In the ad-breaks between films on HBO, I mostly hit the mute button. Bright, socially aware school kids grab jharus and clean up their neighbourhood streets with glee; women with impossibly muscular hair swirl their tresses to avoid plank-wielding husbands; newly-weds canoodle under canopies of insurance; freshly painted houses stay smooth as vanilla ice-cream through monsoons and droughts. None of these need words: the images speak for themselves. But yesterday, something snagged my attention, and held me as surely as a fisherman’s hook.
A man is pulling a cart, yoked to it like a buffalo, through crowded city streets. He battles his way through the traffic, there’s an altercation with a scooterist. Parched, he turns to a roadside tap. It’s dry. He hoists a massive sack of concrete on his back, carries it to the construction site. He carries a load of bricks on his head up a half-made staircase, bristling with naked girders. Rubber chappals slap the stairs as he wobbles under the weight. In the final image he squats in the half-shadow of a doorway, gnawing a dry roti, eyeing the camera like a caged animal. Then comes the punch line: ‘Bholu. Ex-pickpocket.’ And the final voice-over, in the silky tones of a night-club compère: ‘Welcome to State Bank Debit Card. Welcome to a cashless world.’
I must have got the wrong end of the stick, I thought. Surely they must mean that even the lowliest labourer can now avail of world-class banking? Ok, unlikely. But then, not so different from the mobile-toting dhobi or the internet-savvy farmhand who frequently pop up on our sets. But then... doubt set in. Maybe I hadn’t got the wrong end of the stick: maybe they really did mean...
Second time round I watched the ad more closely. Yes, they did mean that. They were actually saying that this Bholu has been robbed of his natural calling — thievery — by your virtuous, happy choice of paying by card, not cash. But even he has to eat, so he is forced to work, industriously and hard, for his daily bread. By pushing him to the brink, you have actually forced him to be honest, saved him from his base — and natural — calling.
There is nothing that consumer capitalism can say to Bholu. What in our traditions of political discourse or even spiritual refuge can have led us to this desolate place? Gandhi’s ethos of self-sufficiency was built on the conviction, belief, in his dignity. He could find something, some place, some shared goal in the aspirations of Nehruvian socialism. Even at the height of the India Shining campaign, there was a hint that there was a trickle-down of wealth — the Great American Dream, that anyone who works hard enough will succeed, is an inclusive, even a democratic myth, unmindful of colour, sex or class. But this? It is as though India has taken its worst, most deeply entrenched, most retrograde aspect and held it up as a virtue. Those who are ‘welcome’ to this bright cashless future are the few. The downtrodden, the desperate, the hungry are barred from its golden gates.
There was an ad a while back: a sleek red car that stalked a lone woman down dark streets like a tiger. Own this car, it seemed to say, and you too can become a predator, with innocent women as your rightful prey. The outcry that resulted led to the withdrawal of the ad. I only hope the same will follow with the SBI ad.