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Marketing, Malls, Movies, and Village Life

Before I begin this post in earnest, I’d like to point out the effect of breakfast in limiting the amount of time that it takes me to get out of bed. Here in India, where I look forward to breakfast with a hunger that is rivaled only by my anticipation of the ends of terms, my wakeup time is practically negligible. I guess all I’m saying is that maybe I’d be excited to wake up early for classes if the Caltech Dining Services made it worth my while (hint, hint).

Anyway, it seems that Rita Kothari, one of the India-Ki-Khoj organizers on the IITGN side, is best friends with pretty much all of the speakers. The one for today was an exceptionally impressive guy involved in marketing named Santosh Desai. I dunno whether it was his engaging speaking style, his self-deprecating humor (he kept making fun of himself for being a “useless” humanities major even though he’s CEO of his own company), or his ability to relate to a bunch of young adults, but he was pretty awesome.

Desai walked us through some of the history of commercialism and marketing in India and then moved on to the manifestation of Indian culture in today’s commercials. When India opened itself up to foreign investment and commercialism after Partition, foreign companies were lining up around the block to get in on the action.

Perhaps you’ve heard that a major part of international marketing involves keying in to the values of the target group in order to make a product more desirable. Thankfully for those of us looking to be entertained, mistakes often happen. When Kellogg’s first rolled up to India they immediately put out this dynamite commercial that really showcased their cluelessness. It begins with an Indian family sitting around a table, eating a traditional breakfast. Suddenly, a disembodied British voice says ominously “This breakfast looks yummy…but is it healthy!?” The tablecloth and food are swept away and replaced with cereal as the voice begins to rattle off a bunch of nutrition facts.

As Desai put it, “This is kind of like coming into a country and just saying ‘Yeah, your breakfast? It sucks.’”
The concept of “healthy” in India is completely different than that in the United States, so no one really cares that some cereal is packed with vitamins and minerals to begin with. The negative response to another commercial, this one for chewing gum, that showcased a full-on mouth-to-mouth kiss (which is a no-no when in public) probably acted as a wake-up call and companies started to do a little more work on their ads.

In today’s India, cinema is a hugely important cultural facet, serving both as a mirror to reflect the current values and norms of the country as well as an agent of social change. In terms of the former, older generations of Indians apparently have an inability to make choices so: “if there is ever a love triangle in an old Indian film, someone had to die.” What with all the focus on movie stars (called “heroes”), though, there’s also a lot of pressure on men and women to look a certain way. Since I think we’re all fairly familiar with pressures commonly put on young women, let’s take a look at what men go through in India.

When a guy named Salman Khan burst onto the cinema scene, he became perhaps the first sex symbol of modern India. According to Desai “He’s famous for not wearing a shirt and it is doubtful that he owns one.” Suddenly, the male body was more than just an amorphous blob: it had to be toned and sleek. Thus began the workout craze in India.

It was all in all a really interesting set of talks by Desai, which left me with plenty to ponder as I took my first rickshaw ride to a shopping center and movie theater. I wish I could tell you that mall shopping in India is way different and more exciting than mall shopping in America, but it’s not. I also wish I could tell you that we watched some intense Bollywood film that I was able to understand because of bits of Hindi that I picked up along the way, but we actually saw Mission Impossible IV. I fell asleep about halfway through.

The following day, we deviated a little from what was printed on the schedule and I got to see a side of India for which there is no equivalent in the United States. It began with the introduction of Sandeep Pandey, a well-known political activist and mechanical engineer who received his PhD from Berkeley (surprise, surprise).

He calmly let us know that he’s been in jail no fewer than six times.

The IITGN students were especially appreciative of his revolutionary credentials because Pandey was once a professor for some of them (and I guess it’s sometimes hard to see one’s professors as “cool”). We learned about the current anti-corruption movement and Pandey’s initiatives to help provide villages with proper facilities and advocacy. And then we all were piled onto a bus and told that, instead of hanging out with NGOs for the afternoon, we would actually be hanging out in a village.

Maybe this was more exciting to me than it would be for you, but villages for me represent, not a modernizing nation and a leader in science and technology, but a more agrarian society. And yet so much of India lives in villages, free from the hustle and bustle of city life but also limited in terms of their facilities, educational opportunities, and many other things.

When we arrived, a horde of little children was too busy running after a man who had caught a snake on a stick to pay attention to us. As soon as the snake was tossed away, they made sure that we were reminded of our celebrity status. We met with a friend of Pandey’s and a leader in the village, a man who let us tour around his house and then helped us look around the village. He did not speak a word of English (Pandey translated), but that did nothing to cage his enthusiasm when explaining to us every detail of his village. It contained a few hundred families and, surprisingly, was roughly 50% Hindu and 50% Muslim. Intermarriage, it was clearly stated, simply does not happen, but everyone gets along well. We spent some time answering questions about our own backgrounds in between snapping photos with the kids before being led back to our bus.

Just before I boarded, our host walked over, grabbed my hand, and smiled as he led me over to a squat building sitting at the entrance to the village. This was where milk collection and processing, the most lucrative business in the village was carried out. The most advanced technology, which was simply an old computer with special milk analysis software, was kept here. In this modern Indian village, the milk drop-off station was just as important as places of worship.

At the end of the day, I’m pretty sure that I’ll be sticking to cities, but hey, at least now I know that the possibility of settling down as a milk farmer is out there.

Thanks again to Jaison Manjaly for providing photographs.

Stanford Schor