It has come as an astonishing discovery to me that the smiley was first seen in an Ingmar Bergman film made in 1948. Call me clichéd, but I did not expect to connect it to a Swedish art film, the antithesis of all things sunshiny.

The yellow oval with two dots and a smile we now know, first hit the public space in 1963, as part of an American insurance company advertisement campaign and was created by a graphic artist called Harvey Ball. He was paid $45 for it. Bet he wasn’t smiley-ing later when it went on to become one of the most popular symbols in the world. Well that’s the lot of artists — when they create something marketable they don’t own it, and when they own it, it ain’t marketable. No doubt some such character created the upside down smiley some years later.

Illustration /Amit Bandre

My generation was just a hint too old for it when the smiley buttons hit the Indian mainstream in shops like Archies and Giggles which evoked the good American life. Which was fine — that perky yellow and the wide smile were always a little earnest for my taste.

But the smiley really filled my world with the advent of the internet and the wonder, humour and delight of all the emoticons available on chat to signal various expressions and emotions. With their frowns and kissyfaces, their exaggerated tears and dude sunglasses, these emoticons both put the emotion in the circle and didn’t take it too seriously.

Anyway, that was a brief season of irony and fun.

We are now officially oppressed by the smiley. It is the Chicken Soup for the Phone of contemporary life. It is a terrifying declaration of cheerfulness, a steely celebration of faux sincerity, an epidemic of threatening brightness.

More than half the text messages I get have smileys in them. Most emails are liberally scattered with smileys.

Almost always there is no room or (in my useless opinion) or requirement for the smiley in the message.

For example — someone messages you for an appointment which they need. “Can we meet tomorrow? Only if it’s convenient.” You say “um, tomorrow is a hard day. How about the day after.” The reply — “actually tomorrow would be really great. Smiley face.” Yes ok, I’m a pushover, but in my defence the smiley starts to make me nervous. “Uh, ok, say 2 pm then?” Back comes the reply, “Can it be 4 or 4.30? Smiley face. Smiley face.” Not one, but two smileys — just come with us nicely they say.

Why are the smiley faces there? Are they supposed to be ingratiating? Like those girls who have been trained to not take no for an answer just by looking doll like and saying ‘please, please, please?”

Or an email might come, rife with criticism. Every criticism will be punctuated by a smiley. Why? Do they think we can’t take it? Or is to say — I caught you?
There’s the variation — when you have pulled someone up for their error and they send you a message with their tongue sticking out. To say what? I am just a cute boy, don’t scold me? Sometimes this is also in the form of a sad smiley. What? Can’t you just say, sorry?

There’s also the non-commital smiley — when in doubt about returning affection or telling the truth, send a cryptic smiley back. Ok, that one I don’t mind so much.

But for the rest — let’s not pretend smiley face. I know you just want to bend me to your will. Read my lips ok? They aren’t smiling back.

Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at

The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper.