Vistasp Hodiwala
Guest Article

An analogy, a quote and a 24-carat tragedy called India...

An advertising executive writes about the brand on everyone's mind and lips - Tanishq.

Over the past six years there has been an oft-repeated analogy and a much-touted quote from history that have constantly made an appearance on social media timelines of the ‘liberal’ chatterati. So much so that there is a tendency to go ho-hum the moment one so much as glances at both. Which isn’t surprising, for the human instinct to quickly make a dash in the exact opposite direction from anything that threatens to become a social or a philosophical cliché is perfectly reasonable.

But let’s come to that bit a little later.

Over the past few days, Tanishq, a market-leading company when it comes to branded jewelry discovered in its own time what it’s like to do business in the decidedly Post-Liberal era that is India circa 2020. For their communication campaign for Ekatvam, the company released an ad film celebrating inter-faith marriage as tastefully and aesthetically as the medium allows you to. Conceptualised by the Mumbai-based agency, What’s Your Problem, the plot revolved around a pregnant Hindu daughter-in-law for whom a Muslim family thoughtfully plans a baby shower in the highest traditions of religious and cultural tolerance.

Vistasp Hodiwala
Vistasp Hodiwala

In a more innocent time not too long ago, at best this would have been considered a ‘polarising’ ad where the cynics would have accused the corporate of exaggerating the milieu to milk the consumer’s woke instincts. (A few faithful cynics, especially outside the advertising world, have predictably done so in this case too.) And that would have been that. To be fair, a polarising ad is a good ad because it shakes up status quo (mostly), questions dogma, and makes people confront their fervently held beliefs. For a new age brand like Tanishq whose core appeal resides on the cusp of tradition and modernity, a progressive stand isn’t just necessary, but dare I say, on expected lines. In fact the agency would have failed in meeting the brief if it hadn’t delivered on that premise.

But neither the creators nor the company had reckoned with the Wild West online tradition of a resurgent India that our brand pundits can’t seem to stop gushing about these days within those pompous virtual media smugfests now bizarrely named ‘Town halls’. This innocence was sort of touching because what’s been happening for a while outside the advertising and marketing world from JNU to Jadavpur and Kashmir to Kerala has been entirely consistent with the reaction that predictably followed the ad’s release. After all, India’s right-wing heroes can be accused of anything but originality.

Readers will remember at least two ads from the recent past, which gallantly met with the same fate. Brooke Bond’s film involving a Muslim artisan making Ganesha idols and Surf Excel’s Holi commercial, again involving a Muslim kid going for his namaaz in pristine whites whilst being protected by his sensitive Hindu friend.

In this case however, what raised the hate bar ever so high was the fact that the charge was ably led by a Supreme Court advocate who openly instigated the right-wing troll mob to go after everyone associated with the film by specifically sharing the Linked-in profile of the Muslim Brand Manager and exhorting the throng with the words, ‘You know what you have to do’. The loyal mob delivered and how; first by ‘disliking’ the said creative piece in multitudes, then piling on all sorts of negative comments and accusations all over social media, and if that wasn’t enough by trending the hashtag #BoycottTanishq and physically threatening the employees of the company itself; in particular the Brand Manager whose apparently diabolical mind thought up this entire ‘nefarious’ episode to shame the Hindu faith.

That the company decided to withdraw this ad in the larger interest of its staff’s safety was entirely understandable. For the very next day we woke up to the grim news that a store manager in Gandhidham was forced to paste an apology on his store front to the ‘Kutch District Hindu Samaj’ who were offended by the said ‘shameful’ communication. (Yes, that’s exactly what they said in Gujarati – shameful!)

So what does L'affaire Tanishq tell us exactly?

That as a society we now have zero immunity against right-wing mobs who want to dictate to us what we should wear, who we should marry, what we should celebrate, and most importantly how we should think. Worse, they also tell us in no uncertain terms that our instincts as compassionate human beings are just plain inappropriate. So please check those silly sentiments at your agency’s ‘liberal’ door before you decide to create any piece of communication. After all, a Hindu girl has no agency and therefore has no business marrying a Muslim boy in the first place, leave alone making the rest of us feel warm and fuzzy about their smooth cultural and religious union. It tells the lakhs and lakhs of happily married couples and beautifully-integrated families across faiths that their lived-in experience counts for nothing because hey, the so-called guardians of Hindu faith deem it so!

So what if the plot of the ad film in question was found touching and progressive by so many viewers! So what if it was admired by the industry, feted by the fraternity, defended by the industry bodies, and tried to strike a blow on behalf of all of humanity and evolution in its own small way?

All of that simply does not matter.

The margin for dissent has almost disappeared over the past half a decade, and it’s not only to do with the regime change, but because not enough liberals thought it was important to engage with the monster of bigotry and right-wing savagery throughout the last three decades. They assumed that their cold neutrality would somehow buy them security and keep them shielded from the viciousness that will consume the rest of the society. But like a famous bard recently proclaimed:

‘Lagegi aag toh aayenge ghar kai jadd mein,

Yahaan pe sirf hamaara makaan thodi hai.’

If this episode too doesn’t serve as a wake-up call, nothing else can, or will. Though one suspects that as a nation, we are awfully late to that obvious revelation already.

Which brings us to the analogy and the quote this piece started out with. The analogy concerns the proverbial frog that would jump out in an instant if he were to be released in a pan of boiling water straightaway. However, put the same croaker in cold water and let that pan simmer ever so slowly and the indifferent amphibian just won’t be able to decide in time when to jump. We are those frogs inside the boiling pan that India has slowly become. A corrosive right wing ideology has hollowed out not just our civilisational ethos but also our constitutional edifice. As an analogy this has been revisited over and over by way too many conscientious social media commentators to belabour its point here again.

As for the quote, it’s by Martin Niemöller, a prominent Lutheran pastor in Germany and requires no explanation at all. Everybody has heard of it but what exactly we should do with it now, that nobody knows or can remotely tell. It goes like this and you can feel free to substitute those words within the Indian context.

First them came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

(The author is the co-founder and chief creative officer of the Mumbai-based ad agency Underdog and partner at the digital start-up, Centrick. He believes Mark Zuckerberg should be paying him for the time he spends on social media but is too proud to ask for remuneration.)