Phew! From “Thank God you’re not one of those small-town, vernac types, dear boy” to “Oye angrez, Hindi aati hai?”… we’ve indeed come a long way! But to begin at the beginning, it was a completely different planet, the India and Kolkata of the early seventies and a totally different adspace too. Fresh out of college (St. Xaviers, Kolkata, English Hons.) I had three choices staring at me, menacingly. Journalism, Academics, Advertising. The first was tempting because I loved and enjoyed writing and was a fairly regular contributor to (the now defunct) JS, as also some other colour supplements. The second was scary as hell… I couldn’t ever see myself doing an MA, going up to Oxford and returning to teach students – mostly bored as hell – the beauty, meaning and value of the English language! The third, advertising, was hands-down hot! It promised leveraging of language in an unusual setting and excitement, of an informal and unconventional nature, in the workplace. My (late) father, Sanat Lahiri, who was a huge name in the communication industry of those times, was delighted that I was coming into this line of work, but quite put off by the reason! However, entering the portals of the city’s – and India’s – largest agency JWT (then HTA) I remember feeling, by turn excited, nervous, apprehensive. The first two, because HTA, Kolkata was a prized branch with most of the hi-ticket (ITC, Brooke Bond, Union Carbide, HMV, Nestle, Metal Box, to name some) accounts in JWT’s bag, stupendous billing, solidly effective work and led by a truly iconic leader, Subhash Ghoshal. Apprehensive, because of my sudden feeling of paralysing inadequacy… Would I be able to bridge the impossibly bizarre gap between Shakespeare & Shelly, Dickens, Lamb & Shaw, Donne & Swinburne and somewhat un-literary lines like ‘just for fun’, ‘chew some gum’, chiclet?!
Looking back, those early days were tough, confusing and difficult. Advertising, writing was not about beautiful language but tapping, inventing and creating word-pictures that linked the brand to the consumer in an engaging and interesting way. Luckily, I soon got the hang of it and was thrilled when my hot-shot copy chief ‘okayed’ my first ad. “Yup, you’re getting the drift, lad. Good. Now, run down and get your masterpiece translated in Hindi, okay? There’s this shabby-looking, pan-chewing, pyjama-kurta clad character sitting at a desk next to the staircase. You can’t miss him, son, he’s one in a million!” Loud guffaw.
Cut to year 2009. I am into this big discussion of how creativity in advertising is shifting lanes with a brilliant and successful, hi-profile creative hot-shot. I am waxing eloquent to this person about this outstanding writer I knew of, creator of some brilliant campaigns, winner of ‘best copywriter of the year award’ a zillion times, when my friend gently interrupts and asks about his present status. I am about to say that he’s moved out of the big league with his art partner to start his own outfit and must be surely doing very well, when my friend, with a wicked smile, interjects, “The reason for his fadeout was simple. Bhaisaab ko Hindi nahi aati thi boss [He did not know Hindi]!” Laughter.
Prasoon Joshi, my pretty concise friend above, wasn’t being conceited, sarcastic or smart-backed. He was (in his own witty way) hitting the button, spot-on. I should know. Back then in the seventies, there definitely existed a huge colonial hangover which spawned an indisputable ‘caste system’. Multi-nationals boomed and defined the culture, environment and ambience of the times. English was the preferred and desired lingua-franca of adland and everything else was perceived as down-market and vernac(ular)! The ruling and dazzling ad stars of those days – Alyque Padamsee, Gerson Da Cunha, Sylvie Da Cinha, Kersey Katra, Mohammed Khan, Frank Simoes, Nargis Wadia… to name a few – fitted seamlessly into that rarified (elitist?) clique. Everybody else was… not quite there. Western music, English theatre, clubs, parties, avant garde cinema, poetry-reading sessions – it was pretty much like a private club where trespassers (at best) could be tolerated; though seldom accepted. It might come as a shock to today’s ad-progenies to know that even the likes of Piyush Pandey and Prasoon Joshi had to cool their heels for a considerable period of time before getting their due worth. Why? Simple. They just didn’t ‘belong’!
It was the 21` Idiot Box that really marked the first ground-breaking change in this structure, mind-set, pecking-order, hierarchy. (Admittedly, Lintas did have an excellent language copy section, but it was more of a sideshow because the times were English!) Suddenly, the way communication was conceived, presented and consumed underwent a seismic change. On cue, the ad world (forever watching and tracking) got ready to change gears, switch lanes and hit the gas pedal. They noticed the stirring and enthusiastic reception of an audience (read: potential consumer) base, well beyond the traditional, metro centres with interest. However, to connect with this constituency, one needed a different sensibility in terms of mindset, language, nuance, etc, a continent away from the urban, anglicized, suited-booted variety, residing at South Bombay, Chowringhee, Connaught Place… Could the ruling ‘saab-brigade’ be able to rise and accept the challenge? This is exactly where and when seeds sown by erstwhile, unsung and unremembered visionaries like Kamlesh Pandey and Suresh Mallik – among others – started to flower and bloom. While the ‘Koi Hai?’ school of advertising weren’t hurled into exile, Advantage Bharat came into being, threatening fresh momentum each day! This wasn’t a fad but dictated clearly by the new market forces that spawned a brand new consumer universe – confident, comfortable in their vernac skin and refusing to be bullied into being forced to worship everything angrez; cash-rich, ready to turn consumer but on their own terms and through communication, language, idiom & metaphors of their choice.
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