The Boroline Saga: From a Symbol of the Swadeshi Movement to a Bengali Household Staple

G.D. Pharma’s commitment to consistency has been unequivocally rewarded by its customer base, even by the globe-trotting Bengali communities of the present day.

New Delhi: On August 15, 1947, when India gained independence from British rule, two of Calcutta’s newspapers announced that one lakh Boroline tubes would be distributed for free in the nation.

Boroline was first launched in 1929 by a Bengali merchant, Gour Mohun Dutta. It was then colloquially called haatiwala cream (the cream with the elephant) because of its iconic white elephant logo on the green cover.

Since then, the product has managed to weather the eddy and flow of market change and is still just as relevant today as it was 95 years ago. Against all odds, Boroline was introduced in the colonial Indian market as an effective and potent alternative to imported foreign creams. Coupled with ‘Swadeshi’ sentiments and an effort to promote India’s economic self-sufficiency, Boroline’s popularity soon swept over the entire nation.

Initially, amidst the fervour of Swadeshi sentiments, Indians readily boycotted all foreign goods and embraced this multipurpose antiseptic cream that entered the market at that opportune moment at a cheap price. During the Second World War, G.D. Pharmaceutical sold the cream in any container available, with a label at the bottom that promised, “Original packing changed due to war emergency, quantity and quality of contents remain unaltered.”

From small cut wounds, scabs, chapped and dried skin to extra moisturisation during chilly weather – a thick layer of Boroline cream soon became a one-stop solution for all skin-related problems.

Henceforth, the product became synonymous with Indian cultural identity, serving folks living in the cold Himalayan regions and the Southern plains of the country, with the same measure of effectiveness.

The most curious thing about this product is its enduring popularity against the plethora of multinational brands that have been flooding the market with innovative formulations every few months. The antiseptic formula of Boroline – boric acid mixed with zinc oxide (jasad bhasma), paraffin and oleum, infused with a unique fragrance – is hardly a secret. Yet a deluge of innovative skincare products and counterfeit products entering the market every year fails to dupe Boroline users, without any success.

However, for a brand with Boroline’s equity, it generates a yearly revenue of only Rs 150 crore, which is quite underwhelming, according to Roopen Roy, a former managing director of Deloitte Consulting India Pvt. Ltd.

Debashish Dutta, grandson of Gour Mohun Dutta, said in an interview with Livemint, “We have made sure that our successful products are consistent—they don’t change.”

Analysts have found that such a conservative attitude towards change is a common trait in most Bengali business ventures. They tend to target a very specific and old customer base, focusing more on quality than the numbers on the profit scale and refusing to compete with short-term market trends. Their reservation towards scaling up is quite possibly a precautionary response to the immense loss once incurred by the Bengali merchants during their trade with the British in the colonial era.

However, G.D. Pharma’s 2003 launch, the antiseptic liquid Suthol, has diversified its market and is rapidly growing in popularity. It accounts for 30% of GD Pharma’s sales currently, showing remarkable growth on a year-on-year basis.

G.D. Pharma’s commitment to consistency has been equivocally rewarded by its customer base, even by the globe-trotting Bengali communities of the present day. Multiple tubs of Boroline go through customs at various airports every year when Bengalis move abroad for study or work.

Suchetana Chatterjee, a student living in Munich, swears by Boroline: “I’ve tried tons of skincare products, and in -10 degrees, nothing works as good as Boroline, also vouched for by some of my international friends!”

Shorbori Biswas, currently living in Georgia, says, “I use Boroline in Tbilisi as well, it’s best for dry skin like mine.”

Ranjini Mahalanobish, who has been living in Philadelphia for a few years now, says, “I stock up on [Boroline] on each visit to India. Its proven effectiveness and affordability make it my go-to choice, echoing a habit passed on by my grandparents.”

Anwesha Das, a student at TU Delft, Netherlands, says, “I brought along five tubs to last me as long as I was away from home. Mum and I applying Boroline on our elbows and lips had been our nighttime ritual long before these popular skincare potions hit the market and this is a habit I’d never grow out of.”

The Bengali community’s close relationship with the moss-green tube of Boroline is laced with a hint of nostalgia, community pride, and faith in a product that has been passed down through generations.

Debabratee Dhar was an intern at The Wire.