Utterly butterly delicious (for fifty years now)

This irreverent – literally – poster-child of India was born to hoardings across the country fifty years ago when daCunha Communications decided they would slide over tantrum-throwing, high maintenance celebrities and stick with a lovable little girl in polka dots to offer Amul’s toasts to the nation. Little did they know when they started out that she would go on to become one of the most sassy witnesses of the country’s changing political and cultural landscape — whether it’s Amitabh’s iconic presence in Indian cinema, cricket mishaps, corruption commentary, scam bashing, political drama, even that infamous Lux ad with Shahrukh sprawled smugly in a bathtub brimming with rose petals, she’s been there, punned that.

For an ad agency which unapologetically places the client before itself, perhaps it’s fitting that the launch of a book — Amul’s India — commemorating half a century’s worth of campaigning for Amul was flagged off by an introduction by R.S. Sodhi — Managing Director of the Gujarat Co-operative Milk Marketing Federation Ltd. — to the brand’s humble beginnings as a small initiative formed to provide farmers the best gains for their dairy products. The short PowerPoint presentation by author Rahul daCunha’s on the facts and friction of creating an advertising stream which ceaselessly compressed the surrounding social milieu to a series of butter-slick, delightfully tongue-in-cheek wisecracks offered much material for the discussion, “From Cartoons to Looney Tunes” which followed. Panellists included daCunha himself – Managing and Creative Head of daCunha Communications, social commentator and author Santosh Desai, political commentator and columnist Swapan Dasgupta, and was moderated by TV journalist and columnist Barkha Dutt.

Rahul’s father Sylvester daCunha’s brainchild, the Amul girl opened to warm approval despite the fact that their earliest hoardings subversively tackled controversial topics like test tube babies, the hartals in Calcutta of the 1960s, virginity tests administered on Indian women in the 1970s, going so far as refer to the mass sterilization campaign during the emergency. It’s only more recently that the hoardings have had to face the ire of its various targets – sometimes merely ridiculous remonstrations followed by threats that they’ll to stop purchasing Amul butter, but frequently these days, scaling more serious heights with mid-night calls warning them to “be careful”. Inevitably, Rahul daCunha said, he’s now forced to wonder if the cartoon is in danger. “Do I touch upon these people’s foibles? Or do I not touch them for fear of backlash?”

Although Barkha Dutt triggered off the discussion with a wry, “Whatever else you may die of in India, you’ll never die of boredom,” the panelists’ collective concern was whether the country as a whole was losing its sense of humour. In response, Santosh Desai said, “Ethnic jokes may be more acceptable these days, but it’s only when the subjects focus on the exercise of power that things change. People in power are exceedingly quick to protect their boundaries,” but his comment was met with an instantly dismissive Swapan Dasgupta’s pat reply, “Indians don’t have a great sense of humour.” Moreover, at least when talking specifically of the Amul ads, he felt that a cultural mismatch arising directly out of the fact that Amul campaigned extensively, almost wholly, “using the subtleties of English language as one of the instruments of communication,” had to be considered. While he thought the globalising expansion of the landscape of the copywriter was one of the clearest positive developments for the advertising sphere, Dasgupta lamented over a parallel development – a seemingly prolific increase in a general willingness to acquiesce to every protest, a determination to take offense. “It almost seems there’s a desire to misunderstand.”

At the end of the launch, when Tehelka requested them to share what’s been the best thing about the Amul girl campaign, R.S. Sodhi smiled, confessing it was a relief not to have to pander to a celebrity’s whims in order to create advertisements which would reaffirm the customer’s faith in the brand. But somewhere along the way, has the Amul girl become bigger than the brand itself? “It doesn’t matter. She’s synonymous with the brand,” he said. The Amul campaign presents a constant challenge to continue his father’s legacy, admitted daCunha, to produce a creative body of work to match his. “It doesn’t stop at one hoarding. Every piece, no matter where it’s released, has to match up to its predecessor.” For Swapan Dasgupta, the Amul hoardings were part of his growing up years. “It’s been a landmark of sorts. There are a lot of things which keep changing in India, but Amul has been a constant,” he said. “It’s reassuring to see that some things don’t change.”

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An edited version of this article appeared here.