Meher Marfatia: Two billboards and a banner

Mar 05, 2017, 05:04 IST | Meher Marfatia

On a two-mile Marine Drive strip, Air India, Amul and Nana Chudasama have always got Bombay smiling and thinking

Amul hailed the Bandra Sea Link connecting the island city to the suburbs. Pic Courtesy/Amul
Amul hailed the Bandra Sea Link connecting the island city to the suburbs. Pic Courtesy/Amul

It was a matter of a minute. At 9.15 every morning in the late 1960s, Uttara Parikh entered the Air India office. The phone rang an exact minute after, at least once every week. It was her boss Bobby Kooka's crisp 9.16 am greeting. Keen to crack a fresh idea for a hoarding he had drummed up at night or to tweak an artwork, Air India's commercial director was bent on apprising his young assistant of plans the moment she stepped into their office, then in the Bank of India Building at Fort.

The Maharajah mascot was Kooka's 1946 inspiration. By the 1960s the national carrier had already put out some of the world's best airline advertising. Cleverly conceived, executed with rare flair and finesse, the hoarding at Kemps Corner preceded the bigger billboard which fronts Air India's present hub. That went up with the portly mascot quipping, 'Nariman had a point and I'll be on it'. In response to JRD Tata's 1970 announcement that the company would be headquartered at the Nariman Point tip of Marine Drive, the ad drew the Maharajah squatting atop that iconic tower soon also to boast the country's first escalator.

Amul's stark indictment of politicians after the 26/11 terror tragedy. Pic Courtesy/Amul
Amul's stark indictment of politicians after the 26/11 terror tragedy. Pic Courtesy/Amul

Parikh followed a drill. Having heard Kooka's instruction, she made two calls. One was to Bahadur, the J Walter Thompson artist, who'd rush on motorbike across from the agency on PM Road in 10 minutes. Bahadur sketching the visual, she dialled a second number. That was for Creado, the man who actually shimmied up the scaffolding to hand paint what was on paper - a skill lost to public sight around the year 2000 with the arrival of printed flexes. "Using refined language and imagery, our ads relied on humour to convey civic messages before Amul did," Parikh says.

"You think Maharajah and you automatically think Air India. The Maharajah legacy continues. And he has moved with the times. He's slimmer and savvier now. Some campaigns have depicted him with headphones and gadgets even," says Air India's Commercial Director Pankaj Srivastava.

This banner framed by Nana Chudasama saluted the resilience and recuperative spirit of Bombay a week after serial bomb blasts ripped the city in March 1993. Pic Courtesy/History on a Banner
This banner framed by Nana Chudasama saluted the resilience and recuperative spirit of Bombay a week after serial bomb blasts ripped the city in March 1993. Pic Courtesy/History on a Banner

I dig delightedly into cartons crammed with ad albums. Leafing through, I can smell the 1960s and '70s at the turn of each brittle page. City-specific gems include the Maharajah gasping 'Bombay takes my breath away... 60% of air pollution is caused by automobiles' and the jollier 'Love, sax and all that jazz' celebrating a 1990s Jazz Yatra with the tubby mascot in longhaired rock star avatar.

Aviation-related ads show him in charming Chinaman garb, declare 'Confucius say Man who fly Boeing, know where he going'. And, as a 1998 tribute to 50 years of Indian women pilots, 'There's no clipping their wings'. Guffaw-worthy too is the smart series asserting punctuality: from 'Quicksand – 92% on time in Dhahran' and 'Mall the time in the world – 94% on time in Singapore', to my favourite, 'Hey big mamma, on time me comma – 100% on time in Africa.'

When JRD Tata announced the plan for Air India to move into its new headquarters, this was the Maharajah's quip. It referred to corporator KF Nariman, who masterminded the Back Bay Reclamation that formed the commercial district of Nariman Point. Pic Courtesy/Air India
When JRD Tata announced the plan for Air India to move into its new headquarters, this was the Maharajah's quip. It referred to corporator KF Nariman, who masterminded the Back Bay Reclamation that formed the commercial district of Nariman Point. Pic Courtesy/Air India

I get delicious background details from Saleem (Bittu) Ahmadullah and Gita Mistry, whose mothers were Kooka's sisters. I largely owe Bittu my love of local history, ever since he led me on a heritage trail interesting enough to trundle along tightly clutching an eight-month bellyful of baby! The cousins share how Kooka and JWT artist Umesh Rao tried a thousand designs of the bowing Maharajah with perpetually closed eyes, experimenting with different girth measures for him. He was intended as an overdressed flunkey, not courteous royalty.

"The mischievous character was Bobby's personality. He taught us to laugh at ourselves," says Saleem. "To get the Air India ad you needed to be urbane with a touch of sophistication," adds Gita. "It was iconoclastic but worked in days when we were more self-confident."

This sense of loss is as strongly felt by Karan Johar. In an interview with Amul adman and mid-day merry man Rahul daCunha, the filmmaker said, "At the moment we seriously lack humour. Amul hoardings stand for three qualities - morality, intelligence and humour. If only our people had all three." Johar's earliest memory of an Amul ad is the one on Marine Drive (beside Bachelor's ice cream stall near Patel Bridge) thanks to his movie mogul father Yash Johar. In the utterly butterly sunny new book, Amul's India 3.0, based on 50 years of Amul advertising by daCunha Communications, he says, "Dad would drop me to school and college.

When the 1970s property boom led to more and more high-rise buildings mushrooming across Nariman Point, Nana Chudasama's banner protested this dangerous trend on reclaimed land. Pic Courtesy/History on a Banner
When the 1970s property boom led to more and more high-rise buildings mushrooming across Nariman Point, Nana Chudasama's banner protested this dangerous trend on reclaimed land. Pic Courtesy/History on a Banner

I remember the spot on Marine Drive where he'd crane his head out of the car window to see something, chuckle, stick his head back in and drive on. As a child I'd no idea what he was chuckling at. Those days you looked out of the window and appreciated the landscape outside, unlike today where your face is stuck in a phone. Amul topicals are never offensive because they aren't personal. It is always gentle sarcasm."

That particular Amul billboard was superbly situated. On view for about a decade from the mid 1980s, it still gave the impression of offering twice-monthly changed ads for far more years. I remember wishing the car or cab that hurtled me down the promenade would halt right here in traffic, to catch more than a passing glimpse of those taglines. The ad strategically faced office-goers in vehicles snaking along the street's north-south axis. Evenings saw it lend the Queen's Necklace a sparkle beyond its pearl strand of lights. The Amul message was mostly a chirpy chide, a naughty nudge, at worst a rap without rancour.

When a butter brand becomes the barometer of a nation, how could it not scoop urbs prima in Indis within its savvy sweep? The longest-running outdoor advertising campaign on the planet continues to benignly berate local civic and political apathy. Whether the city is troubled or terrorised, flooded or neglected, the polka-dot dressed Amul girl's heart beats for Bombay.

She brings laughter to an age of lout-giri. Shining her vibe from prime spots across town, the little moppet with a blue fringe over saucer eyes, imagined by Sylvester daCunha and visualised by Eustace Fernandes in the 1960s, reigns as a one-woman champion. She is her own Aam Aadmi Party. Ribbing without ridiculing, teasing not taunting, her puns are fun, her jokes never jibes. Staying cool in an insanely volatile era, she urges us to likewise.

A short hop from the Air India hoarding, a banner has fluttered in the Arabian Sea breeze for 40-odd years. Nana Chudasama's message blazes on, fiery as the sunsets opposite this site (outside Talk of the Town, where Pizza By the Bay is currently a corner cafe). His terse terminology makes the former sheriff and president of the NGO, I Love Mumbai, something of our original tweeter.

Narendrasinhji Mansinghji Chudasama began writing banners with the headline: 'Say it fast, say it slow, rationing must go'. The chronicler of the common man's concerns endearingly says, "I'm a fluke. Politicians provide me with ready fodder for my phrases." Stark, in the absence of visual illustration of his words, Nana's wit is yet enjoyed widely to tickle our collective funny bone.

Churchgate station within waving distance means millions of commuters stop in their tracks on the pavement below his office.

Grinning as they read lines like 'Save mangroves - our natural coastguards', 'Dalal Street turns into Halal Street - investors slaughtered' and 'Police - decades of service cannot be erased by one black sheep', alluding to rampant criticism against cops after the Marine Drive rape case shocked the city in May 2005.

"This is legitimate dissent," says the author of Bombay's most audacious banner. "One message asked 'How long will the tolerant tolerate intolerance?' Other questions have got us into trouble with powers such as the MNS vandalising our premises. I do think one has to remain fearless, speak out. Satire has its special place but my banners are very direct when called for. It's wonderful we at least have a degree of freedom of expression compared with the rest of the country."

Is it fading freedom? Fans and followers of Nana's fixture outside Soona Mahal will surely echo what Akshay Chudasama wished for his father in the book, History on a Banner: "May the sun never set on your balcony, to which the city's eyes continue to turn."

Author-publisher Meher Marfatia writes fortnightly on everything that makes her love Mumbai and adore Bombay. You can reach her at mehermarfatia@gmail.com

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