Monday, June 20, 2011

Madhuri Dixit endorses a dish washing liquid

A friend recently posted the following advertisement on Facebook.  It has Madhuri Dixit endorsing - gasp! - a dish-washing detergent.

My first thought was: what a coup for these Aquashine guys - to get a bonafide superstar like Dixit to endorse their product!  The advertisement is not badly done - but it does go significantly against the grain to stand out - sociologically speaking, of course.  Since I've started reading the Sociological Images blog recently, I've been more than impressed with how much images can be used to illustrate certain social facts.  So consider this my attempt to apply the principles of visual culture to this advertisement. 

First off, here's a comment on Youtube, always a good source for analysis:
feel kinda sad seeing madhuri jump on the endorsment bandwagon,that too for a dish washing liquid...she´s an artist par excellence,trully an asset to the indian film industry...movies and shows should just be created for her ´cause that´s the kind of talent she has,lil disappointed seeing her in such an ad..
The commenter here expresses some disappointment with the ad ("such an ad") but doesn't really come out with why he or she doesn't like it - perhaps because she realizes that it wouldn't be politically correct to say it explicitly.  Or perhaps she isn't really able to articulate why she doesn't like it.

Another commenter (on a different site) has no such qualms:
No doubt it was cute and nice, and mads looked young and charming, but acting like a kamwali bai in an add? Really have madhuri 's days become so bad that she accepts an add to act as a bai ? Its below the level of a top actress. Why couldn't they just make her a marathi housewife doing the advertisment?
So there are at least two key dissonances here:
  1. That Dixit is endorsing a dish washing liquid - not something a star of her level generally does.
  2. That Dixit plays a kaamwali bai - in other words, a domestic help - a significant fall in status, especially to help sell something. [It wouldn't probably matter if she played a domestic helper in a movie - but to help sell a dish washing liquid?  No.]
Let's take each of them in detail.

What products do film stars usually endorse?  It strikes me that in India at least, endorsements are far more gendered.  Male high-profile stars like Shah Rukh Khan will usually endorse cars - and these advertisements will play on their male gender.  Coke and Pepsi in their ongoing war have used pretty much every high-profile actor in their advertisements: Shah Rukh Khan, Aamir Khan, Salman Khan.  The cola companies usually target young people so the star must have at least some youth appeal.  Actresses endorse soft drinks as well - but again, they need to be young and hip.  Kareena Kapoor, Aishwarya Rai, Rani Mukherjee have all appeared in cola ads - and for the life of me, I can't imagine even a pre-retirement Madhuri Dixit doing one.

What do actresses endorse?  Soft drinks, yes - although one has to be cool and hip and young (see above).  Mostly though, it strikes me that actresses endorse beauty products: cosmetics, shampoos, soaps.  What about more "domestic" products?  Washing powder, dish washing soaps, and so on?  Those too, although then the actress needs to be older, at least semi-retired and perhaps married.
Which is what makes the Aquashine "Gangubai" ad so much more interesting.  The ad-makers could have shown Madhuri as a housewife - instead they show her as a domestic help - certainly a way of making people sit up and take notice, even if in a negative way.

The first thing of course to notice is that complete absence of men in the ad.  Although this is hardly new - dish washing in India is a woman's job.

Notice that the three other women in the ad - who I assume is a frumpy middle-aged Maharashtrian housewife and her two daughters (or bahus?) - are shot from so far off that it's hardly even possible to see their faces.  Dixit wears a bright-green nine-yard saree while the other three wear pale colors that make them blend almost into the background (the older woman wears a six-yard saree, showing that she's from an older generation, the younger women, her daughters, presumably, wear chaste salwar-kameezes).  In fact the three women appear in the same shot with Dixit less than 5 times (and the cuts are pretty rapid).  And they are placed really far from Dixit and the camera - almost awkwardly so - an interesting choice, considering that in a real situation, they'd have been looking over her shoulder. 

The key reason for keeping the women so far apart seems to me to be the fact that Dixit plays a domestic helper, a position that entails a substantial drop in status.  At least in Mumbai, a domestic helper lives in a slum, speaks a certain kind of Marathi and perhaps a little bit of Marathi-accented Gujarati and Hindi, is usually illiterate. By keeping the middle-class women as far away from her as possible, and by making them dress in pale colors, the ad-makers hoped to pull off the feat of having Madhuri play a domestic (while endorsing a dish washing liquid!) while still trying not to juxtapose her character with the more high-status ones.  

Madhuri, of course, is a native Marathi speaker - who has never acted in a Marathi production - but has a striking image of being a middle-class girl at heart, despite her stardom, at least among her adoring Marathi fans.  This is precisely the image the ad uses - downgrading her status but still keeping her glamorous.  It uses another image - that of an empowered domestic - who has a cell-phone and does an "een-ees-pection" of the dirty dishes while her hapless employers can only watch.  

What I would really like to know, I guess, is which channels the ad was shown so that it's possible to figure out the demographic the ad is aimed at.  It's aimed at women, of course, who usually make the decision in India about which dish washing detergent to buy.  But I'd be curious to see if it also worked with women outside Maharashtra, for whom the domestic is not usually Marathi-speaking. 

I'm sure I've missed tons of things in the advertisement - feel free to let me know what I've missed and where I'm wrong.



Dixit seems to have appeared in a lot of advertisements recently!

For instance, here she is again, endorsing a different product: Comfort fabric conditioner.

The ad is strikingly different.  Now Dixit is a housewife - and clearly, from the looks of it, an upper-middle class housewife, mother of a child - all of it pretty much in keeping with her current status.  It's not what you would expect of a movie-star but it's in keeping with what a semi-retired middle-aged married movie star would endorse.

Here's another one that's similar - this time she's endorsing a certain brand of Basmati rice.  Notice how similar the ad is visually to the one before.  She is dressed similarly, in chaste salwar-kameez with no jewellery and the camera mostly captures her in mid-shots.  The only reminder of her movie-star status is that she dances - but the dance itself is again classical and chaste - hardly the kind of thing she was known for.

Friday, June 10, 2011

What are the lessons of Gurgaon?

The recent New York Times piece on the city of Gurgaon is pretty good - and naturally, has gotten everyone talking.  (For responses, see Alex Tabarrok, Kevin Drum, and Matt Yglesias.)

Me, the first thing I thought after reading it was: why are well-researched and well-presented solid pieces like this not printed in the Indian media?  Why is it that it is the New York Times that publishes a story like this - which we all (Indians, that is) then email to each other saying "Have you checked out this nice story about Gurgaon?"

Of course, the answer to that came pretty immediately.  The story wouldn't really make sense in an Indian context because most Indians (middle-class Indians that is, who would be reading such a story) would know exactly what it was talking about and greet it with a yawn.  Yes, shabby or non-existent government services are the order of the day in India.

As Yglesias points out (contra Drum), the one "ideological" conclusion you can definitely draw from the piece is:
The first takeaway point from Gurgaon’s success in the face of the lack of municipal government is to underscore the incredible value of good government.
True enough - although this is hardly an ideological point.  Ideology comes in when we debate what services the government should provide - and everyone pretty much agrees that whatever services it provides need to be good. 

And of course, the next question becomes: what exactly is the way towards good government services?  And the answer - at least right now for India - is to encourage neo-liberal reforms and hope in turn that the rise in the standard of living and competition from private services leads to a citizenry that expects better government services.  It's by no means clear that this will work - but it seems to me the only possible way.