Robbing Narratives Through Ads

THE tradition of representing Kashmir without Kashmiris is certainly not a new one. The latest ad by Dollar Ultra thermals is the latest in this series of misrepresentations. The advertisement features an Indian tourist couple in Kashmir who are robbed by a Kashmiri, only for the thief to be outrun and let off due to the mercy of the Indian couple. The advertisement merits a deeper look since it subsumes within itself a larger narrative of the Indian gaze towards Kashmir that informs its interactions with Kashmir. The advertisement conflates several narratives within itself that merit a deeper examination since they inform the relations of power between Kashmir and mainland India, and the production of these power relations.

In the Althusserian mode, it marks the interpellation of the subject through varied instruments and creation of subjects through varied ideological apparatuses employed by the state. The free market amplifies the act of interpellation by creating rituals of consumerism that rely on creating narratives of necessity and desire. This creation of desire and necessity can easily intersect with narratives of populism to evolve a potent fetish of narcissism where the free market subject is blinded to the structural violence perpetuated on the margins by this commodification. The latest ad by Dollar Ultra Thermals is a classic case in example.

The advertisement starts with the couple posing for a selfie among the scenic environs of chinar grove in autumnal glory.  The selfie that involves photographing the self, places the Indian couple as the centerpiece of the narrative establishing their ownership of the scene, while the chinars function as a convenient backdrop. The gaze of the tourists is consumptive, therefore, as the landscape functions only as an addendum to the larger narrative of foregrounding their selves. However, this gaze is not an isolated act but draws from an older historical tradition of erasing the local subjects from the landscape, and thus is a learned socio-historical activity that dates back to atleast the Mughals who inaugurated this tradition in their portraits of Kashmir as an idyllic bower, while completely omitting the Kashmiri subject who was thought unfit for representation. The idea of Kashmir as a paradise of fabled beauty is a wildly popular one, sustained in narratives over time about royalty, such as the Mughal emperor Jahangir, in travelogues as written by the British officer Walter Lawrence, by poets such as Thomas Moore of Lalla Rookh fame, in post-partition Hindi films, such as the hit Jab Jab Phool Khilay, and in tourism campaigns and postcards. Each has competed with the other to depict a place of unparalleled beauty. The selfie gaze is a mere extension of this tradition, and so the act of the tourists evokes the old paradigm of Kashmir as a Jannat, a heaven. The fetishisation of Kashmir as a heaven lends legitimacy to imperialist expressions, since ‘heaven’ is worth fighting for and controlling in the popular imagination lest impoverishment and severance from heaven be the result. The omnivorous voice, as the tourist gaze, has been defined, is extrinsically motivated and aims for mass appeal rather than private memory. This penchant for mass appeal allows it to, therefore, evoke this historical paradigm, and re-perpetuate the erasure of Kashmiris from their own land, a process that has accelerated greatly post abrogation.

Next, as the couple are busy clicking selfies, a thief presumably a Kashmiri, comes running to steal the scarf wrapped around the neck of the tourist . Apart from the apparent absurdity of the idea of stealing a scarf, the act establishes the Kashmiri as the villain of the piece. It is ironic that the Kashmiri should steal a scarf of all things, since winter is a way of life in Kashmir, and therefore demands adequate sartorial choices. A scarf is, therefore, the last thing a Kashmiri will steal. Nevertheless, matter of credulity aside, the ad proceeds to show the Indian male launching into a sprint after the thief across scenic surroundings. The viewer’s attention is, therefore, drawn wholly towards the Indian whereas a Kashmiri is absented as a runaway thief. Again, this corresponds to the stereotype of Kashmiris as pests living off the hard work of honest Indians, a narrative that has been repeated ad nuseam in popular discourse in India. The advertisement, therefore, establishes the same binary – the wronged Indian and the thieving Kashmiri, which informs the imaginaries of Kashmir in popular discourse. Next, the ad depicts the thief hitting a dead end, as the tourist protagonist finally catches up with him. Unsurprisingly, the character is played by a non-Kashmiri, which points out the impossibility of Kashmiri representation in popular Indian discourse. The character is shown clattering his teeth, and mumbling that he stole because it was cold with a sheepish expression writ large on his face.  Nevertheless, in a great act of magnanimity, and much to the surprise of the thief, the tourist strips off his jacket and hands it to the thief. In the spirit of classic orientalism, the orient Kashmiri is presented as depicting moral turpitude and recipient of benevolence, while the occident Indian is presented as magnanimous and forgiving. This skewed representation is a continuum of the paradigm inaugurated by the British, who treated the Kashmiris with suspicion and held a very inferior opinion of them. Sir Walter Lawrence, the renowned chronicler, for example defined a Kashmiri as timid, a liar and incredulous of the existence of good – all attributes which are present in the Kashmiri character onscreen. When confronted with the theft, he resorts to clattering his teeth as if to suggest he stole out of necessity, but soon forgets the pretense, when the protagonist hands him his jacket. Incredulous, he keeps staring rooted at the spot as the camera fades out, unable to believe the goodness of the smiling Indian couple.

The advertisement, therefore, is a representation of the larger discourse within which Kashmir is viewed in popular and collective Indian imagination. Behind its apparent feel good tale, lies a tale of skepticism and violence against an unsuspecting people who are presented as villainous, and therefore lends assent and justification to their subjugation. The violence inflicted by the advertisement is a stark reminder of the ways in which populist imagination and the free market forces collude to draw ridicule and undermine the legitimate concerns of a marginalized people.


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Huzaifa Pandit

Huzaifa Pandit is the author of the recently published ‘Green is the Colour of Memory’, which won the first edition of Rhythm Divine Poets Chapbook Contest 2017. He holds a PhD on poetry of resistance from the University of Kashmir.

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