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The Nation in a One-Liner: The Amul Ad’s Brief and Witty Humour

This excerpt from ‘Amul’s India 3.0’ describes the Amul ad’s ability to answer, ‘What is the funniest way to tell that real story so it is truer than just the truth?’

Sterilisation (of butter). Credit: Harper Collins

Sterilisation (of butter). Courtesy: Anuvab Pal/Collins Business

 27 April 1976, around 3 pm, a couple of hours after I entered the world, my father, the non-reclining parent, decided, as one does with infants, to hold me up. The first thing I saw, even before I had time to register who the humans were that would be feeding and clothing me for a reasonable amount of time, was an Amul hoarding. Right across from the hospital. I’m not sure if it was strategically placed there to make patients laugh but it existed, I’m sure, because the powers that be realized that traditional medicines were clearly failing to provide the sort of medical help the Amul girl was providing.

The ad reacted to the sterilization drive going on during the Emergency, which also, unhelpfully, started that year.  ‘We’ve always believed in compulsory sterilization’ said the ad, but it referred to the butter. It was brilliant. In one joke it did all the things all the newspaper headlines trying to capture the mood of the fuming public couldn’t. It made people laugh, and if confronted, they could always say, ‘What Emergency? We’re talking about the butter.’

Naturally, as a two-hour-old, I understood all this. The subtext, the insinuation. I had a wicked smile at the idea of subversive messaging as an alternative to outrage (or as the world knows it — comedy), and the Amul girl, no different than the Almighty, showed me the way on day one. There was no looking back.

This of course is a glorious lie. But for something to be funny, for something to be a good story, there has to be something more than the obvious pedantic facts.

This is something I’ve learnt from the Amul girl over the years. For a great message, there has to be a world we’d want, a world we aspire to, wrestled out of the world as is, the world we’re given.

In India, there’s always been the first obvious national reaction to an injustice, a success, a hero, a death, a controversy, an instance of  corruption – something on hundreds of millions of minds that week, but Amul always, it seemed to me, asked three simple questions. What is actually going on? What is the real story? What is the funniest way to tell that real story so it is truer than just the truth?

Pow Bhajji. Courtesy: Harper Collins

Pow Bhajji. Courtesy: Anuvab Pal/Collins Business

Applied to my life, the boring truth is that like everyone, I stumbled through life in alternative careers, some clichéd, some adventurous, across continents, uncertain what I was good at, thinking I was great at everything and being mediocre in most. Until finally comedy in contemporary India gave me a home where I felt least useless.  The Amul hoarding across from the hospital, however, still stands, and forty years on, still welcomes newborns.

Amul's India: 50 Years of Amul Advertising

Amul’s India: 50 Years of Amul Advertising
Da Cunha Communications
Collins Business, 2015

So the story, as you will see, is only partly false but true enough to be a story. That’s the first lesson the Amul girl taught me about writing comedy. That to understand something, it has to be deeper than looking at the thing itself. That a great story must make people feel something. That there’s a difference between perspective and protest.

As a travelling teller of jokes, by default, one travels and there’s always a fresh lesson from Amul in how to write a great joke, every week, year after year. Woody Allen, who wrote hundreds of one-liners for a living, said, ‘If you make them stop and read the thing and smile, that’s good enough.’ Amul’s genius was that they went one step ahead. They pushed the cleverness and immediacy of that one line and always, always, connected it to the butter.

So whether it was the cricketer Harbhajan Singh getting slapped (‘Pow Bhajji’ with the tagline ‘Slap it on’) to Shahrukh Khan’s Bollywood film Swades — We The People (‘Swad dish – Eaten by we the people’), to the time Yanni played at the Taj Mahal (‘Yanni Makhan’), the Amul ad took Woody Allen’s lesson and raised it one level. For us to learn.

And it was always brief. The great dignity awarded to a great joke is that it does not dwell, it does not elaborate, it does not explain because those things ruin the idea. Like spoiling a great dish by overcooking it. These jokes were (and continue to be) served just right, at the right time, to satiate a collective appetite, to fulfil the hunger to react as best as possible, while laughing together. For Shakespeare, brevity may have been the soul of wit but the wit of the Amul girl captures the soul of a nation.

Anuvab Pal is a stand-up comedian, columnist and playwright.

Amul’s India 3.0: Based on 50 Years of Amul Advertising by daCunha Communications. HarperCollins Publishers India. 2016. Pp 232. Rs 299