It is rather ironic that in spite of possessing a rich array of humour in popular culture and literature, we are a rather humourless nation. This affects the way we conduct ourselves in difficult situations and is also a cause for unnecessary friction and disarray. What I must insist is an urgent infusion of humour in our individual and institutional bloodstreams and in this noble endeavour brands must play a role.
But first, let me try to unravel the disconnect between humour in creativity and the daily conduct of life, which is patently humourless. In our socio-cultural scenario, humour occupies a pre-appointed time slot quite like other forms of entertainment and that is when we indulge in it. Which can be reading books, watching plays or movies, stand up comedies or liquid-induced conversations. Advertising is a part of this ensemble and chooses to make us laugh during select 30-second interludes. Unlike say British culture where humour, in varying shades of darkness, is an integral element of governmental, judicial and professional engagements. This strain is noticeable in legal judgments, parliamentary proceedings and indeed the routine conduct of life, quite naturally influencing popular culture.
But in India it is rather sacrilegious to intersperse a ‘serious’ matter with a pleasing turn of phrase, as that seemingly brings down the gravitas of the situation. So boardroom conversations are designed to be stern, review meetings are laced with ill-concealed cyanide and standard family exchanges must be loaded with debilitating depth. Even cricket commentary before the advent of the ESPN culture was a scholastic exercise with critical analysis as opposed to a light-hearted exchange of anecdotes. The thinking being that levity brings down the maturity of any exercise and is inconsistent with scholarly wisdom and time-honed learning. Most importantly, it seemingly betrays a lack of intent, which is damning to the careers and perceptions of the conveyors.
If probed further, the source of this attitude lies in the deep insecurities of our socio-cultural ecosystem, which places a mammoth premium on hierarchy and entitlement. The stature being denied to the vast majority and thus those who earn it, by effort or birth, choose to exert it most rigidly. Any attempt at humanisation may reduce the power distance with the vassal, thus endanger the position of the incumbent and this may well lead to a reduced impression of position. So, even if a flutter of perestroika were to inhabit our being, it better be camouflaged by Stalinist firmness, lest a purge be in the offing. Even in the vastly liberal advertising industry, I have seen this pattern and my own attempts at creating a culture of self-effacing humour were often considered a folly. Thus we will thoroughly enjoy the element of lightness in popular culture but not allow it to be integrated in daily dealings.
An immediate outcome of this imbroglio is a pattern of hypersensitivity as clearly visible in social media and Republic TV most certainly. We seem to flare up like firecrackers at the mildest provocation and the outcomes can well be violent, both verbally and physically. In the post-corona times, this can be dangerous at many levels and can cause damage to personal and societal health, creating more grounds for perilous friction. Is it actually possible for India to imbibe this state of humour like the British or will this be a pipedream? Perhaps not overnight, but with a sustained influence of key infusions, the tide may well turn. Judicial verdicts are already being laced with suitable levity and this must extend to parliament as well, the inspirations arriving from the chosen leadership. In corporate echelons nowadays driven by servant leadership, the time is ripe to break this oracle-like perception of top brass and instead, induce valuable elements of Silicon Valley enthusiasm.
Most interestingly, brands can play a stellar role in this transition inspired by two timeless icons, namely Amul and Air India. Much before its time, Air India advertising led by the wily Bobby Kooka created a language of self-depleting humour that elevated the brand to a sublime cruising altitude and Amul, in spite of being nationalised, chose to be conversationally universalised. Nowadays, Durex is attempting a light-hearted diatribe but many peers need to come to the party, building an experience engagement built on humour credentials. Quite truthfully, this is dangerous territory for brand managers and nobody dares to have humour as a non-negotiable DNA, lest the credentials come across as less than fully earnest. As a result, humour remains a less-occupied space in positioning and those who bravely view themselves lightly can actually stumble upon defensible currency. It's not inconsistent to building purpose as tongue-in-cheek conversations are unconnected to stringent objectives.
In sum, the nation of India urgently seeks the participation of humour in regular and not just pre-ordained interactions. Our problems will not evaporate but the solutions will possibly become marginally simpler and this margin is indeed valuable. It is often said that laughter is the best medicine and there is surely no reason to disbelieve this truth.
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