Chattopadhyay’s book provides an interesting research intervention in the field of visual and television study as well as in the general understanding of an image world which was a precursor to the current digital context of consumerism. It illuminates after all the crucial moment of post liberalization, a transition period, during which the chaos of new ideas, subjectivities, and a changing urban materiality was being churned out at the very point of origin in the world of advertisement, and presented back to the viewer for interpretation. Pointing at the sudden significance of commercials post liberalization, with the increase of satellite cable television channels and coming in of multinational brands, in contrast to cinema which served as the earlier popular vehicle of modernity during, before and after Independence, the book deftly demonstrates how commercials in the contemporary time stood at the helm of negotiating this transition in 1990s India from a receding socialism to advanced capitalism.
Understanding India Cultural Influences on Indian Television Commercials provides a fairly comprehensive insight into the world of Indian television commercial in the period of the 1990s. As pointed out by the author, the strength of this study lies mainly in its methodological approach bringing in ethnographic study and detailed micro analysis not only of the textual but also production history of a series of Indian commercials showing the stratums through which different questions and aspects of Indian identity is addressed. The chapters are thus divided based on the diverse tropes and subjects of the commercials such as changing feminine identity, sports and nationhood, global vs local and regional identity or the integration of the rural and the urban. The book’s unifying theme in remains the manner in which a certain ‘Indianess’ is imagined, constructed, performed and lived through these commercials and the rise and socialization of a consumer society.
The thematic, as well as visual rhetoric of the commercial is shown to weave in a complex and layered message to seduce the viewer within a short duration, and triggering his or her aspirational desires for upward mobility linked with consumption and globalism. For this purpose the commercials mobilize already existing norms, rituals, sentiments and iconic cultural themes such as the wedding, mother-daughter icon, cricket, and popular film stars. At the same time the presence and influence of shooting methods is analysed by the author as crucial visual communication tools to address the spectator in key ways, through camerawork, mis en scene, performance, location, use of stars as layered cultural signs. The stage of the scripting and then of filming is carefully demarcated to reflect on the significant ways in which the ‘image’ world is created during shooting, taking dominance over the mere conceptualization of the commercialization. At the same time it is shown how the ‘invisible’ editing style is not the only reference for shooting, but how a unique vocabulary emerges which is specific to the Indian advertising context. Along with production styles, brief histories of the lives and career of studio directors at the same time expands the understanding of the advertising world revealing its technical as well as human dimensions.
Another important aspect for the commercials is the tension of establishing an ‘authenticity’ and cultural rootedness in the face of a desired move towards globalism. It is demonstrated in the analysis of a Tata Indicom advertisement for instance how Indian miniature aesthetic in mobilized to create a bordering animation on the screen within which the narrative is played as a superficial attempt to visually evoke an authentic indigenous identity. In this commercial, a rags to riches story featuring popular film stars Ajay Devgan and Kajol, projects a narrative of hard work, determination and opportunity in the contemporary consumer society for the low income group. In the second and third chapters it is the author also shows how the commercial for the SBI mutual fund targets the small town subject to open to the idea of investment which was hitherto considered an urban culture, thus staging an integration of the small town with the metropolis.
With its root in colonial India, cricket is crucially linked with questions of national identity, and the performance of masculinity, discipline and sacrifice. However, in the recent IPL context, this nationalistic image linked with the sport underwent a rupture due to the international structure and increasing commercialization of the new game. As such the author analyses how the Reebok commercial cleverly negotiates this tension by redirecting attention to the ‘body’ of the sportsmen through a ‘dance’ visualization displaying the body a site of focus, discipline, fluidity, passion, and restoring the integrity of the sportsmen, even as the commercial alludes to the materialistic lifestyle of the celebrities. This genre of commercials through its mythic dimensions also dissolved anxiety about the competitive structure of corporate jobs for individuals, enabling them to fantasize and perform the model of hard work and consumption and find meaning in their own everyday lives.
Chattopadhyay discusses the representation of the female subject in the television commercials as well as the off screen roles of the working woman behind the scenes in the advertising industry. By looking at the Parleji biscuit commercial featuring one of the leading Bombay film industry’s actress Kajol, the author provides information about the production process, set design, costume etc., in the staging of the ‘Alpha female’, an aggressively assertive woman defined by her agency as a consumer. The author traces the origins of this image in the colonial context and pre-Independence discourse on the role of the women as a seat of spirituality, and the ‘inner essence’ of Indianness against an appropriation of western ideas of progress, technology and modernization. Consumerism is shown to create a tension in this discourse with the increasing moving out of the woman from the inner domestic circle and into the outer spaces of the city. In the commercial the tension is resolved by resituating the woman in the maternal realm. In this chapter through his ethnographic research the author also provides an interesting study of the pervasively secondary but key positions held by working women compared to the dominating roles of the male heads in the advertising industry.
In conclusion the author rounds up his larger argument about how a changing ‘Indianness’ is crucially mediated by television commercials showing how advertisements at once idealize consumerism, perpetuate consumer socialization and also create and negotiate harmony to hide the disenchantments of capitalism.This study opens up the forum to look at other key areas in which commercials intervene apart from the themes dealt with in the book, such as in the current digital context and perhaps also chart out regional commercials and the specific identities constructed therein.
Ipsita Sahu is a PhD student in the Cinema Studies Department in Jawaharlal Nehru University, working on 1970s Bombay Cinema.