If you went to cinema halls at any time from the 1980s, you probably know the advertisements featuring a montage of people slicing into apples, tearing at fresh sugar cane and cracking open betel nuts, all with their teeth. “How?” someone always asks them, wide-eyed. The actors hold up a tube of Vicco, because they get this question all the time. “Vajradanti Vajradanti Vicco Vajradanti,” the voice-over breaks out, repeating “Vicco” six times in 15 seconds, adding breathlessly that it’s “Ayurvedic jadibootiyon se bana sampoorn swadeshi”—made in India, with Ayurvedic herbs. It’s a jingle so catchy you struggle to get it out of your head.
Having seen these ads multiple times myself, I was excited to be interviewing Sanjeev Pendharkar, the third-generation director of the family-run business. Days before our Zoom call, Pendharkar’s assistant emailed me “some reading material”. This included a CV with details on Pendharkar’s professional, educational and extra-curricular activities (like regular exercise at the gym) and a nearly 3,000-word profile, drawn up in-house. “By and large, Mr Sanjeev is an all admirable person who is genuine, elegantly simple and more so grounded,” it said. “In fact if humility had a face, it would be his.”
“Feel free to use it,” Pendharkar had told me cheerily then. “I won’t mind even if you quote entire portions from it.”
For our Zoom call, he turned up in a black suit and tie. His short, black hair was combed back and his walrus moustache groomed to perfection. Instead of talking to me, he picked up his phone and dialled. Then he leaned back, closed his eyes and waited. “Haan, my interview is about to start,” he told, I presume, his secretary, “tell them not to do any thok-peet (create noise) around here.” Then, for the first time, he made eye contact. His face lit up into a brilliant smile, the kind you expect the owner of a ₹500 crore toothpaste and face-cream empire to have. “Let’s,” he said succinctly.
The story of Vishnu Industrial Chemical Company (Vicco) goes back to 1952. Pendharkar’s grandfather, Keshav Pendharkar, owned a grocery store in Nagpur, Maharashtra. At the age of 55, he decided to shut shop and move to Mumbai to start a “chemical-free” alternative to “cosmetic” brands. It was part ambition, part necessity. “He had 10 kids: seven sons and three daughters,” says Pendharkar. “Setting up a business was the only way he could afford to take care of us all. A product you use daily would generate sales faster. That’s why he started this business.”
Keshav started at a small godown in the industrial belt of Parel. His brother-in-law, a “sort of Ayurveda degree holder”, helped out. After studying the ancient texts, they came up with a tooth-cleaning powder. Keshav and his sons would go door-to-door to sell it. Everyone was expected to chip in; everything belonged to everyone.
Keshav was a disciplinarian, Pendharkar remembers. “We had a 2BHK flat in Dadar then. At 6.30am, ajoba would start singing ‘Uthi uthi gopala’ (a Marathi morning song). Everyone would get up, use the common bathroom within 10 minutes of the other, roll up the mattresses and start working by 8.30am.” All income would be shared, and divided between business and household expenses. Such values, says Pendharkar, made sure the family remained tightly knit. “We now have a 25 BHK house near our factory in Dombivli (in Thane district, neighbouring Mumbai). There are 25 toilets in there but only one kitchen.”
Keshav died in 1971, leaving Pendharkar’s father, Gajanan, in charge of the company. Sales of their toothpaste had picked up and Gajanan decided the time was ripe to enter a second segment: skincare. At the time, the market was dominated by white-coloured creams: Afghan Snow, Pond’s and Nivea. Gajanan wanted to manufacture a cream with turmeric, which Ayurveda maintains has skin-healing properties. “Besides, many Indians used haldi-chandan (turmeric-sandalwood) rubs before marriage,” says Pendharkar. “He wanted to incorporate turmeric extract in a vanishing cream base.”
Initially, customers weren’t too keen on using it daily. “When they would see a yellow cream, they would be like, ‘Baap re! We will turn yellow too!’ That’s when we would give them a demo.”
At this point, Pendharkar grabs a tube of cream lying out of his camera range. He squeezes out a tiny bit, rubs it on his wrist and then holds up both wrists. “See?” he says. “This one’s glowing.”
It is the same pitch Vicco has been making on TV for years. One of its early commercials featured model Sangeeta Bijlani applying a turmeric paste before her wedding, and keeping up the glow with Vicco’s cream. Its jingle, too, was an earworm: “Twacha ki raksha kare Ayurvedic cream, Vicco turmeric Ayurvedic cream.” From the 1980s, Vicco ads were playing in theatres across India. The company also started producing a weekly show, Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi, for Doordarshan in 1984. Vicco ads, played during breaks, brought the product to homes. For nearly a decade, Pendharkar recalls, they witnessed a 50% bump in sales every year, crossing the ₹50 crore turnover mark by 1994.
With demand soaring, Vicco set up a manufacturing facility on a 10-acre campus in Nagpur in 1986. Twenty-year-old Pendharkar, a pharmacy graduate like his father, was put in charge. But the factory ran into problems from the very beginning. There was a dispute on wages, with workers going on strike for three months; some of the managerial staff was roughed up. This experience, says Pendharkar, prompted him to study law and management. He would work at the factory during the day and attend classes at Nagpur university by night. This went on for five years. “Eventually, we conducted legal inquiries and dismissed (those found guilty).”
Today, Vicco exports to 45 countries. It has over 40 products in its portfolio and factories in Thane, Nagpur and Goa. Since most of its products come under the “essential services” category, the covid-19 lockdown didn’t have a major impact on the business.
The 35-member Pendharkar family continues to lead Vicco. Sanjeev Pendharkar looks after the export division, while his four brothers look after the domestic market and factory operations. It is a rather patriarchal setup: The Pendharkar men grow up to be directors and general managers at the business, the “women go on to join their husbands’”. “It’s a matter of passion and choice,” says Pendharkar, on why the women in the family don’t have any positions in the business. “Besides, to give moral support and take care of our house (in Mumbai, Nagpur and Goa) is a big responsibility.”
Vicco is often cited as a company that hasn’t been able to keep up with a changing marketplace. Its packaging is still a basic red-and-white, its advertising plays on the same old formula of music and brand-name repetition. In a ₹10,000 crore toothpaste market, Pendharkar estimates Vicco occupies only a 5% share. Despite Vicco’s high recall value, companies like Patanjali, Dabur and Himalaya dominate India’s Ayurvedic consumer goods, or FMCG, market.
It doesn’t seem to bother Pendharkar, though. “Early on, we had decided we wanted to be a master of a particular trade, not a jack of all. Besides, when Patanjali or Hindustan Unilever talk of Ayurveda, our sales increase.”
One more reason for Vicco’s comparatively slow growth, Pendharkar explains, was a 25-year legal battle with the Union government’s excise wing. In 1975, the excise department insisted on taxing Vicco products as “cosmetics”. This meant taxes up to 105%. Vicco contested this, saying it manufactured under a drug licence from Maharashtra’s food and drug administration (FDA). The case went up to the Supreme Court, concluding only in 2000, after Vicco was allowed to classify its products as drugs and pay substantially lower taxes.
“Most of our time was wasted in fighting our own government,” says Pendharkar. By 2025, however, Pendharkar aims to double company revenue to ₹1,000 crore by focusing on exports. “Once that happens,” he says, “I will hand it over to Chirag,” his 26-year-old son, who is a general manager at Vicco.
For the most part, the personality of the Vicco brand seems to be an extension of that of its founders. They are mavericks from a simpler time, made insular by their own success, struggling to adapt to a rapidly changing world. But change is imperative for survival. Earlier this year, Vicco roped in actor Alia Bhatt as its brand ambassador, releasing a remix of its old toothpaste jingle in a “modern” setting. Gone were the coy smiles and betel nut bites. A spunky Bhatt dances around, biting into tacos, eating strawberries dipped in a chocolate fountain.
Niggles remain. The face-cream sector is becoming sensitive to the concept of a beauty ideal based on complexion. This was most evident in June, when “Fair & Lovely” renamed itself “Glow and Lovely”. To its credit, Vicco’s turmeric cream never claimed lightening effects, always emphasising “protection” and “glow”. But, like many fairness-cream advertisements, they continue to use light-skinned actors as the beauty ideal.
“See, anyone who has nice features likes to look fair,” says Pendharkar. “We say, we will make you beautiful.... It’s not Vicco, it’s the turmeric doing miracles. If you drink milk and haldi every day, I can guarantee you that you, and the kids you will have one day, all of them will become fair.”
It’s a baffling admission from a brand that has for so long avoided falling into the fairness trap. Later, Pendharkar clarifies that his cream is more about the glow than complexion. “Even if Sri Krishna uses this, he will start glowing.”
We have been talking for nearly two hours. Almost out of time, and with the divine presence invoked, I stop. Later, I find a message from Sanjeev Pendharkar on my phone: “Was the interview upto Ur satisfaction?” Of course it was, I text back. “I can tell u more stories when time permits,” he replies.
Watch this space.