Ever been in a situation where a friend or acquaintance has just made a grand public gesture? Everyone is congratulating and praising her for being such an amazing human being so you force your face into a rictus of admiration. But the only word you hear inside your head is: ridiculous.
A man I know once burst into tears after a Saturday group viewing of that year’s heart-warming, set-in-Africa, Oscar-nominated movie. While he was being patted and consoled and praised for his sensitivity, I didn’t know what to do with myself. The man was mean to his girlfriend and had only recently tried to beat up an auto driver who scratched his car. Sure, the condition of children in West Africa must have moved him so much.
Having confessed that the milk of human kindness is very curdled in me, it’s easier to explain the expression I had when watching the new Surf Excel ad. If you happen to have missed it, let me describe it to you.
A young girl on a cycle drives up and down her neighbourhood, daring one and all to do their worst with Holi colours. All the children take the bait and drench her in colour. Then, when she determines they have run out of supplies, she calls out to her Muslim friend and gives him a safe pillion ride to the mosque. Thanks to her strategy, he can arrive spotless to offer namaz. And the ad reminds you, as previous iterations of this campaign have, that in some cases, daag achche hai (stains are good).
I miss kitsch, wit and sharpness in Indian ads. Now we seem to be stuck with ads that don’t just feature dentists in white coats but also seem like they were created by dentists in white coats—uniform, perfect, with a synthetic veneer of virtue-signalling.
The child actors in this newest Surf Excel ad are perfect too. Our protagonist is what in my Dakkani-speaking neighbourhood is called a heroine-a. Her bestie is also proto-adorable. Thousands of people who have watched the ad on YouTube have left comments praising its heart-warming message. This is India, say the comments. But this really is India so there is apparently also a campaign being mounted to boycott Surf Excel for “insulting Hindus".
How have Hindus been insulted in this ad? The answers are various. Why must the pairing have a Hindu girl? Cue promotion of love jihad. Why must namaz be shown as important? Some people foaming at the mouth the way detergent makes Bellandur lake foam insist that this ad elevates Islam above innocent Hinduism. They want some manner of tit-for-tat. A smaller thread of rage comes from the Muslim quarter objecting to an exponent of Muslim manhood having to turn to a mere girl, that too a Hindu girl, to be safe. Talk about emasculation and so on.
To be fair to Surf Excel, I can’t remember any recent attempts to do the communal harmony kind of ad that was common in the 1980s and 1990s. The phrase communal harmony itself has a dated feel to it. Given that most companies do not want to go anywhere near the giant cesspool that is public discourse about the relationship between Hindus and Muslims, Surf Excel is predictably getting praise for its bravery.
But are good intentions enough? Could an ad have been conceived without either the Muslim child or the Hindu child stuck in a saviour/saved role? For once, could a Muslim character appear anywhere in a movie or a novel without offering namaz?
The phrase communal harmony and the children in the Surf Excel ad remind me of posters that were found all over Mumbai after the 1992-93 riots. These posters had toddlers from different communities dressed in “ethnic" costume and had been created, if I remember right, by a Dharavi-based baby clothing business owner. He also sponsored travelling screenings of reels that were only montages from dozens of Hindi movies in which Hindus, Muslims and Christians were nice to each other. One giant plotless Amar Akbar Anthony. Kitschy, just like the posters, but apparently the screenings were popular. Back then, my older friends pointed out the hilarity of having the Muslim infant in a Turkish fez and the Christian child dressed like a Catholic priest. Buck stereotyping but create new ones while you are at it. In the flat posters, none of the children were saving each other. But they were stuck with each other, radiating cuteness.
Sticking children into ads is the commercial equivalent of the naïve political thinking that believes the next generation will do it better. But as young people filled with doubt and uncertainty intuit, there is no guarantee that anything will get better. How can it be revolution when you are still using the blueprints of the status quo, as the Surf Excel has, as many of us do? And sometimes, you leave your youth behind before you realize you have been cycling on the same predictable path laid out by those you have been running away from.
Cheap Thrills is a fortnightly column about millennials, obsessions and secrets. Nisha Susan is the editor of the webzine The Ladies Finger.
She tweets at @chasingiamb