Roman emperors knew that the essence of survival lay in keeping citizens happy with bread and circus. Man, after all, does not live by bread alone.
Which of the two provides a better portrait of contemporary urban India: the stadium scenes of people watching an IPL cricket match, or the advertisements that interrupt broadcast after every over, and during the periodic breaks pompously called strategic time-outs? The relevant word is “better”; for both give you a glimpse of real life with the clarity that can only be achieved in the artificially-induced jollity atmosphere of theatre.
The Indian Premier League has very distinguished ancestry. Roman emperors, it has been famously observed, knew that the essence of survival lay in keeping citizens happy with bread and circus. Man, after all, does not live by bread alone, and it is extremely good news that the same can be said for woman these days. Today’s circus is evident, and equally useful. The cricket stadium is built exactly like Rome’s Coliseum; nothing much has changed apart from the addition of a partial roof.
The modern appetite for violence is more nuanced, so we have batsmen in helmets rather than gladiators in armour. Killing is no longer acceptable, so ferocious glee [with attendant warrior gestures] is reserved for the death of an innings, rather than a batsman. The umpire has the power of putting a finger up, rather than placing a thumb down, a minor variation on an old theme. The ruling class sits in exclusive boxes, while citizens throng the tiers in all their finery.
So what do the cameras tell us about citizens?
Young Indians of the 21st century are certainly far better looking than their papas and mamas. This is not just about a stage of life. The young always have the beauty-handsome advantage, for they are glued to the future while the ageing are trapped in a mirror. There is health and radiance that reflects better times. If you do espy a pot it is more likely to be in a middle-aged belly. There is freedom in dress, and imagination in casual wear.
As a nation we may still be some distance from gender equality, but there is what I would like to describe as gender equanimity. Young people are more relaxed with one another. Compare this to film scenes from the 1950s and 1960s, where boys and girls were kept apart in a university auditorium. Politicians who don’t get this will never get the youth vote, which means they will never win anything apart from the morbid endorsement of moralists long past their sell-by date. This is good news.
But the whiff of our famous hypocrisy has not totally disappeared. Every team has a hired choir of women cheerleaders, blowing flying kisses on cue and winking with paid dexterity. However, they are all foreigners. Good Indian girls should never be seen in such scanty dress; what will everyone say? When Indian girls are permitted into this hallowed choir, they don a sari and do something vaguely classical. Modern dress and a glad eye have been permitted into the interview area, but kept away from cheer-space. Do not get disheartened. It is only a matter of time.
Evidence? The advertising. Indian women appear in shorty shorts, and male ones display breast-chests. One ad for deliriously inexpensive male perfume manages to mix every cliché with hilarious abandon. A man struts towards the camera, with admiring air hostesses streaming longingly past him. The catch-line is unambiguous. If you want to pick up women, or indeed if you want women to pick you up, just drench yourself with this perfume.
Obviously the ad works, or it would not be on air.
White is the colour of successful sale currency. The European multinational, Philips, buys time on television for its electric shaver. Opening shot: dark-chocolate man with jungle growth across face. His cheeks spark, literally, when he attempts to rid some of that beard conventionally. Then arrives the Philips shaver, and not only does the beard begin to disappear with rapid ease but the man begins to get fairer, not just in his face but across the visible shoulders as well. By the time the miracle is complete, not only is the chin as smooth as an ice-rink but the man has become as white as a native of Holland. This is not a shave, this is resurrection.
Obviously this ad works too, or it would not be on air. No more proof needed that Indians are colour-prejudiced just below the skin, and just above the skin too. Multinationals are actually colour blind; their sole devotion is towards the balance sheet. They do not create or instigate prejudice, but if there is money to be made out of someone else’s stupidity, they are always delighted to pick it up.
Such ad-artifice works only because it is an extension of what we want to be. Rich companies know the formula for turning fantasy into profit. Don’t pass laws against the company. Check out the consumer.
M J Akbar