Funny how what started out as script for a feature film ended up as a book of less than 40,000 words. And the fact that a script idea saw the light of day in the form of printed fiction is, in itself, symptomatic of the socio-political climate that ad filmmaker Anand Kurian seeks to draw attention to in his debut novel, The Peddler of Soaps. "One of the reasons I decided against making a feature film was because I felt the nature of the script was too controversial for the times," he says. "As it is, I was short of finances. And I didn't want to run into censorship and such hassles. A book made better sense."
On the face of it, The Peddler of Soaps - an expression ad folk will find familiar - is a tragic love story, set against the backdrop of religious fundamentalism. However, running parallel to the main plot are issues inextricably linked with fundamentalism: politically-motivated violence, religious intolerance, pseudo religious convictions, the deeply stratified caste system and the 'schizoid attitude' towards women.
Set in the mythical island of MahaDesh off the coast of Africa, this thinly veiled political commentary is the story of ad filmmaker Arunabha 'Tipu' Bhattacharya, who is grappling with the reality of the 'outside world' from the confines of a mental asylum. Told in flashback - and from Tipu's point of view - the story is about the protagonist falling passionately in love with newscaster Ayesha Jung. But the love affair is prematurely terminated when Ayesha is murdered by members of a fundamentalist organisation, Dharma Shakti - the price they pay for standing up to a corrupt system.
Quite expectedly, the book is populated with striking characters from the world of advertising and media. One that stands out is Rags, hotshot creative director and mentor to Tipu ("a mix between Chax and Prahlad Kakar", as Kurian puts it). Kurian, however, makes it clear that there is nothing autobiographical about Tipu despite the protagonist's calling. Kurian admits that he owes the novel's construct to advertising. "The structure is just like a commercial," he says. "The story line is suffused with shots of humour, emotion and glamour, all sexily packaged, yet communicating the essence of the message, as in a commercial,"
'Owing a lot to advertising' does not prevent Kurian from laying bare the hypocrisies that puncture the industry or from openly dissecting the client-agency power equation. For instance, despite Tipu's first commercial getting shot down by the client and the network for being 'blasphemous', the controversy that ensues works as an 'excellent' launching pad for Tipu. This prompts Tipu to remark that, 'You could succeed even if the product failed. But it could work the other way too. The product could take off big but you could still be a non-starter.' A none-too-subtle dig on a capricious industry.
Other pertinent and thorny issues that the author touches upon include the gut fee-versus-market finding debate. Early in the book, Tipu points out that, "The client didn't think. They had a substitute for thinking… they called it Research." No doubts about where Kurian's sympathies lie. "Creative guys and ad filmmakers have very strong views relating to the product they are working on," he says. "But is it difficult to argue with the client when the client is talking big money. However, if this trend were to continue, ad guys will only get frustrated."
On one hand, Tipu displays a great sense of solidarity with the advertising community. On the other, he exposes its double standards. "As I said, the ad guys are a pretty all right lot. By and large. The real test of how good a guy you are, though, comes when your own vital interests are affected," observes Tipu. He is referring to a case where two children die while trying to emulate a model in a commercial for chewing gum brand, Chillups. The client, the network and the agency unanimously decide to continue to air the ad, and the ad community in MahaDesh stands by Rags, the creative director. Rags is even pronounced the 'Celebrity of the Year'.
Clearly, the author is of the opinion that everything is subservient to bottomlines. "This episode is based on the Thums Up ad, where they showed a boy bungee-jumping. Kids died attempting the stunt, but the commercial went on being aired," Kurian sighs. There are also many allusions to the pretensions the industry lives under. While discussing plagiarism (Tipu is strongly against the notion, whereas Rags is cool about it), Tipu, referring to the 'snooty' Creative Directors Club, asks, 'So, Rags, what exactly, does the club do?' Rags cheekily replies, "We don't do anything. We simply keep other Creative Directors out."
In the final analysis, however, The Peddler of Soaps is not about taking a critical look at the world of advertising. On the contrary, it celebrates the ad world as a pleasant counterpoint to the bitter realities of life. Flawed it might be, but as Tipu concludes, a haven compared to the world outside. For a first book, Kurian gives a decent account as a writer. The conversational narrative allows for easy reading, with the humourous anecdotes centered at Tipu and Rags providing levity. But at the heart of it all, The Peddler of Soaps is a modern-day fable that tries hard to mobilise public opinion against the rising tides of communalism.
Price: Rs 120 (Paperback Edition)
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