Sunday, October 08, 2006

Soft Sell, Hard Luck

Byline by M J Akbar: Soft Sell, Hard Luck

Aamir Khan is surely the finest actor in contemporary popular cinema. His oeuvre, spread across nearly two decades, stretches from chick lit romance (hugely successful), to rebel-with-a-cause (superhit), to hero-by-accident (hum-haw). His latest rebellion, Rang De Basanti, has so enchanted the establishment that it is the official Indian nominee for next year’s Oscars.

The only Indian film that came close to winning an Oscar in the foreign films category was Mother India, released in 1958. It lost to Federico Fellini’s Nights of the Cabiria by a solitary vote. One filmmaker who believes that he could have easily won the Oscar, had he but put in the effort, is Dev Anand, for Guide. But instead of going to Los Angeles to campaign for his film, Dev Anand, heady with the unexpected commercial success of an absolutely brilliant film, started work on his next movie, Jewel Thief. Great entertainment, that gentleman thief, straight out of the Cary Grant mould, but no Oscar. Since India is now the big buzz around the world, there is a good chance that 2007 might be the country’s lucky year.

But surely the easiest way to get Aamir Khan an Oscar for best acting would have been to enter the latest advertisement he has done for Coca Cola. There has been no finer bit of acting. Aamir Khan looks deadly serious in a deadly blue plastic cap and a deadly white shirt talking to a scientist in a deadly white laboratory apron holding what might even be, in your subconscious, a test tube. The great weakness of the ad, unfortunately, is the dialogue, which is more dead than deadly. But Aamir Khan, as he has done so often while working for lesser mortals in Hindi cinema, triumphs over the script in his attempt to sell the distortion that Coca Cola is a wonderfully healthy drink, that it has no impurities (as alleged by some dirty politicians and filthy NGOs) and so on and so forth. The ad is flush with symbols of purity: that plastic cap! It must be there to ensure that not a single strand of the actor’s well-oiled hair gets into any Coke bottle. That chemist’s frock! Coke is clearly produced in sanitised laboratories that use their extra capacity to produce cancer-destroying drugs. That grim face! It is Aamir Khan taking personal responsibility for the good health of anyone gorging on Diet or Fat Coke.

Honestly, I don’t get it. Who is Coke trying to fool by using Aamir Khan to spread a silly sanitised image? There is of course history: Coca Cola has been trying to dupe the consumer ever since it was created. It was first marketed as a medicine, and after a century it has been forced back to a laboratory environment to survive in India. The managers of the company are smart. So far they have paid Aamir Khan vast sums of money to look like, among other things, a Japanese tourist with a swollen face and a penchant for samosas, Coke and a curious sense of humour. It must have worked or they would have stopped the cheque. But they also know that Aamir Khan has been crafting a "serious" sideline in his image, by turning up suddenly to promote the Narmada dam agitation. He left as suddenly, of course, when irresponsible journalists started asking uncomfortable questions, but that is another story. Between Narmada and Rang De Basanti an alternative image has been created, quite consciously. Coke has paid, therefore, for a double role: Aamir Khan the Japanese tourist when Coke wants the kids to laugh, and Aamir Khan the social activist when it wants the kids to quote his wisdom in their homework.

Does such marketing work? It has not stopped the agitation against both Coke and Pepsi in Uttar Pradesh for depleting groundwater levels by unchecked exploitation around the Mehndiganj Coca Cola plant in Varanasi. Dr Sandeep Pandey, who has won the Magsaysay award, believes that nearly 90 per cent of the wells and over 40 per cent of hand pumps within a radius of three kilometres of the plant have been affected. He adds that the plants contaminate water by producing cadmium, chromium and lead. These are serious issues. The epicentre of the anger against the cola giants has been in the South, but it is now becoming a nationwide movement. This anger is not going to be assuaged by dressing up an actor. The cola companies have to engage in a debate with activists who know what they are talking about, and people who believe their health and interests are being damaged by companies more concerned with profit than the consumer. These concerns are not unique to India, although India does have problems that may be unique.

The best option for the cola companies could be to banish the pretence and stick to the Japanese tourist and samosa. Consumers are generally an intelligent lot, and they know that there is generally a price to be paid for fun. (The most intelligent consumers of colas, however, might be the Andhra farmers who soaked a small area of their farms with the stuff. Ants, attracted by sugar, made an ant-line to the spot, and could be killed in heaps.)

Coke and Pepsi sell because they are the modern mass-produced sherbets, with oversized doses of sugar, gas and at least some kind of narcotic, if that is the right word in these heavily legalistic age. In fact, the most money is made these days by industries that do not waste their mindspace worrying about your health. The cash flows in the alcohol industry are pretty racy, thank you, and no one has yet shown an advertisement of beer being produced in a medical factory. Cigarettes have to place a pretty grim warning on every packet. What could be more terrifying than a notice that what you are about to consume could kill you? Have you seen any cigarette company that has died of hunger? Coke and Pepsi don’t even have to suggest that too much of either could make you obscenely fat. They can also spend a fortune on advertising that has absolutely nothing to do with the product, and get away with it. Pepsi, for instance, has chosen to answer its problems in India by shoving cricket-patriotism down your throat till you are blue in the face. It doesn’t talk about Pepsi at all: how brilliant! On the other hand, you can’t truly support the Indian cricket team in the Champions’ Trophy if you don’t have a Pepsi in your satchel. But this is friendly manipulation. If there had been consumer brands in Moses’ time instead of merely locusts and honey, the cola companies would have lobbied hard, and possibly effectively, to prevent the Ten Commandments from becoming law. Coke is good for wandering in the desert.

There is better news for the big cola boys: the competition might be even more harmful. The most successful new soft drink has been an energiser from Austria, Red Bull. An eight-ounce can contains 80mg of caffeine and about five teaspoons of sugar. Try that for size. Your size.

The most famous "medical" endorsement for any product is surely the ageless pseudo-dentist telling you that Colgate is good for your teeth. But that is a believable claim, if only because no one has been able to prove that Colgate is bad for your teeth. The anonymity of that dentist is oddly reassuring; toothpaste is not a glamour product. Aamir Khan, the classy actor, wants us to suspend disbelief (the first requirement of theatre or cinema) when he assures that despite all the controversies around Coke, he has tried and tested it and confirmed that it is full of joy. Thank you, Dr Khan. But do put that sermon tone away and say the same thing in song-and-dance. We might as well be entertained while being sold a pup. And you might get an Oscar.

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