Culturally, we Indians don’t read. Not because we are illiterate, but because we don’t write. We are conditioned to the unwritten word. The history of our civilization is unwritten, our great stories too.
Ancient Indian history is etched on temple murals and statues. This permanent cast-in-stone record is not easily shareable beyond the immediate area. It didn’t have ‘virality’. So, the history travelled with travellers and artisans. Story by story. Word of mouth. And every artist ‘interpreted’ what he had heard and added layers to the story, making a deeply enriching saga out of what probably started as a fact. The stories were lapped up by the people in the form of temple art, plays, ‘kathas’ and songs. And these forms of communication added further emotions to such ‘myths’.
As Indians, we prefer talking and debating, and making things bigger than they actually are. We add masala to everything. We interpret the stories of others in our own way. We learn instinctively to read between the lines, even if there isn’t a single written line. Because we are raconteurs and interpreters rolled into one.
Yes, India is about legends. Nothing magical, really. Or exotic, even. Just the mere fact that our history and stories have not been documented as books but as art. And art has always been about interpretation.
Let’s take ‘modern’ art – the ‘art’ of Indian Cinema. Our movies are “illogical”. When Manmohan Desai showed Amar, Akbar and Anthony, together joined intravenously with their blind mother, we didn’t bat an eyelid. Three young men unknowingly giving blood to a woman who gave them life, was so full of drama and emotion and suspense, that we didn’t care about the logic.
It was mythical, yet believable – and it was a super-hit! Because, we connected to the larger ‘why’ rather than the transient ‘what’.
For, the East consumes (and hence creates) content differently from the West. But, what about Avatar, Batman, etc? Aren’t they fantastical too? Yes, of course they are. But for these films to be understood and rationalised by the scientific Western mind, they need the shroud of ‘sci-fi’. Science fiction is a crutch for them to process the irrational.
Because the West relies on logic, and its audience buys and digests that logic. We, on the other hand, live on emotions and use content to create magic in our heads. Myths are crafted in the minds of the recipient, while facts are stated by the narrator. And myths and legends are far more entertaining, right?
A David Dhawan film is loved because you can leave your brain outside the movie hall. A Christopher Nolan film is made so you can carry your brain into the multiplex (after duly servicing it, and checking the motor-oil level). Brains are for logic. Hearts demand emotions.
My daughter was learning the piano. She had a book with written notes. Her success on the piano is rated by how ‘true’ she is to the notes. If she does well and joins a Philharmonic, it will be the same (stick to what is written). She was also learning Carnatic vocal music. She had a book with written notes. But her success will be measured by how well she adds a little bit of her own individuality to the raga. Even as a student, she is encouraged to decode and interpret the raga uniquely. And to go beyond the written word. In fact, she is coaxed by her teacher to read between the lines.
And our ads?
Advertising in India, too, is drastically different from that in the West. While we attempt to present a logical argument for what we sell, our consumers pay more attention to the emotions of how we tell.
Because, in our minds, the reasons-to-believe are less about what the product does, and more about what it might do. In the story-that-is-just-short-of-being-complete, we love to fill in the gaps with our own imagination – our own interpretation gives a whole new personal meaning to what we have just heard.
To succeed in India, brands must understand and create ‘myths’ in order to become legends themselves. Because an Indian can read between the lines very well. And this has been proven through millennia.
(The author is Head of Strategy & National Planning Director, GREY group India)