Once upon a time, companies sold us washing powder, television sets and pressure cookers. Now they want to sell their woke-ness as well. But as Zomato discovered recently, that’s a trickier sell.
It decided it needed to not just deliver food but be a steward for the environment on World Environment Day and remind us how waste could be recycled to make lamps, tables and flower pots. And it thought it would be cute to use the character of Kachra, the village outcast, from the film Lagaan to play said lampshade, table and flower pot.
Now they have pulled it down with the usual apology of “unintentionally” hurting “the sentiments of certain communities”.
This isn’t the first time Zomato has landed in a soup instead of just delivering it. In 2017, it put up billboards that used MC and BC, which also happen to be red-blooded Hindi expletives, as abbreviations of Mac’n’cheese and butter chicken. A 2022 campaign showing Hrithik Roshan ordering a thali from Mahakal upset the priests of Mahakaleshwar temple in Madhya Pradesh. Humour is always dicey in India. There’s no shortage of groups itching to take offence.
But the Kachra ad is different. Zomato wasn’t trying to make a joke about caste that misfired.
They probably didn’t mean to make a statement on caste at all and failed entirely to notice the optics of Kachra being used as a human prop in their feel-good ad. As a result, the Dalit character is literally dehumanised—recycled into something on which people can place their coffee cups. This is not old-school caste bigotry. It’s new-age caste blindness.
Many of us believe that only activists with an axe to grind go around shouting “Caste, caste” all the time. Meanwhile most of us from upper-caste backgrounds like to think we have moved beyond caste in the new India. We don’t worry about the caste of our friends and classmates. We know people in inter-caste relationships. We get annoyed if someone brings up caste at a Silicon Valley company.
Sometime ago, my school WhatsApp group was having a heated debate about underprivileged students who were protesting a fee hike at their university. Everyone had vociferous opinions about the demands of the students. Many of them were prefaced with “When we were students…”
I didn’t really know enough about the issue at hand but it occurred to me that we had not really grown up with the truly underprivileged in our upper middle-class school in Kolkata. We thought of our class as “diverse” because some students lived in plush houses with gardens, some in small apartments and some in factory townships outside the city. There were a smattering of Muslim students and some Christians. There were no Dalit students that I knew of. That was our diversity. Sad to say, compared to the even more exclusive schools some of our children go to now, we were indeed more diverse then.
That’s true in the neighbourhood as well. At one time, all the children in the neighbourhood played together. That meant that the potato-seller’s son and the executive’s son still shared a camaraderie born out of games of football, cricket, bruised knees and dirty jokes.
As more and more apartment complexes sprang up, though, the playground moved into the complex, and the playing cohort also came from the gated community. The executive’s children were now just playing with the children of other executives.
Why is it a surprise, then, that no one up and down the food chain noticed anything egregious about the Zomato ad?
Zomato is not the only offender, as podcaster Anurag of Anurag Minus Verma points out on the portal Print. Kent Atta & Bread Maker tried to sell hygienic dough kneading by asking us, “Are you allowing your maid to knead atta dough by hand?” Mario biscuits used the tag line, “Baked to perfection, Untouched by Hands”. They might have merely been trying to make a point about hygiene but in a country where the touch of certain people was regarded as polluting, it’s impossible to ignore the casteist overtone unless one chooses to be wilfully blind.
Instead, we think of caste only when something utterly horrendous happens—a gang rape or an honour killing. That relegates caste to somewhere way beyond most of our backyards until it blindsides us in something like the Zomato ad.
In an odd way, we are far more LGBTQ+-aware than we are caste-aware. Corporations are far more proactive about making sure they are seen celebrating Pride Month in June than Dalit History Month in April. At one time, ads too made homosexuals, especially effeminate men, the butt of the joke. Then Titan Fastrack told us to “come out of the closet” and Anouk showed two young women living together and getting ready for the big parental visit. Recently, Starbucks showed the parents of a trans woman meeting her at the coffee outlet and accepting her as Arpita rather than Arpit.
One could argue about whether this does more for Starbucks or trans rights. Many activists have pointed out how most of the Bollywood LGBTQ+ allies who came out to promote films like Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan didn’t utter a peep when LGBTQ+ activists were fighting for marriage equality in court and being told such things were “unIndian” by the government.
But at least there is an awareness of the issue, a sensitivity around it. We do not want to be seen as homophobic. And we can claim, though some would argue otherwise, that it’s homophobia that was imported by Victorian colonial masters. Unfortunately, caste cannot be blamed on others. It’s our inconvenient truth. It embarrasses us. We would rather sweep it under the collective carpet. In his book Caste Pride, Manoj Mitta documents how many of the great lions of our freedom struggle would go on the defensive when it came to caste, arguing that issues like inter-caste marriages needed to be dealt with by changing the hearts and minds of society rather than by changing laws. It led to Hindu Mahasabha leader Bhai Parmanand saying, “The proper way would be to create a desire among the people first; otherwise, this legislation would amount to forcing a reform on the people and would mean putting the cart before the horse.”
But caste is so embedded in our DNA that we notice neither caste privilege nor casual casteism. In 2015, a gay activist tried to see if Indian newspapers would take out a same-sex matrimonial ad. It read like any other ad a mother might place for her son except it was looking for a suitable boy. Predictably, it got a lot of media coverage. But it inadvertently created a hullabaloo because it said “Caste No Bar (Though IYER Preferred)”. The activist’s mother told Newsweek that the caste line was added “in jest” to make it more like a typical caste-obsessed matrimonial ad Indians were used to seeing. In reality, she would welcome whoever he chose as a partner.
That might indeed have been the case. But caste as a tongue-in-cheek joke doesn’t fly well in a country where caste stigma still runs strong and can have deadly consequences. Now popular culture is slowly trying to take on caste, without being grimly preachy, in productions like Dahaad and Kathal, both of which deal with the travails of a lower-caste woman police officer in small-town India.
It would be easy to haul Zomato over the coals or “cancel” it. But I suspect many of those shaking their heads and wagging their fingers now just chuckled at the Kachra table and Kachra lamp when they first saw the ad.
After all, we like to say, “We don’t see caste.”
Exactly. We saw a table, a lamp and a flower pot instead.
Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.