Thursday, March 27, 2008

Has the English language been marg inalised, in today’s “Bindaas” ad-scape?

4Ps B&M's Monojit Lahiri examines this fascinating “inverted snobbery” on a relentless over-drive, in today’s Ad-space

My friend (let’s call him Nandu), a respected Creative Director with an established Mumbai-based ad agency, had a wonderful story to narrate. When he entered the business in the early seventies – in one of Kolkata’s top-flight agencies – he was one day summoned by his boss. Trembling, the young copy-trainee (expecting the worst) entered his cabin. He was heartily congratulated by the supremo on something he had turned out. “Great stuff, son! Now run along and hand over this copy to that Kurta-Pyjama bozo, sitting next to the despatch department, probably chewing paan-masala or whatever. Tell him we need the Hindi translation asap, okay? These vernac types have to be kept on a tight-leash, got it?”

My friend, fresh out of college, with a heavy-duty hangover of ignorance and ideology, suggested he be included into the copy pool since he was also a writer. The boss man was shocked! “Are you nuts, kiddo? He doesn’t know English and wouldn’t be able to recognise it, even if it bit him on his face!”

Cut to year 2008. In animated conversation with a 30-something creative luminary – known for his brilliant command and outstanding work relating to hinglish/hindi communication – my friend’s rapturous praise about a hot-shot Creative Director was nipped in the bud with, “All that is fine bhaisaab, but all that was yesterday? Zamana badal gaya mere dost aur advertising ka delivery mode bhi badal gaya. TV aa gaya aur sab jagah aur insaan ko products aur services ke saath connect kar diya. In logo ka problem kya hai, pata hai? Hindi nahi aati… and that today is an unimaginable kami, rukawat, dhakka…” So amazingly and ironically, the wheel has come full circle! The empire strikes back, huh?

Sumanto Chat (Ogilvy’s resident “Adonais” and creative hottie) fires the first, provocative, salvo. Describing himself as an “Anglophille Bengali,” he frankly admits that this “national language” thing has never got him all charged up (as it has others), but he realises that numbers, groundswell and popularity vis-à-vis the lowest common denominator do matter… and so be it. Hence he has made it his business, “to make a special effort to learn and appreciate it to the extent that I can produce the necessary communication capsules in an effective and meaningful manner.”

Kolkata-based Management Consultant Partho Dutta believes that the answer to the headline question is a categorical “Yes.” He has zilch problems of English being used, or remixed with Hindi “as long as the lingua is franca!” Tongue firmly in cheek, he adds that since ads have a commercial agenda and are not exactly created for the Booker, it’s fine! However, he warns that “insights” must be kept in mind. “It is dumb to use bindaas lingo to sell aspirational brands, as there is a basic disconnect. A native speaker of the Mumbai street lingo could very likely own and ride a Merc… but would you use that same idiom to sell to the C-class?”
Delhi-based Creative Director, Titus brings his own perspective. “The days when copywriters waxed eloquent with words like ‘nevertheless’, ‘most certainly’ and ‘all the same’, (making them sound like understated conversations made with a cigar dangling by the side of the mouth) is over. Visual solutions did them in. Cannes and One Shows confirmed that, as did India finding her own cultural voice and context. So whether it was Hum Ko Binnies Mangta or Chal Meri Luna of the eighties or Taste ko Waste mat karna, darling (KFC) and Seedhi Baat, No Bakwas (Sprite) more recently… this is the new language. Emotional and loud maybe, but its ours, boss!”

McCann’s boss-man Prasoon Joshi – who along with Piyush Pandey – can be said to be a trail-blazer in this area offers his evolved point-of-view. “Advertising is communication at a deep, basic and primal level with people you don’t know, have not seen and related to at an emotional level. The first thing to do is make ads that don’t look too obviously addy. The second is to read vernacular literature… (Prem Chand, Sarat Chandra), people who symbolise true India.” Joshi believes that English is the drawing room language of India – not the language of relationships, bonding and proximity. Hindi seems to be that, which is why it appears to resonate even beyond the traditional Hindi-speaking areas.”

Everything considered, the real shift started in the mid-90’s when music channels MTV & Channel V hit the country with the agenda to completely westernise “the new, resurgent India.” English pop music presented by foreign born Indian VJ’s (Kamal Sidhu, Sophia Haque, Rubby Bhatia) blitzed the box … but alas, except the metros, they were a dismal flop! That’s when real Indianisation started and happened – spoofs, jokes, skits, events, anchors (Cyrus Brocha, Sajid Khan and Javed Jaffrey) all embracing the mad-cap, zany Indian identity.

The language was street speak, chalu and mostly Hindi… it was a resounding hit… and boy, did the hawk-eyed adbiz leap onto the bandwagon… They haven’t let go!


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