In normal circumstances, an ad like this would have come and gone, and never be noticed or discussed. Because, the ad itself has nothing new or unusual to make it noticeable or memorable. But the new Reliance Smart ad has something ads don’t have these days: a forgotten, faded actor of yesteryears playing the main role, in fact a double role. And that is what attracted me to this new commercial. A bit of nostalgia, a bit of curiosity.
Not many in the current generation would know Govardhan Thakurdas Jethanand Asrani. Actually not many from older generations, including mine, would also know him by that name. Better known as just Asrani, this comedic-character actor was as well known for being Angrezo ke zamaane ka Jailor in Sholay 40 years ago, as he was for being Chander Kripalani, the friend-confidante-secretary of Amitabh Bachchan in the 1973 Hrishikesh Mukherjee musical drama, Abhimaan. Asrani’s most stand-out role however was in Aaj Ki Taza Khabar where he essayed the role of the unforgettable Champak Bhoomia.
I was actually quite surprised to see Asrani on screen after so many years. To be honest, I did not recognise him at first. But then Asrani has always had this slightly nasal intonation in his voice that connected me back to the actor one was so familiar with many many years ago. To be fair to Asrani, he has done a good job both as the ‘elder brother’ as well as the ‘younger brother’ in playing the twins in the Reliance commercial. His acting and his mannerisms still have a touch of the old. In a way, it was nice to see the quintessential Asrani back in the midst of the action: a bit muddled and a bit angry, somewhat funny and somewhat endearing.
But this is where the nostalgia trip has to end. My 32-year old niece had no idea on who the old man in the new Reliance commercial was. So, there was no question of her 7-year old daughter even remotely knowing or identifying the cranky Asrani. I had to even jog the memory of my wife. She of course knew who he was, but asked me the key question, “But, what is Asrani doing in this ad?”. Well, as always, the better half pointedly got to the core of the issue, why him?
There is no logical answer perhaps to that very relevant question. Asrani is not the generation Reliance Smart are obviously looking to attract into their stores. He is therefore not the role model in the ad, the one expected to be emulated. Asrani is also no Amitabh Bachchan who is guaranteed instant recognition and recall, irrespective of age. Sure, he was a good actor in his days, but never ever famous enough or centre-stage enough, to have an enduring fan-following in the veritable evening of his career.
It is not that experiments such as these, of dusting the cobwebs and resurrecting a famous face of the past and bringing it back, have not been tried in the past in Indian advertising. Havells did that with Rajesh Khanna. An excerpt from Dark Star: The Loneliness of Being Rajesh Khanna by Gautam Chintamani published by Harper Collins actually conveys a lot about what happened and how the ‘rejuvenation’ of the legend of Rajesh Khanna actually came about: “The parameter within which popular Hindi cinema operates understands only two things – rise and downfall. According to industry wisdom, anyone who rises must be proud and by that virtue the one who falls couldn’t be anything but bitter. Almost three decades separated the wild frenzy that Rajesh Khanna generated and the Havells commercial that celebrated the whirl the actor caused. As expected, the television commercial generated a great deal of buzz and reactions covering an entire spectrum of emotions began pouring in. For millions of Khanna’s fans and a huge majority of those who had an anthropological interest in him, the advertisement’s tragicomedy was a little too surreal to digest. Khanna may have lapped up the chance to laugh at himself and to cock a snook at those who, believing him to be bitter about the hand that fate dealt him, expected a traditional nostalgic spin to the advertisement. But watching him saunter into the frame dressed in an elegant tuxedo and revelling in the adoration of thousands of die-hard ‘fans’, no one expected the comic turn in the end. To many fans, watching the Rajesh Khanna look right into the camera and equate the undying admirer to an electric appliance was nothing less than an acknowledgement that their idol had feet of clay. To some, the whole exercise reeked of desperation on Balki’s part, for exploiting Khanna’s longing to cling on to anything remotely reminiscent of his glory days.”
Asrani is of course nowhere in the league of Rajesh Khanna, though at one time he was reputed to be the closest friend of the superstar of the 1970s. Asrani’s featuring in the Reliance Smart ad has surely gotten the brand a bit of PR, and got its creative director Chax a few sound bites in media. The ad itself is fairly average and forgettable. So, the return of Asrani, unfortunately may not eventually be anything more than just a minor flash in the pan.
The only brand that has really capitalised successfully on a star of yesteryears is Kent RO. By using Hema Malini, The Dream Girl of the 1970s, Kent actually dealt an ace. In a survey last year, the Hema Malini endorsement featured as one of the highest recalled amongst all with famous faces. The credit for that has perhaps to go both to the client as well as the celebrity for sticking to each other, consistently and loyally over many years now. Malini does not endorse any other brand, and to that extent is almost solus to Kent. Kent too, despite an expanding range, have resisted the urge to replace or add. When they did, they only brought on-board Malini’s daughters Esha Deol and Ahana Deol. A bit convenient, one may say. But it has worked for the brand.
Experiments with oldies have never really, unfortunately, succeeded in India. Rishi Kapoor, despite his famous lineage, and his own stellar career, never really found favour with brands. He did feature with son Ranbir in 2011 in a Pepsi ad, but beyond that the only endorsement he has been associated with is Kabzend, a constipation cure from Mankind Pharma. Not really something to be proud of.
Waheeda Rehman too featured briefly in a Cadbury’s ad in 2015 in the role of a grandmother. But that was more a cameo, rather than an endorsement.
Back to Asrani. Over all a feeble script, a poorly executed ad film. Won’t do much for the Reliance retail brands. If ideated better, if scripted better, Asrani’s return could have had more bombast, more impact. He richly deserved it. He is after all a fine actor. With over 350 films to his credit. And a couple of Filmfare Awards too. But he is not to be blamed. It is just that nostalgia as an advertising tool is very difficult to handle and execute. Asrani just did not make the cut. Sad.
(Dr. Sandeep Goyal is a PhD in Human Brands. Any usage of celebrities, old or young, fuels his curiosity and attracts his attention.)