An Indian court has overturned a government ban on portraying smoking scenes in films.

"The director of films should not have multifarious authorities breathing down their necks when indulging in creative art," Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul of the High Court in Delhi said on Friday.

Kaul's decision said the ban violated the right of filmmakers to freedom of speech and expression. 

'To completely ban [smoking in films] is ridiculous, a joke taken too far' — Director Mahesh Bhatt

Bollywood director Mahesh Bhatt appealed the law when it was enacted in 2005, calling it an absurd infringement of artistic expression.

"One would understand a ban on surrogate advertising, but to completely ban [smoking in films] is ridiculous, a joke taken too far," Bhatt said at the time.

Others in the film industry joined Bhatt in his fight, arguing that the entertainment sector is the wrong target in the drive to curb smoking.

Smoking-related illnesses cause 800,000 deaths a year

The government countered by pointing out that 800,000 Indians a year died from smoking-related diseases, and that it was wrong for films or TV programs to make it appear glamourous.

It also wanted old films, Indian and foreign,  to carry warnings if they contain smoking scenes. It said all logos of tobacco products must be masked or cut out.

Producers and directors contend the government should go after the source — tobacco manufacturers.

The World Health Organization  waded in on the issue, siding with the government.

WHO has stated that smoking-related deaths in India could be cut because the portrayal of "attractive people smoking" had an influence on young people, who tend to identify with stars on the screen.

R rating suggested for films with smoking

India imposed a ban on smoking in public places in 2004 and forbade tobacco firms to advertise or sponsor sporting events. A year later, the government required manufacturers to list tar and nicotine content on cigarette packs.

In North America, the issue of the way smoking is depicted in movies and TV rages on.

The American Medical Association has long urged studios to slap a restricted rating on films that have smoking on screen, especially ones that might appeal to 10-14-year-olds, the age at which many young people begin to smoke.

And, last July, Walt Disney Co. pledged to ban smoking from all family-oriented Disney brand films and says it will discourage smoking in films from its Touchstone and Miramax studios.

The Motion Picture Association of America has said it would consider how much smoking there is on screen when it hands out film ratings but refused to enact guidelines or rules.