What is Shah Rukh Khan doing on a tram, whispering to a blonde woman in 'awbangali' Bengali? Did no one tell him that going 'Babai, naam toh suna hoga?' doesn't figure anywhere in the vast spectrum of Bengali culture that includes everything from kheer kodom to bodhojom (indigestion)? Clearly not, thundered hundreds of disappointed Bengalis, immediately after they were done swooning over the gorgeous promotional video that West Bengal government's department of tourism has recently put out.
(For the uninitiated, 'awbangali' is the blanket term often used by some Bengalis to refer to the section of human race which is not Bengali and will hence call Kolkata variations of 'Call-coe-tta'.)
The advertisement, seemingly, has everything going for it. Single white woman, travelling across the state -- from the seaside to the mountains, cities to tribal villages -- all by herself. Snatches of Rabindrasangeet play in the background as she is fed ilish paturi in the plains and served tea in the hills. I was kind of upset with the absence of golda chingri (jumbo prawns) and dim tarka (a dal with a mysterious evolutionary trajectory), but that's fine. After this 'viral' ad claimed we are the 'sweetest part of the country', I cannot possibly let it down by being khitkhite (whiny), can I?
Single white woman, travelling across the state -- from the seaside to the mountains, cities to tribal villages -- all by herself.
Now, if there is anyone who has real reasons to be miffed at Shah Rukh Khan, it has to be the roshogolla. You'd wonder what would be a better endorsement of everything Bengal than a white woman gobbling down a white roshogolla? Turns out, the advertising agency and the government thought, it is a woman gawking at Shah Rukh Khan.
Truth be told, I am not sure how Shah Rukh Khan 'represents' Bengal, if that is what being a 'brand ambassador' must only mean. I mean, Khan is as Bengali as Mamata Banerjee's Hindi is Hindi. Last spotted, Khan was dressed as some middle-eastern desert ranger crooning 'Zaalima, zaalima' to a woman, very unsuitably dressed for a desert safari. Unless you can consider the said stretch of sand as that belonging to the Digha beach, there is nothing particularly 'Bengali' about Khan or his work engagements.
I mean, Khan is as Bengali and Mamata Banerjee's Hindi is Hindi.
But the thing here is, the government is not trying to sell Bengal to its own residents. With the number of people rushing to get jobs in other states, they could perhaps try doing that, but then just a beautiful video won't suffice. The video is meant to peddle the idea of Bengal -- as a 'sweet', safe, culturally rich state -- to people who would possibly want to spend money and visit it. These could be Indians from other states and for the tourism registers to seriously start ringing, mostly foreigners from other countries.
Don't know if you noticed, but that 'paturi' segment most definitely has a boneless piece of fish in it -- the woman finishes it with a fork and spoon -- and no Bengali worth his/her backbone is very appreciative of hilsa, its bones surgically removed. While the ad is making us moan, sigh and order over-priced 'bhapa ilish' cooked in personality-less white mustard gravy from our Delhi, Bombay, Bangalore eateries, let one thing be clear. We are NOT the ad's target audience. And it isn't supposed to be consummate depiction of Bengal's cultural topography as we know and cherish it.
The video is meant to peddle the idea of Bengal -- as a 'sweet', safe, culturally rich state -- to people who would possibly want to spend money and visit it.
And that's what makes Shah Rukh Khan quite the right person to be in the ad. He is an outsider. He is also a huge star and his face resonates with a sizeable number of non-Indians as well. If not resonate, he is at least recognised by many of them. If we think very pragmatically and manage to keep our cultural pride aside for a minute, think of it, right now, who in Bengal could give Bengal -- the product non-Bengalis and perhaps non-Indians would spend on -- the kind of visibility that Khan can? Unless, of course, we could summon the ghosts of Tagore and Satyajit Ray -- in which case Tagore must first make a trip to the Supreme Court with the rough draft of the national anthem -- Sourav Ganguly is the only person alive who comes to mind. Perhaps reason why Khan was put in another quite disastrous ad in 2012, one whose special effects made Ra.One look like a masterpiece.
Roping Khan in for an ad is not very different from getting Amitabh Bachchan to lure people to Gujarat.
Roping Khan in for an ad is not very different from getting Amitabh Bachchan to lure people to Gujarat -- he is as 'Gujarati' as sabudana pizza is. It is these stars saying that, as outsiders, that they would love to be in these states and others are missing out on something great if they skip visiting them. It perhaps helps that Khan owns an IPL team named after the city, making it seem like he not only likes visiting the state, he likes investing in it as well. While the latter is a matter of debate, tourists really don't need to worry about that.
The commercial, however, could have showed a glimpse of say the Book Fair, the several litfests or the cultural who's who of the state. But for a tourist visiting temporally, knowing a state's important people is perhaps less important than knowing a state's people - the humdrum ordinary people. The servers at the restaurants, the drivers, people on the roads who they'll ask for directions from, the local artistes they'll watch, the homestays they will put up at. And the ad covers pretty much all of them.
The best of us, choking a tear of nostalgia or two, will declare, 'oh, we don't need any Khan or Kapoor' to make people love Bengal. But come on, all of us love a gift with a little ribbon bow slapped on it, don't we? Let's say, the government of West Bengal has found theirs?
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