Thursday, October 24, 2013


Indian youth is an interesting mishmash of global and local culture, someone who’s being nurtured under the shadow of a culture in transition. The sooner the marketers realise this, the better

Sholay, one of the most iconic brands in Indian cinema, will soon be launched in 3D. The proposal to incorporate an item number featuring the flavour of the day was shot down promptly as was killed the idea to trim its length (162 minutes) for the contemporary audience. Why? Because such brands need no remodelling. In fact, one of the charges levied against the epic Indian television series Mahabharat launched by Balaji Telefilms was that it flopped because it tried to modernise the story. When Star Group premiered Devon Ke Dev... Mahadev on Life OK it tasted runaway success, even among youth. Shiva is being projected in the serial as a cool dude (excuse the expression) whose story offers simple parallels to modern life. Son-in-law versus father-in-law, conflicts with wife, problems with son for an alpha male. He is the heroic outsider to the society (like a Superman) who rescues it in times of peril. Like today’s youth, he personifies rebellion, with matted hair, on drugs, and is a brilliant dancer. Yet he is imbued with contemporary values like treating his wife as equal. He warns Ganga, while she is descending to earth, that people will exploit her precipitating water wars and environmental problems. Again, a modern twist to an epochal tail. So, while Lord Rama is too perfect and divine for today’s youth to emulate, Lord Krishna’s stories have a complicated narrative he being simultaneously a lover (of Radha and gopis) and a master strategist (to Pandavas). The simple takeaway is that although the cultural values are still deeply ingrained, they are in transition.

For the goldfish generation (a goldfish has a very short attention span) short-term relationships are proliferating while long-term commitments are being postponed, yet surely not shunned altogether. Live-ins and premarital conjugal relations are no longer big deals even in small towns. In a survey done in 40 small cities by makers of the recent Bollywood film Shuddh Desi Romance, 50% respondents believed that an adult virgin girl is too old fashioned. Yet 55% wanted a virgin wife notwithstanding the fact that 51% would not mind premarital sex. So even if 80% parents paint live-ins with a stroke of immorality, 52% youngsters would not mind trying a hand at it in small towns. For they believe that live-ins are more democratic whereas marriages are afflicted with the malaise of domestic violence. Yet they accept marriages as a long-term institution, are caste oriented, very religious, and still believe in traditional norms and values, such as patriarchy. Indian youth is an interesting mishmash of global and local culture, someone who’s being nurtured under the shadow of a culture in transition.

After the unexpectedly huge success of Mahadev, the television serial, among youngsters Star channel got emboldened to launch Mahabharat. But it consciously decided to refrain from modernising it beyond some cosmetic twists. Instead it opted to use technology to appeal to the ‘tradition bound’ society. It has constructed Mahabharat museums in major malls to showcase select weaponry, jewellery, finery used in the serial. In some colleges it provides virtual wardrobes allowing youngsters to dress up like the characters in the serial and upload these images on social networks.

Indian youth supports modernisation (a combination of westernisation, secularisation, and industrialisation) so long as the traditional value system is not affected negatively. He welcomes McDonald’s in India but rejects the westernised system of course by course meal, retaining his preference for a Thali. He wishes to break free yet wants to remain anchored to his heritage. So live-ins also mostly culminate into a marriage. Indipop sells well. There exists a deep-seated core culture; away from it, however, is a spectrum of variation. Instant noodles, pizzas, or momos gain currency as long as they are offered as occasional indulgence but not part of the main menu.

Veronica of Cocktail, the Bollywood movie, was rather unsure about settling down in a relationship. Saif, a great flirt, eventually opts for her more traditional friend for marriage. And surely you noticed that Saif had the prerogative to make the choice – Betty or Veronica. Similarly, Bunny in Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani has a flawed character, is commitment phobic, but in the end unites with Deepika. While we are reflexively trained to keep the opposite sex at arm’s length, now the modern dance forms – which extend invitation to get close and stimulate passion – are also being practised. Close coupling is not so much frowned upon. Shava Shava is giving way to steamy Salsa, crossing social barriers. No doubt the salwar kameezes are being replaced by evening gowns, hip huggers and heels. But marriages still have to be solemnised in bridel lehngas and traditional jewellery! 

In July this year Thrill, a mobile dating app, debuted in India based on two simple premises. One, that youngsters here are not looking for immediate marriages and are searching for friendship and intimacy across their screens (mobiles). And, two, while these youngsters are a lot more comfortable with the idea of dating they feel the need to be extra careful. And soon Thrill felt the need to customise features according to typical Indian demands, such as providing match making (between potential dating partners) based on their horoscopes compatibility! In Kerala where earlier marriages used to be a spartan affair, now the consumerist culture has set deep; marriages have become very lavish, as it was always in North. And yet, ironically, there is an accompanying growing obsession with the performance of rituals with utmost purity. So there is an increasing demand for both a wedding planner as well as priests to chant vedic mantras.

Navratras in North are no more about having traditional fare including Kuttu atta puris, saltless potato chips, or vrat wale aaloos. Instead food chains, including five-star restaurants, offer rösti potato and spinach ragout, Spanish patatas, bravas, French cottage cheese crepes, calzone pizza, and cheese risotto. But ingredients have to be buckwheat, pumpkin and other veggies, and of course saindha namak! Contemporary twist to traditionality.

The dusky beauty, Nina Davuluri, the Miss America 2013, stands no chance of winning the Miss India contest unless she lightens her skin a fair bit, since in India, if comparison with the last 10 winners are any guidance, beauty is all about being fair. What’s more? Now for even men ‘fair is handsome.’ Black is hardly beautiful. So a whitening underarm cream, and, horror of horrors, a fairness cream for even the most intimate feminine anatomy is being pedaled by intrepid marketers.

Culture has to be perceived as a dynamic succession of overlapping ideologies rather than being a static unity. It is a flow, having three stages – residual, dominant, and emergent. Juxtaposing these labels onto various market segments explains their true behaviour. The liberalisation generation stands for an emergent culture, but with an amalgamating effect of residual and dominant culture. So, you may listen to pop music and sink your teeth into junk western food, but you can’t lose Indian touch. Honey Singh will any day outscore Justin Bieber, and pizzas will have Indian toppings. No doubt, the external appearance and duties of an Indian woman may have changed, but she still has to be a homemaker.

Marketers, are you listening carefully? Sinoccents, the generation Yers, may not be a confused lot; surely, however, they are being pulled by opposing culture forces in different directions. Titan Industry has to hawk both the Fastrack and the Raga range of watches. Double Tree of Hilton chain has to customize pizzas in its Italian restaurant according to religious sensibilities of fast observing youngsters during Navratras. An Audi has to come with a remote controlled music system since the owner likes to be driven around by his driver in a feudalistic society. Evolution, as against revolution, rules the market.