Even as the world heaps laurels—Golden Globes, Baftas and Oscars—on Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, one can hear anxious voices slamming it as little more than sensationalized poverty porn.
Many of these are voices of well-meaning Indians who are genuinely concerned about exposing India’s dark underbelly to the world. For them, the portrayal of poverty berates Indians and makes India look like an underdeveloped third-world country. Well, since it is brand India that is under discussion, here is my view as a branding professional.
In my experience, the days of sanitized, plastic brands are long gone. There is just too much media attention for a brand to be able to hide anything about itself. Smart brands therefore, anticipate and figure out how to make the most of their strengths as well as their weaknesses.
Dettol stings! Heinz ketchup makes you wait. Harley Davidson is noisy. Often, the flaw adds character to the brand and gives it a magnetism that sanitized, pink and white brands lack. The triumph of branding is that we have learnt to recognize this and build brand myths that encompass not just strengths but also weaknesses.
You can’t hide Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s lack of Western polish. Man of sweat and toil from Jharkhand adds character to brand Dhoni. If you have a speed monster such as Ferrari, honest allusions to high maintenance costs add, rather than subtract, from the brand’s magnetism.
It takes a certain sophistication to understand how brand myths take root and grow. Possibly, no one understood this better than Gandhiji. When he was headed for the London round table conference, he chose to flaunt a loin cloth because it underlined the fact that all that his hungry people sought and deserved was very basic human freedoms.
Coming back to Slumdog Millionaire, I think it scores because it captures the undercurrents that represent the source of India’s progress more than one-dimensional India shining portrayals.
It captures the lean, hungry ambition that drives Indians to uplift themselves and the irrepressible optimism that characterizes our journey. By not hiding our poverty, it explains where India’s exceptionally bright minds acquire the discipline to channelize their energies, passions and talents into extremely challenging endeavours.
To my mind, Slumdog Millionaire adds character to the myth of brand India. I gather that today Dharavi is among the top must-see spots for tourists visiting Mumbai. And after a visit to Dharavi, most tourists say that India is amazing, something we can never be. So here’s a toast to you Danny Boyle—Jai ho!
Arvind Sharma is chairman, India subcontinent, Leo Burnett India Pvt. Ltd.
As told to Anushree Chandran