As the Big B takes Bond’s place in the fertile symbiosis of global and local, legends end and a brand is born
When Amitabh Bachchan edges out James Bond as the new man in a Reid & Taylor suit, the Cold War has finally given way to the Free Market. But the flavour of that great global market is triumphantly local. And the alliteration is opportune. Clever as the ad-world invariably is, the two B-myths lead, in this case, to a third — Bharat. According to S. Kumar’s, who markets this premium-brand suiting in India, Pierce Brosnan promoted the brand to “India”, but Bachchan will “speak to Bharat”. In this shift from India to Bharat lies the paradox of such campaigns: the more global the brand, the more innovatively local its promotion. Coke, Pepsi, MacDonald’s, Nike, Nescafé, Benetton, Levi’s — all these multi-nationals have gone ethnic in their Indian advertising. Every regional colour, flavour, texture, melody and rhythm is marshalled to suggest that burgers or jeans have been integral to the Indianness of India from as far back in time as is worth remembering. Hence, Aamir Khan dispenses Coke to parched Indian lips in a richly diverse array of regional guises, Haryanvi peasant to Lakhnavi paanwallah.
But Reid & Taylor is classier stuff. So the proper Indian counterpart to Bond’s echt British cool must be found. The Nawab of Pataudi is too remote and distingué; so the best combination of élite looks and popular appeal could be none other than the Big B. And the man is, of course, playing it with aplomb. His performance is a skilful balancing act. Like the global needing to be local, Reid & Taylor needed someone who has “a very classy yet broad and universal appeal”. So what has been knocked together is a winning cocktail of Bachchan’s real-life pedigree and his more mythical rags-to-riches screen history, all seamlessly held together in his KBC Late Style. The 61-year-old Superstar of the Millennium exudes autumnal wealth, twinkling gravitas and general awesomeness. But he also remembers how he longed for a suit as a penurious college-boy, wanting to “feel the soft cloth on my skin…to wake up knowing my first suit was real”. Never mind if he was then not only a poor student, but also the son of an eminent Hindi poet, Cantabrigian and Congressman, and was studying in a Delhi college after boarding-school in the hills.
He then recalls leaving his job in Calcutta for Bombay, with nothing but a driver’s licence. He slept on the benches of Marine Drive with some very large rats, until he was picked up by ad agencies whom he refused (he is obviously less fussy now), and then by Bollywood. The rest — those Angry Young Superhits of the Seventies and Eighties — is history.
Like Bond, Bachchan has always come out impeccably dapper and somehow richer from his skirmishes with destiny. There was his initially lucky and eventually hazardous scrape with politics in the Eighties and Nineties, and then the spectacular ABCL fiasco, a feat of corporate over-reaching, followed by the equally spectacular turn in his fortunes in the new century, albeit on a shrunken screen, with KBC. From mega-stardom to game-shows and modelling may not be the ideal way of re-inventing oneself. But this is how legends end and a brand is born.