At the height of the Emergency, in the mid-1970s, with Sanjay Gandhi's mass sterilisation campaign in full swing, billboards showcased a cartoon of a lip-smacking nurse carrying a slab of butter, accompanied by the words: 'We've always practised compulsory sterilisation'.
A controversial subject was turned into a joke. At a time when newspapers were literally blacked out and anyone criticising the government could be thrown in jail, this open spoof of Indira Gandhi's dictatorial ways made many (quietly) snigger. So what was the government's reaction to this subversive billboard?
Fast forward 20 years to another billboard. This one showed a cartoon of Lalu Prasad Yadav sitting on a pile of hay with a cow staring at the well-buttered slice of bread in his hand, and bore the words: 'Fodder of the nation!' To drive home the searing comment on Yadav's alleged involvement in the R900-crore Bihar fodder scam, the single word 'Scamul!' was printed in the corner. What was Lalu's reaction to the advertisement?
Jump cut to today. The pony-tailed Amul girl hasn't changed her polka dots since she was created by ad man Sylvester DaCunha and art director-cartoonist Eustace Fernandes in 1966.
I ask Rahul DaCunha, the man behind the Amul girl for the past 20 years, whether he would have been able to make the 'sterilisation' ad today. "No chance," he says. "Every hoarding today is a navigation of 'Should we? Shouldn't we? Whom do we take on? Whom do we not take on? How do we take him on?'"
When DaCunha, copywriter Manish Jhaveri and artist-cartoonist Jayant Rane came up with an Amul ad in July 2011 showing a Suresh Kalmadi - with Ghajni-style body tattoos that read 'CWG', 'Corruption', 'Scam' - in jail, with the line, 'Hmmm… maine kya khaya? [What have I eaten?]', Congress workers in Pune went berserk and pulled the billboard down.
Again, last December, after an ad showing our polka-dotted heroine offering Anna Hazare a buttered slice of bread with the line, 'Kha na, Hazare!', self-styled Anna supporters in Amravati, Maharashtra, saw this as a damning insult and burnt copies of the newspaper that carried the ad.
More recently, in March, Kolkata girl Mamata Banerjee took umbrage to an Amul hoarding that showed her shouting at 'the treacherous' railway minister Dinesh Trivedi as he clung to the front of a hurtling train. Tweaking the title of item number 'Beedi Jalaile' from Hindi film Omkara, the catchline read, 'Didi jalaile?'.
"She was pissed off. But that was it," says DaCunha. "Which wasn't the case with the next Didi ad, after the Mamata cartoon controversy." The 'Kolkartoon' ad, in April, showed a furious Mamata wielding a cane in one hand and holding a 'cartoon' of herself in the other, as the Amul girl hid behind a pillar. The ad was put up across India, except in Kolkata.
"At the end of the day, the brand is that of a product. We really didn't want to be in a situation where Mamata enforced a ban on all Amul products in West Bengal," says DaCunha.
So how does the company representing Amul's girl react when matters get prickly? In the 1990s, a billboard showed BCCI president Jagmohan Dalmiya in a 'See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil' pose, with the line 'Dalmiya mein kuch kala hai?' on top and 'Amul: Maska khao, paisa nahin [Eat butter, not money]' at the bottom. Dalmiya threatened to sue Amul for R500 crore. The matter was resolved - but not before Verghese Kurien, the grand old man of Amul, suggested they create another ad showing 'Dalmiya as three monkeys', with the addition of another one covering "a certain part of his anatomy".
For nearly, 50 years, the noseless, bright-eyed Amul girl has been the a potent barometer of what India is thinking and a canary in the mineshaft, a good indicator of how far one can stick one's neck out without it being chopped off. The Amul girl is us, a generation of Indians who celebrate, get peeved at and make fun of the world via 'bad puns' and sugar-coated cho-chweet subversion.
Has India's naughtiest girl got DaCunha into trouble lately? "Oh yes. Three days ago I got a legal notice after we put up a Jagan Reddy ad showing him in prison and the Amul girl in a policewoman's uniform, looking in from outside. The catchline was 'Reddy! Get asset! Go!'" he says. The phone call was not from Jagan Reddy's office but from a lawyer with that last name. "'Your ad is insulting to all Reddys!' he said. "How does one react to that?!" asks DaCunha, with an exasperated smile and an utterly, flutterly twinkle in his eye.
Amul's India (Collins Business, Rs. 299) is now available in bookstores.