A televised war, an assassination, an immolation, a demolition, a coalition, the opening of economic floodgates, the satellite invasion, a maximum city blasted, a proxy war atop a glacier, the Buddha smiling… again. Such was the decade of the ’90s, the bookends of which were the fiscal crisis and the IA plane hijack in Kandahar. In between these is where the story lies.
Around ’92-’93, armed with a newly-minted management degree, I found myself taking a copy test for an advertising agency. And silently whooping with joy that there was a profession that would pay me to write. The difficult part was explaining to my parents that a job in advertising or ‘publicity’ was not hazardous. It was not about climbing poles and painting hoardings or going around in a van shouting slogans over a loudspeaker.
They were clueless nevertheless. The pantheon of civil services, engineering, medicine and a government job had been recently joined by a new ‘MBA’ god. And that’s where it ended for them. But the ’90s were to usher in the forces of globalisation that would change the very paradigm of ‘Roti Kapada Makaan.’ Whilst in the background, the wheels of the economy spun fast, for me the first whiff of transformation came through satellite television.
The round swirl of Doordarshan was in sharp contrast to the bright zany Zee TV logo or the completely English Star Plus. Buniyaad faded away to the Bold and Beautiful, the Mahabharata to MTV. Television from a ‘government Delhi’-centric discourse moved to the hotbed of popular culture – Bombay. The iconic baritone of the DD anchors of the ’80s gave way to noodle strap glamour. From Krishi Darshan and literature-based short stories, it moved to serials like Tara and Hum Paanch.
In the press too, the shift was being seen. From editorial content being in command, now the sales and marketing departments started calling the shots. Page 3 with its glamour content burst onto the black-and-white sensibility of serious news content. Indian mass media hurtled towards localisation, Bollywood and ‘infotainment’ with significant social magnitude. The music channels, MTV and [V], quickly indigenised with Hinglish and predominantly Hindi music videos.
This spawned a new industry – Indipop. From disco film songs, there was now Alisha Chinai crooning Made in India. Lucky Ali, Suneeta Rao, Shweta Shetty, Euphoria, Colonial Cousins were the stars. And I found myself penning lyrics for a few amazing albums – Silk Route’s Boondein and Shubha Mudgal’s Ab ke Sawaan. Many such new windows opened up in our society. People experienced freedom of choice in every sphere – career, education, entertainment, and products.
The ’90s generation saw Bata, Liberty, Action shoes giving way to the first Nike and Adidas stores. The youth hangouts, Nirula’s of pizzas and hot chocolate fudge fame and Wimpy’s of the burgers fame, were outshone by the opening of McDonald’s and Pizza Hut. Luxury AC Rajdhani train travel was replaced by private airlines like Modiluft and East-West Airlines. Cash was now a few clicks away at the ATM.
Also, two seminal forces were witnessed if not completely unleashed. The Internet came into our lives, albeit through a dial-up connection. Crank calls changed to online chats. Mobile phones redefined ‘cordless.’ The IT sector burgeoned. Disposable income in the hands of the young flourished. The balance shifted. Retirement salaries of fathers now became the starting salaries of youngsters.
My industry, advertising, itself was going through the winds of change. A slew of MNCs arrived with an eye on the ‘great Indian middle class,’ euphorically pegged at 300 to 600 million. The science of communication emerged; demographics, psychographics, concerted brand-building came into play. From the initial jingle-based advertising (Vicco Vajradanti – gunkari haldi aur chandan, Gold Spot – the zing thing), ads now started to develop a different idiom.
Hinglish phrases such as Bole mere lips I love Uncle Chipps and the cola advertising of Yehi hai right choice baby broke new ground. The advent of film stars was marked. Earlier, except for a Lux, or a rare Amitabh Bachchan endorsing BPL, film folk did not flock to advertising. This decade changed that. I dwell on advertising for a reason. Indian ads have reflected society in an intrinsic way.
Brands and their consumers’ dynamic define and dictate a societal discourse. Scratch beneath the surface and you will see that amidst these overt changes listed above there was a more fundamental one taking place. A change in the philosophy of austerity and need based consumption to that of consumerism. ‘Imaan mujhe roke hai jo khinche hai mujhe kufr’
The ’90s was a tug of war. Between the old socialist straightjacketed India and the new swashbuckling capitalism. The struggle of a citizen to transform into a consumer. Initially, credit card companies had few takers and were baffled by the propensity of Indians to pay their entire bill at the end of the month.
Credit for conspicuous consumption was an uneasy concept that middle class India abhorred. But now there was a tug of war between Brahminical restraint and consumerist indulgence, between the quiet wisdom of jitni chaadar utna pair phailao to the proclamation of dil maange more. The ’90s had set off the juggernaut.
65 years of freedom
Rewind How the 1990s transformed India forever
Anti-Mandal protests against caste-based reservations have a huge impact. Rajiv Goswami immolates himself, several students
attempt the same
Rajiv Gandhi is assassinated in Tamil Nadu by an LTTE suicide bomber
The government announces liberalisation policies, marking the start of India’s economic reforms
Hardline Hindu activists tear down the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, sparking communal riots across the country
Serial bomb blasts rip Bombay apart on March 12. Dawood Ibrahim is said to be mastermind
Sushmita Sen is crowned Miss Universe and Aishwarya Rai becomes Miss World in the same year
Bombay officially becomes Mumbai, changing a city forever
India conducts 5 underground nuclear tests in Pokhran, including a thermonuclear device
The Kargil war breaks out in May after Pakistani soldiers cross into the Indian side of the Line of Control
The Harkat-ul-Mujahideen hijacks an Indian Airlines flight; drama ends in Kandahar
(Prasoon Joshi is an award-winning lyricist, screenwriter and the man behind some of India’s most memorable ads)
(Next week – The Eighties by Rajdeep Sardesai)
From HT Brunch, July 8
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