Ashwini Gangal
Advertising

Remembering Air India's Maharaja on the sets of KBC

When Big B saluted Air India while filming Kaun Banega Crorepati. I was right there.

When a rookie reporter enters the Indian advertising and marketing beat, she has a preconceived idea of what (all) has to happen before she can claim to have arrived. I had one such list too, when I joined this publication in mid-2010. It's not a very ambitious list, so don't judge it against conventional parameters. It came from a place that's exactly in the middle of knowing nothing and knowing nothing but the stereotypes in the world of advertising.

The first thing on the list was – Go to Piyush Pandey's house and interview him over chai. The operative word here is house; meeting him at Ogilvy didn’t count (also, he works out of home more). Check. Reporting from the French Riviera didn't feel as good. (Actually, I drew half the tick when I called him on his home landline number to fix the appointment).

The second thing on the list – Abuse your journalistic power and somehow interview a Bollywood superstar. That's not easy for a business journalist to do. Okay, you have access to celebs' publicists, so you can always do it, sure, but the consequent story will look like candy floss. But, check. When Ranveer Singh did the rex for Durex few years back, I went to Yash Raj Studios, thee YRF, and ticked this box, in an editorially sound way.

The third thing on the list – Go on set when either a commercial or a hit TV show is being filmed. I finally checked this box earlier this month, when I sat in the audience and watched Amitabh Bachchan shoot for two episodes of the 11th season of Kaun Banega Corepati, that were telecast on Sony last week. KBC was first telecast on Star in 2000, in what was at the time a defining moment for everyone involved. The show moved to Sony in 2010.

One of the questions Bachchan asked that day was of special significance to any sort of chronicler of Indian advertising – the contestant was to look at an old advertising mascot and recognise the brand it represents: the Air India Maharaja. After she got it right, Bachchan spoke about the creator of this mustachioed mnemonic, Bobby Kooka (SK Kooka, who was commercial director at Air India back in the day) and his iconic tagline –‘There is an air about India…’ He stated the line not once but twice, his booming voice drenched in nostalgia.

Old ad for Air India that Amitabh Bachchan recalled while filming KBC Season 11
Old ad for Air India that Amitabh Bachchan recalled while filming KBC Season 11

Just like Sylvester daCunha’s Amul girl – born in the mid-1960s to rival Polson’s butter girl – dons different costumes and plays different characters, Bobby Kooka’s Maharaja was created as a malleable mascot whose many avatars endeared foreigners and outbound Indians. In the world of witty copy on billboards, the Maharaja predates Amul’s moppet.

Bobby Kooka's image taken from indiatoday.in, 64 years old when photographed
Bobby Kooka's image taken from indiatoday.in, 64 years old when photographed

The Maharaja was first sketched back in 1945-46, by Umesh Rao of what was then J Walter Thompson; the idea was to symbolise India’s hospitality. And if anyone felt the choice of ambassador served to perpetuate stereotypes about our country – land of turbaned maharajas and all that – she couldn’t amplify that sentiment on an internet fueled platform. Of course, he became the face of the airline in a big way only after the mid-1950s, before which he was used sparingly, on booking counters, and as corporate branding on stationery, coasters and such.

Another ad from the archives
Another ad from the archives

Credited with making him famous is Nargis Wadia, the airline’s in-house designer, who, in the mid to late ‘50s, created many posters that took the Maharaja to fame… and notoriety. Among her controversial work for the brand is a Paris-themed poster with sexy, Moulin Rouge-esque images of female legs on it. An 83 year old Wadia was quoted in The Hindu last November saying, “… the brief given to our studio was to let our hair down and do anything international in flavour…”

Nargis Wadia's controversial poster for Air India
Nargis Wadia's controversial poster for Air India

In an old interview with Vir Sanghvi (India Today, issue date: February 28, 1977), Kooka, then chairman of Hindustan Thompson Advertising and chairman of Air India Charters, said about the birth of the Maharaja, “We were the aviation department of Tata Sons then… It struck me then that we needed something to symbolise eastern hospitality and a potentate seemed ideal for that purpose. After we became Air India, we realised that we had to be different; it was simply impossible for a small airline to compete with TWA, Air France and the big shots on their own terms. So we expanded the Maharaja image… and tried to create a distinctive Indian identity for ourselves. The idea was that when you thought of Air India, you thought of the image and the Maharaja's hospitality rather than the small number of planes we had. I am surprised how successful the idea has been - so much so that today we are about the only airline in the world that doesn't have to say Air India on its ads… In fact, if you look at our big hoardings, you'll see that many of them don't have our name on them.”

Zeenat Aman modelled for Air India in the 1970s
Zeenat Aman modelled for Air India in the 1970s

In the late 1980s, the Maharaja mascot was done away with, but it was brought back subsequently.

About his Maharaja, Kooka has famously said in the past, and I quote from one of several websites that seem to have reproduced these lines from a mysterious source, “We can call him the Maharaja for want of a better description. But his blood isn’t blue. He may look like royalty, but he isn’t royal. He is capable of entertaining the Queen of England and splitting a beer with her butler. He is a man of many parts: lover boy, sumo wrestler, pavement artist, vendor of naughty postcards, Capuchin monk, Arab merchant…”

Old long copy ad for Air India
Old long copy ad for Air India

Kooka passed away in 1996. I hope Amitabh Bachchan’s fleeting tribute on the sets of Kaun Banega Crorepati few days back piques the interest of those who watched the episode last week, for the story behind this mustachioed mascot is worth knowing.