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The Vanishing Village

29-August-2005
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The Vanishing Village

Surf through the 80-odd channels you get on TV today and try finding a single image of rural India. If 70% of India lives in villages, we certainly do our best to keep it a secret. Especially, when it comes to Bollywood and the advertising that we see on TV. Gone are the days of the village potboiler with belles sashaying near wells before being almost married off to lecherous moneylenders. The village is no longer a prominent site of action; everything seems to happen only in the city.

Representations of Rural India follow one of three distinct discourses. The first is of the village as the headquarter of primitive passions; a place where politicians run kingdoms and policemen gouge out eyes. The village is no longer a location but an indictment; it is today a projection of urban fears about a powerful but thankfully distant other. In other words, in our minds all of rural India has become equal to Bihar. A place where people in Laloo accents create muscled mayhem only to have their eyes gouged out occasionally by policemen in idealistic rage.

The second discourse is that of the village seen through the nostalgia-tinted lenses of the NRI. This is the village of the zamindaars with photogenic mustard fields swaying in synchronised grandeur. The village becomes the seat of hallowed memory and is aggrandised in retrospect. Films like DDLJ, Pardes, Pyaar to Hona Hi Tha all celebrated the notion of families wrapped up in abundant fertility that overcame the potentially disruptive forces of modernity. The NRI village reeks of desi ghee not cow dung and prefers havelis to hovels.

A third and emergent view of the village is as a project that needs urgent attention. Shah Rukh Khan in Swades typifies this new sense of the village that can be saved by the objective forces of science. It marks a new depiction of rural India as seen from the eyes of the city. The village is made to value all that the city does. Technology is seen as the change agent that can transform the village into a version of the city. This theme is echoed in highly innovative e-choupal initiative launched by ITC; the advertising shows a farmer leapfrogging into an entirely new world, leaving all the problems of the village well and truly behind.

In some crucial ways, the very idea of rural India has undergone a change. From being seen as the heart of India, we now see it as a remote outpost that is the opposite of the India we call our own. The village today has no voice of its own-all three discourses outlined above are all perspectives that are urban in origin. The village is an image that we consume in our cities. Our reactions differ depending on the meaning we want to extract from the idea of the village- be it fear, nostalgia or interventionist zeal.

Otherwise, traditionally, advertising has always ignored rural India. Except for fertilisers and saria, one is hard put to find rural images in the advertising we see. And here too, the stereotype dominates- men with large moustaches talk loudly while Dhanno sings about khushali in a countrified frock. Things are changing though- Coke has used stories located unself-consciously in rural settings and depicted rural protagonists as archetypal New Indians full of confidence and self-belief. The advertising for Shell lubricants has a truck fleet owner explain the benefits to us in a rational and reasoned manner that steers clear of caricatures. Advertising in regional languages is taking this further with the advertising for brands like Coke, Sprite & ... resonating with rural characters oozing personality. However, in spite of some changes at the margin, the truth is that rural India is barely represented in our advertising.

Overall then this is the Age of the City. Our reference point is Chicago and not Chikmagalur. From this vantage point, rural India is another planet with which we have at best a dim affinity. Bollywood has little patience with rural India; it no longer provides any material for fantasy. Advertising on the other hand is slowly waking up to the rural market. As the rural consumer becomes more assertive, this is a space we should watch closely.

Santosh Desai, president,McCann-Erickson India

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