saw actor Wamiqa Gabbi turn heads on the red carpet with a cigar, albeit a chocolate one, during a promotional event for her film Khufiya.
No longer cool
I find this recent emphasis on cigars-as-visual-shorthand very interesting, not least because Gen Z as a generation has pretty much turned its back on smoking. They view public smoking, in particular, as especially bad. They smoke far less than millennials, and to them, smoking does not carry the cultural “coolness” bestowed upon it by every action hero since Clint Eastwood.
According to a recent report published in Business Insider, Gen Z shows far lower levels of both alcohol and cigarette/ cigar consumptions in the U.K. and the U.S. — billions of dollars’ worth less, in fact.
Clearly, Gen Z is moving in the right direction when it comes to smoking or drinking. And now, in India, we have (rightly, I might add) fixed much higher standards for smoking onscreen — the warnings that flash before our eyes are compulsory, even if the character smokes for a split second.
I just wonder if the recent barrage of cigars onscreen is, in part, a reaction to this new social reality. It remains to be seen whether the likes of Vikram Rathore and Tiger Pandian will affect this trend in any meaningful way, but the cigar story is at a very interesting juncture indeed.
The writer and journalist is working on his first book of non-fiction.