Heart and soul of the nation

July 12th, 200912:34 am @

Television commercials really can sum up a country.

In Australia it’s beer ads where beefy blokes – or more likely these days, moisturised metrosexuals – enjoy life to the full on a diet of lager and sport. To be Australian is to be male and like a beer. In the UK I remember confectionary ads featuring a grandfather and his golden-haired grandson in an overly backlit and foggy-lensed world. The commercials were cloying, but people loved them anyway as they were a tradition. To be English was to be bound to you past, and like it.

In India, the commercials paint a somewhat different picture.

Odd as it may seem – and it seemed extremely odd to me when I first arrived – one of the country’s highest-selling products is a skin-whitening cream. While I come from a culture that abhors the pasty and celebrates the dark of skin, here the point is to be as pale as possible. Not only do commercials advertise the effective whitening properties of their creams, some come with their very own calibration card – you can measure your whiteness day by day.

Next to skin whiteners on the pharmacist’s shelf are hair strengthening solutions. I’m no hair dresser but it appears that Indian women have a particular problem with thinning hair. Watch television for more than a few minutes and you’ll see countless Indian women looking despondently at their brushes.

Along with dark skin and thinning hair, the third major worry of Indian women – according to advertising executives – is unexpectedly finding yourself in a family way. Take a moment to think how you might sell a morning-after pill. Go on, have a think. I’ll open another bottle and pop back when you’re done.

Now, you probably thought something along the lines of: “Morning after pill, eh? Bit of a sensitive one that. Perhaps best go with something a bit subtle where you don’t mention the product or what it does, just hint at it. Like a tampon ad.”

You probably didn’t think: “We put a man and woman in a hospital looking distraught, perhaps a close relative has just died or whatever she has is terminal. The woman drifts off into thoughts of the life she once knew: smiling, joking with friends, skiing. Back to reality and the inevitable, crushing news that they have just received. Enter the packet of morning after pills. Smiles break out, knowing nods are exchanged and we cut to a scene of the couple merrily schussing along.”

As Dave Barry would say: no, I am not making this up.

Clearly, if you’re a middle class Indian woman your biggest concerns in life are being dark, having thin hair and not being able to ski because your boyfriend was too cheap to buy the good condoms. And if these ads are anything to go by, the après-ski bars of the nation are full of pale, hirsute women with very relieved boyfriends.

Fun as these ads are to watch, I can’t really relate as I’m neither dark-skinned, thin-haired nor likely to find myself knocked up.

One that does hit home features a family somewhere in rural India sitting around doing rural Indian family-type stuff when suddenly the power goes out. Now, you don’t need to travel to the heart of India to find yourself without electricity, just spend a day in the capital city and you’ll enjoy the wonder that is 45º Celsius with no fans or air conditioning.

Upon the cessation of all electrical activities the protagonist of the commercial – variously a young boy or girl (there are a number of versions) – has an idea. A lightbulb probably should switch on over their head, but as there’s no power . . .

Sprinting out of the house and across India the child ends up on a hill overlooking a vast power station. Inside he (or she) meets a rather jolly, somewhat portly, mustachioed worker who listens to the child’s pleas, smiles knowingly and turns to throw a switch. A sort of Tinkerbell-esque ball of light emerges and jumps into our benevolent worker’s hands, which he then passes to the child.

Literally energised, our hero (or heroine) races back across country – holding the glowing ball of power – to the darkened house where Tinkerbell is released into the wiring to light up the place, much to the joy of the long-suffering inhabitants.

This commercial would be just another hackneyed collection of cliches if it didn’t carry one intriguing note. As the child stands on the hill, looking down upon the massive power station, a line of text appears at the bottom of the screen: “Artist’s impression”.

Of all the aspects of the commercial – the cross-country sprint, the friendly utilities worker, carrying electricity in your hands – I would think a view of a power station would be the least impressionistic aspect of those 30 seconds.

Which sort of sums up India for me most days – the stuff you expect to make sense rarely does and you find find yourself looking at things thinking: “What the fuck?”

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