Understanding India: Cultural Influences on Indian Television Commercials

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Rohitashya Chattopadhyay

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  • Back Matter
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    Preface

    Writing this book has involved a series of conflicting experiences, as I have shuttled from feeling intellectual at one moment to feeling like a child at the next moment. When I felt intellectual, it was associated with a belief that I was writing something important as this was a book that would make an important contribution to our understanding of both television commercial production in India and contemporary Indian identity. The childishness was associated with a sense of fear that maybe the desire to write this book was an immature whim, rather than a serious endeavour that would ultimately be read seriously. After finishing the book, I continue to suffer from these contradictory feelings that will linger till enough readers have read and commented on my work.

    This book has evolved out of research that I conducted for my Ph.D. dissertation. I received a Ph.D. in Communication from the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. After obtaining my degree, I was fortunate enough to work at the World Bank Headquarters in Washington D.C. and at Quantum Consumer Solutions, one of Asia's leading consumer insights firms. The latter job took me back to Mumbai and New Delhi, where much of the research for this book had been conducted. The experience of living in these cities, once again, rekindled my interest in the dissertation topic and inspired me to write this book.

    At a subconscious level, however, the foundations of this book were shaped by my experience of growing up in India during a phase when cable television was introduced and the economy was opened up to foreign investment. Later, at the University of Pennsylvania, I did not consciously plan an ethnographic study on television commercial production. I was initially interested in the mediation of cultural identity and how multiple cultural influences shape the identity of groups, such as people of Indian origin living in North America. My advisor, Paul Messaris, influenced me to return to India and work with film production houses that make television commercials. I picked up his suggestion easily because I had been interested in both advertising and film production since high school. At the time, in fact, I was working on a textual analysis of Indian television commercials and this paper got published in Advertising and Society Review.

    The larger challenge, as I saw it, was dealing with the study's focus on the visual language of a television commercial or how the visual language is shaped according to the communication goals of the television commercial. This emphasis derived from my advisor's work on Visual Communication and Visual Literacy, which discusses the use of images to communicate messages that we otherwise hear in words. It was particularly challenging due to the decision to observe film production, as I had to understand how technical production decisions were impacting the visual language of a television commercial. More importantly, since the goal was to analyse the use of visual language in the socio-political context of India, the technicalities of visual language had to be filtered through the lens of theoretical tools that I borrowed from fields such as Anthropology, Cultural Studies, Marketing, and Mass Communication.

    While planning the study, the first hurdle was contacting film production houses in India while still based in United Stated (U.S.). Surprisingly, I got a number of positive replies even though I had written to them without any special references. That is, quite a few production houses informed me that I could contact them when I reached India and they would assist me with my research. I used these replies to establish the feasibility of the study when I presented the research proposal to my dissertation committee.

    Mumbai was the natural choice as the primary location for conducting the research, as this city is the filmmaking capital of India. It is where most of the film production houses are located, and it is the city where many of the stalwarts of Indian advertising are based. I started the research in New Delhi, however, as it is the other city where important advertising decisions are taken. Being the political capital of India, moreover, New Delhi brought a national perspective to the study by making me more aware of some of the economic and political changes that have impacted the country during the last two decades.

    Apart from the ethnographic observations that were conducted for this study, I also conducted interviews that were focused on understanding key production decisions. Often the interviews substantiated the ethnographic observations, so, for example, I clarified certain observations by asking questions about them. Many interviews were also conducted without any associated ethnographic observations. In these cases, rather than clarification, I had to spend more time trying to dig up new data regarding television commercials that the interviewee had been involved with.

    The observation of television commercial production occurred at a few production houses where I was given access to the shooting floor, production meetings, the editing room, and the post-production facilities. Of these production houses, I spent the maximum time at Equinox Films, Mumbai. I was fortunate that I got their telephone number through a documentary filmmaker friend, and even more fortunate that Ram Madhvani (Director at Equinox Films) liked this study's focus on visual language. Thankfully, Sumantra Ghosal (Director at Equinox Films) and Manoj Shroff (Producer at Equinox Films) were equally supportive and did not mind my presence.

    The interviews were conducted with television commercial directors, producers, editors, animators, and advertising professionals, such as copywriters. Most interviews were an hour long, although many important interviews were much longer. The interviews were semi-structured, since I had a basic script that I followed while I was also improvising and adding questions wherever required. Often, apart from the interview itself, there was ethnographic value in the experience of visiting an office to conduct an interview. I got a chance to overhear conversations, look at office décor, and to meet other people in the same office.

    The interviews were not conducted in any particular order, and I met people as and when they agreed to spare time. The website http://afaqs.com was an extremely useful source of contact information and contacts were also gathered through acquaintances, friends, and other interviewees. The ethnographic observations were scheduled around these interviews, so I was either busy with observation sessions or interviews.

    As will be evident in this book, my ethnographic tale has been narrated through the framework of certain key campaigns that I followed in detail. I hope that both the comprehensive information and my analysis will help the reader understand the visualization process that is at the core of television commercial production. I also expect that the overall narrative will leave the reader better informed about contemporary India, and I expect my readers to include those based in India and those reading this book outside India. I acknowledge, however, that India based readers might find certain sections of the book commonplace because they are well aware of these aspects of India. These sections had to be included, nevertheless, for the sake of those unfamiliar with India.

    Before proceeding to the first chapter, I want to thank a host of individuals.

    In India, I thank each and everyone who agreed to speak to me while I was conducting research for this project and especially those who allowed me to peak into their daily production work. I also thank Ritesh Ghosal at Tata Teleservices Ltd and Mayank Shah at Parle Products Pvt. Ltd for giving me permission to use images.

    At Coral Research Services, I thank Priyanka Desai and Shakti Banerjee for hiring me while I was writing this book.

    At Quantum Consumer Solutions, I thank the Board of Directors and Tirthankar Dash for giving me an awesome job.

    At the World Bank, I thank Diana Chung, Johanna Martinson, and Sina Odugbemi for the opportunity to work at a renowned institution.

    At SAGE Publications India, I thank Shambhu Sahu and R. Chandra Sekhar for believing in this book and the three anonymous reviewers for their comments on earlier versions of the manuscript.

    Among my professors, I thank Barbie Zelizer, Carolyn Marvin, James Anderson, John Jackson Jr, Mary Strine, Maureen Mathison, Paul Messaris, and Robert Avery for a wonderful education.

    For help with industry contacts, transcription and housing in India, I thank Amitava Mazumdar, Anirban and Sanghamitra Chakravarty, Aniruddha Guha, Frank Chater, I. Kannan, Kavita Dasgupta, Partha Mukherjee, Prabhat Mishra, Pronab Mazumder, Subhash and Nandita Chakrabarti, and Tilak Chowdhury.

    At home, I thank my wife and son for all the affection and support, the cooking and cuddling, and for dealing with my long stints in front of the computer.

    This book is dedicated to my parents. I thank them for bringing me up and allowing me the freedom to think and write.

  • Glossary of Terms

    • Alpha Female: An especially strong and confident woman who is known for being assertive, dominant in her group, and for living an independent and successful life.
    • Analytical Editing: An editing style that begins a scene using an establishing shot, which shows the entire setting of a scene, and then uses close ups or tighter shots of different sections of the setting to set up the scene.
    • Anthropology: The study of human beings from a biological, cultural, demographic, evolutionary, historical, and social perspective; the field is accordingly divided into archaeology, biological anthropology, cultural anthropology, and linguistic anthropology.
    • Brahmanical Hinduism: A form of Hinduism that believes in the authority of the ancient Sanskrit texts known as the Vedas (Rig, Sama, Yajur, and Atharva) and the supremacy of the Brahmans or religious priests who are interpreters of these texts.
    • Brand: A sign or symbol used to differentiate one company's product from another company's product; a brand is usually loaded with both tangible and intangible properties to make it meaningful to a potential consumer.
    • Cinematic Style: The grammar of filmmaking used to film and edit cinema; so certain camera movements and lighting techniques would be used if one was following the style of French Impressionism, for example.
    • Cinematography: The style and techniques used to plan and execute motion-picture photography; it includes choice of camera, camera lens, camera movement, lighting, shot length, shot sequence, and editing style.
    • Colonized Subject: An individual dominated by a more powerful entity who asserts its authority and subjugates this individual into thinking about him or herself as being less capable or inferior; this term is commonly used to describe non-European people who lived under the dominance of European colonial rule.
    • Consumer Socialization: A process of encouraging and persuading people to purchase consumer goods and participate in a lifestyle that involves the active use of consumer goods.
    • Consumerism: An ideology and lifestyle that celebrates the active use of consumer goods for the fulfilment of emotional and physiological needs.
    • Continuity System: A method of editing that maintains spatial and temporal continuity between shots, such that the narrative or storyline is communicated coherently.
    • Creative Director: A senior member of an advertising agency's creative department; this person may be heading one or more creative teams of a large agency, while in a smaller agency he or she could be the leader of the entire creative department.
    • Cultural Code: A quick guide or blueprint of a particular aspect of a culture or cultural group, and this can also be a broad overview of the same culture.
    • Cultural Hybridity: A condition of existing amidst multiple cultural influences that creates a combination of cultural types within the same individual.
    • Democratic Citizenship: A form of citizenship or membership to a national community where the individuals are able to exercise their democratic rights, such as the ability to vote in a national election.
    • Desi: A common name for a South Asian individual who is living in a foreign country; this is a Hindi term primarily used by members of the South Asian community to refer to each other.
    • Dharma: A complex term that can be understood as behaviour that is morally correct and required for the maintenance of personal and social health.
    • Dialectic: An opposition that creates contradictions and argument to lead to a resolution of the opposing voices.
    • Director: The person supervising the filming process, of a television commercial for example, by taking all the major decisions such as those related to casting, costume design, set design, and lighting style in collaboration with key members of his team, and most importantly closely monitoring the acting and camera work while the filming is taking place.
    • Discourse: A formal and structured body of thought regarding a given topic; a discourse can be ideologically motivated and focused on controlling or changing the behaviour of a group of people.
    • Dissertation: A document submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for obtaining a doctorate degree or Ph.D.; this document is usually the report of an independent research project conducted in the student's area of study.
    • Economic Liberalization: The process of reducing economic regulations so that private economic initiatives can thrive, private property can grow to strengthen the economy, and foreign investors are allowed to invest in economic projects being planned within the country.
    • Editing: The process of cutting the footage of a film and joining it together in an often predetermined shot sequence and according to a certain pace and rhythm, as usually decided by the Director.
    • Establishing Shot: The shot that establishes or introduces a scene by providing an overview of the setting at the beginning of the scene.
    • Ethnography: The study of human culture by immersing oneself in the daily life of the group being studied.
    • Executive Producer: The person managing a filmmaking project, such as a the production of a television commercial, by overseeing various tasks such as the finances, recruitment of team members, location hunting, and production logistics.
    • Feminism: A political movement demanding equal political, economic, and social rights for women and the elimination of female exploitation that occurs through activities such as human trafficking for prostitution and sexual abuse.
    • Film Production House: An organization that makes films such as documentaries, television commercials, and fictional films.
    • Framing: The way a message is structured before being communicated to an audience.
    • Full Frontal Address: A style of visual representation that shows or films a person directly from the front.
    • Interpretive Anthropology: A school of anthropology that believes in the need for the anthropologist to understand the cultural context before interpreting a culture as a text that has a certain meaning in that context; this is usually contrasted with a method of detached observation that involves understanding a culture from a distance.
    • Invisible Camera: The style of camerawork usually associated with the classical Hollywood style of filmmaking; the notion of invisibility derives from the effort to draw attention away from the camera movements; so the camerawork follows the storyline as well as character movements, and key changes in camera position and angle are merged with developments in the plot in order to keep the camera invisible.
    • Karma: Deeds that lead to results, which are good or bad as per the nature of the initial actions; so a person's good work creates good karma and leads to good fortune, and on a larger spiritual scale certain religious groups believe that good karma in one life leads to good fortune in the next life when the soul is reborn.
    • Long Shot: A cinematic shot where the characters and setting are at a distance from the camera and it often involves the use of a wide angle that shows the entire expanse of a setting.
    • Linear Perspective Painting: A style of painting developed in Renaissance era Europe; this style of painting is most well-known for the use of the technique of parallel lines converging at a distance to depict depth and, thus, object size diminishing at a distance like it does when the human eye sees a real world setting.
    • Media Anthropology: A branch of cultural anthropology that specializes in understanding media production and media reception using anthropological methods such as ethnography.
    • Mediated Imagery: Images transmitted by media such as television, radio, and the Internet.
    • Melodrama: A form of drama that is known for the use of an exaggerated storyline and intense characterization to appeal to the emotions of the audience.
    • Montage: A technique of joining images to communicate a message through the symbolic connection between these images rather than spatial and temporal continuity as in the continuity system.
    • Multiple Perspective: Showing the same scene or setting from the point of view of multiple actors or actresses present, each depicting a different perspective.
    • National Imaginary: A national community's mental image of themselves and the way they, thus, distinguish themselves from other communities.
    • Pedagogical Citizenship: A model of citizenship that is top down; so the citizen follows certain predetermined or handed down notions of citizenship that are aimed at creating a model citizen who will maintain social order.
    • Performative Citizenship: A model of citizenship that allows the citizen the freedom to practice their own model of citizenship and, thus, demonstrate their individuality.
    • Postcolonial: A descriptor used to qualify something or someone associated with the time period after the end of colonial rule.
    • Public Sphere: The part of society, typically the non-domestic space, which is shared by the public comprising mainly citizens but also non-citizens.
    • Realist Illusion: The creation of a semblance of reality on the screen although the content being shown is entirely fictional; this style of filmmaking is known to have been initially developed in Hollywood and is also known as the classical Hollywood style or invisible style.
    • Simulation: The creation or projection of a reality or an existence on the canvas or screen, not to copy the real world but to create a reality that has no real world counterpart.
    • Subjective Shot: A shot taken from the perspective or point of view of the actor or actress in the scene; so the audience sees what this character is shown to be seeing.
    • Symbolic Capital: Non-monetary recognition or status enjoyed by an individual within a certain culture due to factors such as superior education, possession of ancestral wealth, or duties fulfilled like serving in the military.
    • Visual Grammar: The grammatical rules used to communicate visually such that the receiver and sender can easily understand each other.

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    About the Author

    Rohitashya Chattopadhyay is currently pursuing a Postgraduate Certificate Program in Research and Analysis at Georgian College, Canada. He has an academic background in Marketing and Communication. He received a Ph.D. in Communication from the University of Pennsylvania. He has worked at the World Bank Headquarters, Washington, D.C. as a Consultant. He has also worked as a Qualitative Research Analyst at Quantum Consumer Solutions Pvt. Ltd, one of Asia's leading consumer insights firms. He has published academic articles in Advertising and Society Review and Contemporary South Asia.

    Rohitashya Chattopadhyay has a keen interest in film production, marketing communications, popular culture, and cultural/national identity. These interests have been the inspiration behind much of his writings. To nurture these interests, he currently maintains a marketing and popular culture blog at http://www.rohitchat.com


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