At the height of the Emergency in the mid-70s, with Sanjay Gandhi’s mass sterilisation campaign on 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’.
In the hoardings, a controversial subject was turned into a joke. At a time when newspapers were literally blacked out, censorship ensured that everyone ‘worked more, talked less, laughed even less’, and anyone criticising the government could be thrown in jail, this open spoof of Indira Gandhi’s dictatorial ways made many (quietly) snigger at someone making fun of an establishment gone mad. So what was the government’s reaction to this subversive billboard?
Nothing.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 with the words, ‘Fodder of the nation!’ Just to drive home the point about the display being a searing comment on Yadav’s alleged involvement in the Rs. 900 crore Bihar fodder scam, there’s the single word, ‘Scamul!’ in the corner. Again, what was the reaction of Lalu 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 last 20 years, whether he would have been able to make the ‘sterilisation’ ad today. “No chance,” he says. “Every hoarding today is a navigation where we are forced to ask: Should we? Shouldn’t we? Who do we take on? Who do we not take on? How do we take him on?”
But when DaCunha, along with copywriter Manish Jhaveri and artist-cartoonist Jayant Rane, came up with the 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 down the billboard. The same happened 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, it was Kolkata girl Mamata Banerjee who took umbrage to an Amul hoarding that showed her shouting at ‘the treacherous’ railway minister Dinesh Trivedi hanging on to the front of a hurtling train. Tweaking the line from ‘Beedi Jaaile’, the item number from Omkara, the catchline read, ‘Didi jalaile’.
“She was pissed off. But that was it,” says DaCunha. “Which wasn’t the case when we came up with the next Didi ad after the Mamata cartoon controversy.”
The ‘Kolkartoon’ ad in April, showing a furious Mamata wielding a cane in one hand and holding a ‘cartoon’ of herself in the other, and with the Amul girl hiding behind a pillar, was put up on billboards all 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 the state of West Bengal.”
So how does the company that the Amul girl represents react when matters get prickly? In the 90s, a billboard went up showing 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 Rs. 500 crore. The matter was resolved — but not before Verghese Kurien, the grand old man of Amul, suggested that they come up with another ad showing the same ‘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 measurement tool of what India’s thinking as well as a canary in the mineshaft, a good indicator of how far one can stick one’s commentative neck out without it being chopped. If RK Laxman’s ‘Common man’ has been the next-door Uncle-ji who provided a window to the ‘middle-class India experience’ for at least two generations of Indians, the Amul girl is us, a generation of Indians who celebrate, get peeved and make fun of the world around us via her ‘bad puns’ and sugar-coated oh-cho-chweet subversion.
Has India’s most naughty girl has got DaCunha into trouble lately. “Oh yes. Three days ago I got a legal notice after we put up a Jagan Reddy ad that showed him in prison and the Amul girl in a policewoman’s uniform looking in from outside. The catchline was ‘Reddy! Get asset! Go!’ Nothing innocuous, you would think,” he says.
It turns out that the phone call was not from the office of Jagan Reddy, but from a random lawyer with the name Reddy. “‘Your ad is insulting to all Reddys!’ the man said. Now how does one react to that?!” DaCunha says with an exasperated smile and an utterly, flutterly twinkle in his eye.
‘Amul’s India’ (Collins Business, Rs. 299) is now available in bookstores.