Tanishq ad backlash strips India's veneer of pluralism, propped up by television, film programming of decades past

Much has been written about how the controversy over the Tanishq advertisement is emblematic of who we’ve become as a nation: insular, intolerant, indecent, incapable of seeing a world without our bigotry-tinted binary lenses. How the India of the past was so much more accepting and pluralistic than the India we’ve become.

Or was it?

For generations we’ve had nicknames, phrases, statements that have been bandied about — “Marry anyone, except a Muslim”, “Give her water in the plastic tumbler, she’s not Brahmin” — until they’re normalised to the point where most people don’t think of them as offensive, even as they pay lip service to “unity, equality, secularity”.

So, what exactly has the Tanishq controversy unveiled that wasn’t already in practice in India?

The Tanishq advertisement has been released in the India of 2020 — a very different India from that of the 1970s and ‘80s.

The India of the ‘70s was reeling from a war, and then recovering from an Emergency. The India of the ‘80s — the golden era of Doordarshan that championed national integration — was putting itself together after Congress-fuelled communal riots legitimised violence amongst communities.

Pre-liberalisation India was showcased in the films of Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Manmohan Desai and their ilk, even as the likes of Shyam Benegal and Ketan Mehta presented an India — and those Indians — not considered glamorous enough for (and therefore invisibilised by) mainstream Hindi cinema.

On Doordarshan, famous Indians across religions and cultural backgrounds sang the same tune of unity in diversity, in the ‘Baje Sargam’ and ‘Mile Sur Mera Tumhara’ videos. From Akbar in Amar, Akbar, Anthony to Kadarbhai in Nukkad, filmmakers and television directors in the ‘70-80s, created memorable Muslim characters, who introduced tehzeeb and adaah to our lexicon.

It wasn’t that we didn’t caricaturise non-Hindi speaking communities and religions in our cinema, serials and commercials: Tamilians were painted purple with foreheads screaming out their naamams, and spoke heavily accented Hindi; the Christians were crucifix-sporting, sleeveless-wearing secretaries or priests who spoke with an “foreign” accent, and if they were from Goa, then they were just drunks; the Muslims all wore their topis and their burqas and ridas, prayed frequently and embraced each other when they met. If at all they were the bad guys, they would mostly be sidekicks to the main Hindu antagonist. The tawaaif (courtesan) danced away her pathos, “vamps” gyrated. Sikhs were frequently truck drivers or bumbling simpletons, just as Tun Tun was the fat, funny one.

Despite the typecasting, the earnestness to recreate a society as close to what one experiences and desires, could not be faulted. Art imitated life. And life, to a large extent, had the same political correctness of art in public. The Tun Tun body shaming notwithstanding.

Doordarshan in the ‘80s created pure, joyful, simple content through shows like Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi, Mungerilal ki Haseen Sapne, Nukkad, Karamchand, Wagle ki Duniya. While also catering to the rural milieu through shows like Hum Log and Buniyaad, DD recognised the potential of dramas and sitcoms among an audience thirsty for both light-hearted and realistic entertainment.

The stories may have been simple or even superficial, but feathers weren’t ruffled on screen despite communal skirmishes off it. India was still a new nation, Indira was dead and there was a life to live. The joie de vivre despite the daily middle class struggles was so refreshing that no matter what happened in our personal lives, on-screen we wished to be represented as united. For most of us, we didn’t know any other way. We took pride in our unique brand of hypocritical secularism; it wasn’t something to be offended by. Our Constitution was sacrosanct, and its tenets of cohabitation were not to be ridiculed. And religion, despite being the tinderbox it has always been, was not to be messed with: You do your thing and I’ll do mine.

This inherent predisposition to peaceful coexistence fuelled a lot of the creativity of the ‘80s where reflecting on the India of the day meant showcasing it warts et al, yet with much nuance and finesse. It was also the last decade where both Hindi television and cinema (Bollywood and art house) put out some of their most beautiful, albeit kosher original content.

Doordarshan recognised the potential of dramas and sitcoms among an audience thirsty for both light-hearted and realistic entertainment.


The India of the ‘90s set the template for the India of today.

It also validated communal, vitriolic speech that one was hitherto careful about not making public. As riots tore the social fabric of this country, and changed Bombay to Mumbai, this new brand of religious intimidation masquerading as nationalistic virility started to take shape. Against the backdrop of a newly opened market and liberalisation, stood the modern Indian espousing the very same regressive religious propaganda that the British had pioneered successfully.

Bollywood reflected the shallowness of the times with formulaic films; largely those fantasy ones of the Rahuls and Rajs who lived in houses the size of Rashtrapati Bhavan. The entire decade was a long reel for the tourism and marriage industries, as most of the blockbuster films showcased an India that was unfamiliar to us, oftentimes devoid of substance. An escapist India, if you will, to contrast the unease of the times. As the Bollywood plot grew more far-fetched, the reality that we no longer need to quietly tolerate those different from us, gathered more steam. The politicians of the day exploited communal differences for their own benefit, and gave people a platform to voice their bile without having to resort to thought or reason.

The ‘90s also gave us cricket broadcasting and related marketing strategies that specifically targeted the subcontinent. After Bollywood, cricket is a big unifier in this country and the ad agencies of the time harnessed this collective patriotism through some of the most memorable ad campaigns. So even as social and communal unrest simmered, brands recognised that the average Indian still aspired for peace and unity. Our inherent decency stopped most of us from indulging in behaviour that we knew to be appalling.

If Bollywood was woefully unreal, Hindi cable television gave a platform to more realistic drama like Tara, Banegi Apni Baat, Shanti, Hasratein, Sailab, and more. Films from many other industries like those in the South states, as well as the Marathi and Bengali ones, still took up more relevant social topics and deftly tackled them. They did not find mass appeal each time, but they unfailingly addressed matters that concerned us, even as Bollywood looked the other way. So, when Mani Ratnam made Roja and then Bombay in Tamil, the response locally was diametrically different from the responses to the dubbed Hindi versions, which took the “ban it, apologise” route.

Twenty-five years on, not much has changed, right?

Yes and no.

Exhausted by the riots-blasts-riots-blasts India of the day and yearning to just live their lives without the embarrassing compulsions of religious politics, the Noughts were to Bollywood what the ‘80s and ‘90s were to Hindi television: A refreshing new space where all ideas were welcomed.

The late ‘90s and early 2000s saw the growth of mobile phone users in India, but content for mobiles was still a decade away. Mobile data hadn’t caught our interest until the mid to late ‘00s while Facebook was picking up from Orkut in India and Twitter was still finding its wings in 2007.

Meanwhile, the advent of Lagaan, Dil Chahta Hai, Maqbool, Harishchandrachi Factory among others, gave birth to the new, young storyteller who was yearning to break the formulaic filmmaking of the previous decade. If the ‘90s were dotted with protests over obscenity (think: the Milind Soman-Madhu Sapre ad for Tuff shoes, the Marc Robinson-Pooja Bedi KS commercial, or the backlash to the word ‘sexy’ in the lyrics to the Karisma Kapoor song from Khuddar) then the Noughts legitimised vulgarity by giving them the wonderful sobriquet “item numbers”. Gratuitous semi nudity notwithstanding, new and real cinema was starting to find a dedicated viewership. The moviegoer was being offered a range of genres and concepts that were far removed from the hero-driven, pelvic thrust plots of the ‘90s.

By this point, DD programming was redundant, cable television options were plentiful and there was content for every kind of viewer. It was also the decade of the saas-bahu serials where tradition-based chauvinism slowly but surely stamped out the modern voice. Modern and educated women in hideous saris, constantly having to toe the mother-in-law’s idea of what an ideal Bharatiya nari should be, and by extension, the seemingly Hindu idea of propriety: television picked up what Bollywood discarded. The writing was on the wall. Only, we didn’t see it.


What about the internet has allowed more and more people to bully and intimidate?

This past decade is of particular interest, and can perhaps be seen as pre and post-2014.

Broadly speaking, some of the finest Bollywood films were made in this decade, including character- and plot-, not actor-driven stories like Barfi, Newton, Piku, Delhi Belly, Highway, Haider, Rockstar, Badlapur, Shanghai, The Lunchbox, Udaan etc.

Post-2014, stories with high decibel patriotism, period films that skewed Mughal history to suit the Hindutva narrative became more common. Chest thumping Indian war films that attacked Pakistan were more frequently made because by this point, the notion of the Muslim terrorist was well engraved. Not without reason, either.

Hindi television became a cacophony of reality programming and talent shows, in addition to the saas bahu fare. Those looking for meaningful content found the internet was slowly but surely becoming a good bet. Television viewing underwent a sea change with the emergence of online streaming platforms. A discerning audience was being tapped that wanted good stories for binge-watching. The acclaim for Mirzapur, Paatal Lok, Sacred Games etc. highlights the importance of good content — and how the internet is the medium to both market and host such material.

Concurrently, the second decade of the millennium saw long-simmering issues come to a boiling point. As every mobile phone user already had access to Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp, this gave political propaganda the oxygen it needed to create a minimal input, maximum output model of social disturbance. Discontentment over constantly having to defend one’s faith, over socio-economic discrepancies and a growing disdain for political politeness had set the stage for high octane communal agendas that remain the mainstay of politics today.

Now people who wouldn’t otherwise write a letter to an editor, found it easy to issue rape threats to the writers of news articles. The internet offered the perfect anonymity they need to unleash their inner demons. Where even a normal love story between a Hindu and a Muslim could be trolled as “Love Jihad”.

What about the internet has allowed more and more people to bully and intimidate?

Some of the most despicable nonsense has come from people with access to education, modern life, the works. So the roots must lie in our inherent casteism, bigotry and disdain for the “other”.

The outrage culture that drove MF Husain away, led to the banning of Salman Rushdie and Rohinton Mistry’s books or Deepa Mehta’s Fire, or any opinion that didn’t align with ours, has been rampant since the ‘90s. Mobs have blackened faces of people, catcalled women in skirts, vandalised museums and stores…all as government after government has watched and then looked away. Nobody has seriously put mechanisms in place to bring to book rioters, vandalisers, etc.

Why then does it shock us in 2020 when the Tata Group-run Tanishq puts out an ad on national integration and feels forced to withdraw it? Despite all its funding to the party at the Centre and its donation to the PM Cares Fund, the Tatas cannot battle the virus called Online Trolls. The trolls and bigots who have always been amongst us.

So, what exactly has the Tanishq controversy unveiled that wasn’t already in practice in India? It has reminded us, rather rudely, that that ship of decency — however thin its veneer — has sailed. Love has never been a successful business or political model in India. The Tanishq ad backlash has reminded us that it’ll be a long, long way until we can change that.

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