In the film Lost in Translation, Bill Murray plays a has-been Hollywood actor shooting an advert in Japan for a local whiskey brand. Despite never having tasted the product, he has no qualms about endorsing it, because the money he makes keeps his mid-life crisis at bay. It is rather hilarious to see Murray work his trademark deadpan expression, as he takes directions from the ad director. The scene is just one of many in the film, which show the chasm between cultures, and the confusion it can often lead to.
The recent Pan Bahar ad featuring Pierce Brosnan bore an uncanny resemblance to Murray’s big-in-Japan moment. From the very start, Brosnan appeared a fish out of water playing a secret agent with penchant for, of all things, pan masala. The incongruity was further explained by a recent news report in People magazine, which stated Brosnan was “shocked and saddened” by the use of his striking good looks for a possibly carcinogenic substance (Brosnan has lost two family members to cancer, the report stated, and is deeply committed to the issue of women’s health).
So what exactly did Brosnan think he was signing up for? According to People, the actor believed that the tin he uses in the commercial – knocking out henchmen, and kissing it as if it were one of Bond's nifty weapons – was in fact, a breath freshener. It should be noted that in the ad, Brosnan does not consume a customary sprinkle of Pan Bahar at the end (as is the industry norm for pan masala ads).
Since all of Brosnan’s previous endorsements have been for global brands such as Omega and Visa, even desi audiences found it cringe-worthy to see Brosnan become a parody of his former self, blowing his diligently earned suaveness in a cheesy production.
Both on and off social media, Indians were quick to dismiss the ad. Alok Yepuri, creative director of an advertising firm, felt doubtful that India's pan-chewing elites could relate to Brosnan, an "international has-been".
"Perhaps a more in-demand stylish Indian icon would have made a better choice." he said.
Meanwhile the Central Board of Film Certification banned the Pan Bahar ad from national and satellite television, citing laws that restrict content promoting pan masala, tobacco and alcohol.
“It is very difficult to believe Pierce Brosnan has done this." CBFC head Pahlaj Nihalani said. "Money can hardly be a criteria when you’re selling death to people.”
Peddlers of aspiration
But this pan masala ad is only the latest in a barrage of expensive advertisements for the product, each of which are shot in foreign locales, and manage to rope in big names.
While dishing out patriotic sermons recently, Ajay Devgn suffered nary a prick of conscience appearing in a “surrogate advertisement of tobacco products”: his ad for Vimal pan masala was a kaleidoscopic fever dream that appeared to have been inspired by either Lord of the Rings, or Albert Hoffman’s first LSD trip.
Akshay Kumar is another major Indian celebrity who celebrated the virtues of Baba Elaichi in an advert packed with hip-hop conceit. Poles apart from this was a commercial for Rajnigandha Silver Pearls – a product of tobacco giant DS Group – which featured Priyanka Chopra being sheepish and humble, to the strains of a cloying jingle and a monologue that reminds viewers that they are only as big as their big hearts.
The motifs of success and ambition run through all these ads. In stark contrast to the reality of their customer base, the ads only present recognisable figures at the peak of their career. Rajnigandha’s campaign went meta this year, introducing stalkers who observe their heroes – pianists, golfers, authors – from the shadows, basking in their reflected glory.
High on their own supply
The classic Indian pan masala ad featured an avuncular Shammi Kapoor, taking delight in Pan Parag while exclaiming “baaratiyon ka swagat Pan Parag se kijiye (welcome wedding guests with Pan Parag)”.
The slogan became so popular that all subsequent Pan Parag ads were set at weddings.
Soon, with every industry branding itself a sentimental saviour of the Indian people, pan masala brands followed suit. The ads for Rajshree pan masala are jeremiads that aim to educate the average consumer, urging him to donate blood (missing the irony), donate old clothes, desist from drinking and driving, adopt children, stop asking for dowry and celebrate the birth of daughters.
Even if the messaging seems manipulative, using social causes to sell a questionable habit, the evolution of these ads mirrors the evolution of India's average pan masala consumer.
“India’s rural environment is expanding every day," said Akhoka Raikhan, account manager at a major advertising company. "So what we have here are two undeniable things: a large market and an intellectually sound audience. As a brand wouldn’t you want to evolve to some slick production?”
While tobacco and alcohol are still used as auxiliary props in cinema and on television (albeit with a flurry of disclaimers), pan masala has, thus far, found no representation on-screen, owing to its reputation as being the most infra-dig in the narcotics hierarchy.
Still, they found their niche – the sentimental Indian. Rajnigandha’s ads have always modelled themselves on motivational speech. The protagonists of their previous ads, (with the tagline “Munh mein Rajnigandha, kadmo mein duniya” / “Rajnigandha in your mouth, the world at your feet”) were always parvenus, out to prove their Indian-ness to others.
There was the one with an industrialist who purchases the East India Company because “they have ruled us for 200 years, now it is our turn” (never mind that the company was dissolved in 1874 and had its operations taken over by the British Crown).
Another ad featured an industrialist who walks into a boardroom meeting and acquires the company due to purchase his at thrice the price – because “Indians are not for sale”.
Then there is the Indian student who solves a complex mathematical equation, who prodded by his white professor says, “We Indians know the answer but waiting for the question is part of our Indian values.”
And finally, the one with a musician, who receives an award from a White man who once rebuked him for not knowing his place – he accepts the award, but not before a quick jibe: “We Indians know our place fully well, but the world recognises us a little late.”
No one, it seems, hates the White man more than Rajnigandha, but given the present political fervour, it may be only a matter of time before the Evil White Man trope gets turned in, in exchange for the Evil Pakistani or Feeble Anti-national.