Documentary short-film Puff Puff Pak opens with Karachi’s Sea View beach on Independence Day.

Amongst the celebrating crowds are Pakistani men (and boys) who are casually puffing away at cigarettes. This shot, coupled with Naveed’s voiceover, swiftly establishes the film’s topic: smoking.

As the scene fades out, the montage settles on a shot of a group of boys posing for the camera. One of them holds a cigarette in his hand. Is it okay for him to smoke on camera, they ask. He tries to duck out of the frame as one of his friends reaches out and smacks him on the head. Eventually, he seems to decide that he'd rather put on a bad boy facade and strikes a pose that comes across as comedic.

The shot draws laughter from the audience and sets the humourous tone for the documentary.

A smoker tells the story of how he quit... and more

Filmmaker Fahad Naveed smokes outside a NYU campus building. — Publicity
Filmmaker Fahad Naveed smokes outside a NYU campus building. — Publicity

Puff Puff Pak came about as filmmaker/journalist Fahad Naveed's Masters thesis for NYU’s News and Documentary program. After a premiere at the NYU NewsDoc Film Festival 2019 in February, the film had its first screening in Pakistan at Karachi's T2F yesterday.

The screening was followed by a conversation between the film's director Fahad Naveed, writer/activist Sadia Khatri and visual artist Samya Arif. The discussion was moderated by Jahanzeb Hussain.

Puff Puff Pak begins with Fahad’s first cigarette as a teenager and follows him to New York, where he finds himself inconvenienced by his addiction in a country where smoking is discouraged and Big Tobacco is being taxed to high heaven.

Naveed decides to quit. His resolve, partly driven by his mother's desire for him to stop smoking, is strengthened when he finds out her cancer has returned. Before his scheduled visit to Pakistan during the summer, he has managed to go smoke-free. Once home, Naveed spends time with his mother, now undergoing chemo and happy to see him rid of his addiction.

Being around his friends, however, proves to be challenging for Naveed. Most of them seem to be smokers, particularly his male friends. This leads Naveed to grapple with questions about his own masculinity — and why he seems to associate smoking with being 'manly'.

Unpacking the gender politics of smoking

Naveed dips into the past when cigarette advertisements featured rugged, handsome Indiana Jones-esque men doing 'manly' activities like scaling tall mountains and crossing turbulent rivers. Even when Pakistan’s advertising laws banned cigarettes from appearing on screen – during the 1990s when Naveed was growing up – tobacco companies found ways to circumnavigate this.

A Morven Gold advertisement shows men dancing in synchronised choreography at Lahore’s Shahi Qilla, eventually coming together to form the brand’s logo. With these advertisements exclusively featuring men, Naveed implies it’s only natural for our culture to associate the act of smoking with a declaration of one’s masculinity – until now.

Cut to present – Mahira Khan is spotted smoking on the streets of New York City with Ranbir Kapoor. The picture leads to weeks' worth of news headlines and a scathing backlash against the Pakistani actor. In a society where smoking seems to be a man’s exclusive right, women are heavily judged when seen smoking in public spaces.

Within half an hour, Fahad Naveed touches upon many themes: smoking and masculinity, smoking as feminist rebellion, the history of Big Tobacco, Big Tobacco’s clout in Pakistan, Big Tobacco’s advertising trends. All this within a very personal context of his mother’s battle against cancer and his own journey of quitting smoking.

In the film, we hear from writer/activist Sadia Khatri and visual artist Samya Arif who talk about smoking as an act of feminist rebellion. Who has the right to judge a woman who smokes, Samya later asks at the screening.

The act of smoking, and of quitting, it seems, holds different connotations then for men and women. In a society where smoking is regarded as a masculine social activity forbidden to women, for some women, quitting smoking could mean giving up what could be to them a symbolic rebellion against the restrictions placed on them.

Smoking as a means of asserting your independence as a woman, however, is not new or unique to Pakistani women, the audience soon learns. It may very well be as much a capitalist invention as the Marlboro Man. In the 1920s, American advertising companies began marketing to women, touting cigarettes as a sign of female emancipation, as much a right of female consumers as of men. The marketing campaign encouraged women to break free of social taboos by smoking in public spaces.

A highly nuanced film

Naveed with activist Sadia Khatri and visual artist Samya Arif who are featured in Puff Puff Pak. They are joined by Jahanzeb Hussain, who moderated the discussion.
Naveed with activist Sadia Khatri and visual artist Samya Arif who are featured in Puff Puff Pak. They are joined by Jahanzeb Hussain, who moderated the discussion.

Tobacco advertisements are not longer aired in the United States and Big Tobacco faced a clampdown under the Rico Act in the 1970s, which essentially likened tobacco companies to mobsters and the mafia.

Vulnerable markets like Pakistan, however, are not so lucky. Tobacco companies remain one of the largest taxpaying entities in our country. They continue to have influence in our corridors of power. Our markets continue to be flooded with low-priced tobacco products and our streets are filled with mouths puffing away at cigarettes, with at least 25 million smokers in the country.

Naveed is no longer part of this community. He has had to redefine his idea of community and his identity but he has stuck to his resolve.

As the documentary nears its conclusion, we see Naveed in the editing room. In the discussion that followed the screening, he described this as the most difficult part of his process. Though that may be true, he has exhibited an undeniable ingenuity for cutting a film.

Within half an hour, Naveed touches upon several themes: smoking and masculinity, smoking as feminist rebellion, the history of Big Tobacco, Big Tobacco’s clout in Pakistan, Big Tobacco’s advertising trends. All this within a very personal context of his mother’s battle against cancer and his own journey of quitting smoking.

A less nuanced filmmaker could have very easily lost the audience. Naveed manages to weave together the narrative so that the audience never feels overwhelmed. The themes are layered together organically and at no point does one feel like he’s forcing information into the film – everything he says fits into place and seems to belong in the final piece. He calls on comedic relief at just the right moments and in just the right quantities.

Puff Puff Pak’s cinematography avoids gimmicks but is impactful. When Naveed speaks of smoking undeterred upon his arrival in New York, we are treated to a montage of him almost smugly puffing away at street corners, outside buildings, on curbs. When Samya speaks of normalising smoking, we see her sitting at a dhaba smoking a cigarette. Sadia looks like the bad girl she wants to be, lighting a cigarette in slow motion as we hear her speak of smoking as rebellion.

Naveed invites the audience into his life and into his journey and, in doing so, he proves himself to be a storyteller. The film could have very easily been overly sentimental and, in the process, difficult to watch. Naveed, however, doesn’t let it take itself too seriously. Very personal, very human moments are interspersed with comedy and then layered with just the right amount of historical and cultural context. The end result is a cohesive and thoroughly enjoyable work of art.

Email