Punjab was the first state in India to announce a lockdown, followed by a curfew. What prompted this, ahead of the rest of India, was the influx of nearly 90,000 NRIs who had entered the state from overseas geographies without adequate testing for the coronavirus at Delhi, Amritsar and Chandigarh airports. The country had still not moved into emergency mode on the upcoming pandemic, and these foreign returnees had just melted into the hinterland with no one knowing whether they were infected or not.
On 21 March, in a conversation with the top brass of the Punjab Police, I offered to help them with their communication, especially on social media to help spread relevant and impactful messaging. Unfortunately, while I had made the offer to help, accessing talent and resources because of most of the country shutting down, was becoming a problem. So, I reached out to The Mob, a creative boutique in Delhi. By the next morning, Chraneeta Mann, the creative chief came back with outlines of three storylines, which I sent ahead to the Chandigarh headquarters of the Punjab Police. The police gave an immediate go ahead to ‘Gwacheya Gurbaksh’, a narrative about The Missing Gurbaksh, a story about a returning overseas Punjabi from Italy.
That Sunday was a national lockdown. With no other resources or software available at my disposal, I elaborated Chraneeta’s story and put it on a simple PowerPoint presentation. The Punjab Police meanwhile reached out to famous Punjabi singer Diljit Dosanjh to do a voiceover from his home in Mumbai. Prashant Sharma of NoFiltr was kind enough to put in the music and some effects. By Monday morning, the film was ready. But in parallel, the Punjab Police had been able to rope in Sidhu Moosewala, another well-known Punjabi singer. Moosewala had agreed to write his own lyrics based on the concept of Gawacheya Gurbaksh and get his own team to do the music and art direction in Canada. So, Thursday, 26 March was set as the launch date for the two videos.
The Diljit Dosanjh voiceover video (above) was released in the morning, while the Moosewala song video released the same evening on Thursday, 26 March.
The Moosewala song was titled ‘Gawacheya Gurbaksh’. Gurbaksh in the song was a fictional character, just like one of the many foreign returned Punjabis who melted back into the villages not knowing that they were infected and could possibly infect family and friends. As per the original script, Gurbaksh continued to be a returnee from Italy and in fact infected his own grandson unknowingly.
Sometimes reel life precedes reality. On Friday, 27 March 2020, the media carried reports of the death of a 71-year-old man, Baldev Singh, in Nawanshahr, Punjab. The deceased had returned from Germany and Italy on 6 March 2020. Having returned to his village, he continued to visit friends and relatives in more than 15 villages across Punjab. Unfortunately, besides infecting 17 members of his own family, he also passed on the virus to his grandson and granddaughter.
Eerily, there were many coincidences between the Moosewala song and the reality of the old man’s death, including commonalities on return from Italy and infecting his grandson.
Somehow, the media mistook the song to be based on the deceased instead of being a pure work of fiction, which it really was. Lots of media reports started to surface. Also, there was pandemonium on social media. The Punjab Police immediately debunked the unnecessary controversy.
Sidhu Moosewala was meanwhile pleased with his efforts as the song video zoomed to over three million views in no time. The song has touched 3.8 million views on YouTube alone so far.
The teams at The Mob and at NoFiltr were delighted too. We had all worked under extreme circumstances to produce one of the most impactful social communications in the times of COVID-19. But, there were valuable lessons to be learnt on how both media and social media can create a controversy where none exists, and then go to town and magnify (also malign) those who are trying to help in an emergency situation.
1. The concept of ‘Gwacheya Gurbaksh’ was given to Moosewala, and had already been used in the earlier communication where Diljit Dosanjh had provided the voiceover.
2. The storyline was completely fictitious and bore no resemblance to any Baldev Singh or any other person.
3. Baldev Singh was very much alive when the song was conceptualised, created and released. No one in media and none of the social media trolls cared to check facts before launching a full fledged offensive against both Moosewala and the police, which is such a pity.
4. The song is based on international travellers returning home. And is intended to educate the public to ask them to self-quarantine themselves and cooperate with the police efforts. The song actually drew inspiration from the 160+ travellers who ran away from the Delhi airport after they were advised to quarantine and became potential carriers of the virus. Similar problems have been witnessed in other parts of India as well.
The curious case of ‘Gwacheya Gurbaksh’ and the Punjab Police is a learning in the development of social communication, especially for governmental bodies. The Moosewala song video is a chartbuster and would be declared a success by any parameters of communication. The fact that life in reality followed the reel narrative does happen in one in a million time. It is during such a time that you realise that the beauty of a great creative idea is that in many ways it can see the future. At the same time, the backlash on ‘Gwacheya Gurbaksh’ teaches us that we as Indians rather than laud and support a good initiative, only get into criticism and negativity.
Carol Goyal is executive director of Mogaé Media.
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