Soap opera

Anjali Jathar as the Liril Girl  

We still have great advertisements and brand campaigns. Of course we do. Just the other day, I watched one on TV. Beautifully shot, with fine looking people doing important work. The thing is, I can’t quite remember the entire ad. And when I tried to look it up on YouTube, my fingers hovered hesitatingly over the keyboard. You see, I couldn’t really remember what this ad was selling.

And so, I typed something else instead. Within seconds, it pulled up familiar images, and this time, I found yet another thing the Liril campaign had done right. The iconic Liril girl, she really sold you the soap. As she danced with abandon under the waterfall, the ad stayed firmly about Liril. It was the soap that promised you those few minutes of complete freedom and freshness. She wanted you to know that it was Liril that had put her in this good mood. And who wouldn’t want a bit of what she was having? Granted, easy access to a nearby waterfall might be lacking, but maybe a shower would do?

And so, the Liril girl sent you to the stores to pick up this magic soap that let you forget things and enjoy your bath so thoroughly that it felt like a significant event. She made you look forward to singing under the shower (a familiar, famous tune which gave you away quite obviously, really) till your family began mumbling of water shortage and lack of rhythm.

There was, also, a sort of clean, fresh sexual appeal to the ad, one that never crossed the line into sleaziness, nor did it make you want to change the channel in mixed company. Even then, the first Liril girl, clad in her two piece swimsuit and drenched by the water, was a risk. It was 1975, and Alyque Padamsee, the man behind the campaign by Lintas, was taking a gamble. Vivek Mohan, who worked with Padamsee on the campaign, handling its filming, remembers that Padamsee had been confident of the campaign. “Hindustan Lever was a conservative client, with their ads usually aimed at the middle class and hinterland of India. This was a breakthrough, an ad that would cut through the clutter and stand out. Padamsee’s confidence convinced everyone, and they trusted him.”

And so, when Hindustan Lever launched their soap, one that was meant to be a premium one, it was this campaign that they used. So far, soaps like Rexona and Lux had dominated the market, but they were advertised as beauty soaps which would improve complexion, make you fairer and remove pimples.

Liril didn’t promise beauty. This, interestingly and tragically enough, is quite ground breaking even today. It didn’t show before and after pictures, nor did it claim to increase a woman’s desirability to men. It did feature a beautiful woman, but that was just her. The soap increased her joie de vivre, but she was, essentially, just enjoying herself. What the soap did promise, and didn’t need to put into words, was freshness. The carefully selected yellow and green colour, the setting and the mood, washed clean and new by the flowing water, were simple, perfectly synced concepts.

Every aspect of the campaign was important. From the selection of the Liril girl, to the colours and the music used, both Hindustan Lever and Lintas aimed for perfection. “We were constantly experimenting. After the waterfall, we decided to break that further and shoot in Nepal’s rapids.” Mohan also remembers that with the rapids came other changes. “We wanted to retain the catchy tune that Vanraj Bhatia had composed, but, in today’s terminology, were looking for a remix. So I came up with the idea of picking three music composers, keeping them anonymous, and asking them to compose the remixes. Then the team would pick the one they liked, and the name would be revealed.” All went according to plan, and a little known guitarist who worked with Louis Banks was picked. Today, he is the famous music composer, Ehsaan Noorani, part of the Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy trio.

Like the music, the colours used in the ad were equally important, and Mohan remembers a particularly difficult but challenging times along the way. “The 1992 Bombay riots meant that most of our tailors, who were Muslim, had fled the city. So two of us stayed back to find tailors who could stitch bikinis the exact green we needed, and we kept sending them to Kathmandu for approval.”

It was Anjali Jathar who featured in the ad with the rapids, replacing Lunel after over a decade’s run as the Liril girl. For some, including Padamsee, Lunel still remains the original, and the best of the long line of Liril girls.

Casting the face was always a challenge, Mohan remembers. “We had to call these girls for auditions which, involving showers, etc, people would perhaps find suspicious. We held the auditions in Lintas’ guest house, near Sophia College in Bombay. The word spread in the college and many people showed up, accompanied by their families.”

Every time, the campaign opted for a fresh, cheerful face. Each girl brought a different note to the campaign, while retaining its essential quality. “I left the campaign just as Preity Zinta was brought on board on Shekhar Kapoor’s recommendation. She had been working on “Tara Rum Pum Pum” with him, and had also done a small Cadbury ad. Her look, chirpy, bubbly, was exactly right for Liril,” says Mohan.

Over time, the ad changed looks, introducing seconds’ worth of plots. Preity Zinta played half-hearted, bored tunes on her piano before her Liril moment, Pooja Batra waited in the heat and dust outside a railway crossing and Anisha Dalal dribbled a basketball mid-afternoon. Perhaps what’s interesting is that till we reach 1999 and Hrishita Bhatt, these girls were solo acts, each ad concentrating solely on them and the soap. Then, with Bhatt, the setting changed to an urban one, with billboards and crowds; and for the first time, men appeared— men who looked and liked what they saw. Something had changed, and the Liril girl’s abandon wasn’t just for its own sake. She had an audience. Her act looked almost purposeful now. And this was not all. The next one, in 2000, did away with the natural look of the ad completely. This time, it came with a warning to not try the stunts at home. So far, the whole point had been to try them at home! Now, the Liril girl was a deep sea diver, kicking off her safety gear and frolicking with the soap under water. And watching these ads, put in one place by fan on YouTube, you notice another interesting thing. Somehow, what started with Karen Lunel’s bikini morphs into more conservative clothes, moving from a sombre one piece swimsuit to shorts and t shirts and skirts.

It’s off air now, and thankfully, I don’t really remember the ads which came after, the ones which regressed as they went along, becoming the run-of-the mill ones that talked of sexual desirability and attraction. They were indistinguishable from the hundred similar products on the shelf, unexceptional, and unworthy of a comment. But since it was Liril, the comments came anyway. After all, we had all known what it used to be. (The article is the first in the series on landmark ad campaigns.)

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Printable version | Apr 23, 2021 2:38:30 PM |

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