White teeth

– Service with a smile

The appointment of Prasoon Joshi, lyricist and advertising genius, as the chairman of the Central Board of Film Certification, put me in mind of a wonderful commercial he had a hand in making a decade ago. It was a commercial designed to sell chewing gum but it was so surreally subversive that every time I went to the cinema in 2007 it seemed more compelling than the main feature. (You can watch it here: )

It’s dusk. A man cycles over a bridge in a princely estate. Thin men in turbans and dhotis, palace servants, race to their stations. Cut to the palace grounds. A tennis match is in progress. The rani dives into the swimming pool. The maharaja rises for dinner.


You notice with a start that a row of starveling men are balanced atop lamp posts along the drive. Human heads and torsos flank the palace car’s radiator grille instead of headlights. On the estate’s grounds and buildings, thin, diligent bodies cling to light brackets and chandeliers.

As the maharaja sits down to dinner, a man climbs into the chandelier overhead, pops some gum and bares his teeth. Around him a floret of heads mimics his grin, thin brown faces shine down hundred-watt smiles. The motif repeats itself. Racquets swing and the tennis game is lit up by the grins of crouching men perched courtside, the maharani laps the pool and patient boys waiting underwater illumine the deep end with submarine smiles.

It’s a tour de force. I didn’t know then who had produced it and at the first time of watching I wondered how the agency had got it past the client since it was so obviously a savage send-up of the way the rich ravaged the bodies of the working poor. Except that I know now that it was made by a responsible professional. No irony was intended; we are meant to read it benignly as a commercial for teeth-whitening gum. But if we concentrate a little, and use our imaginations, we can discern in it a text for our times.

The commercial shows us a raja and his praja in perfect accord. Despite the fact that the royal family is upholstered and rich and their subjects are thin, ragged and poor, the latter, as pedants like to say, smile their hearts out for the former. If we were to reimagine those thin, willingly smiling men in the commercial as the subcontinent’s minorities and the king they serve as the subcontinent’s sovereign nations, it’s apparent what the proper relationship between certain classes of citizen and the State ought to be.

The good minority citizen is the grateful subject who lives to serve. It is through unstinting smiling service that the minority citizen transcends his peripheral position in the body politic, his inherent marginality, and achieves something approaching citizenship. The opportunity to serve is his salvation and his visible gratitude for that opportunity is the grease that keeps the republic’s joints oiled and moving smoothly. Unsmiling minorities, it follows, are grit in the machine, a sign that the benevolence of the State is unreciprocated, that the political contract between the republic and its minorities is being dishonoured.

In the same way as I had misread the commercial the first time I saw it, liberals have misunderstood the prime minister’s farewell tribute to the outgoing vice-president. Narendra Modi had in the course of his speech suggested that Hamid Ansari had made a career out of working as a Muslim amongst Muslims. He had been a diplomat in Muslim countries, a vice-chancellor of the Aligarh Muslim University, and the chairperson of the National Commission for Minorities.

Then Ansari was given the opportunity to serve in a constitutional position as the vice-president of India and the chairman of the Rajya Sabha. Modi implied that Ansari might have felt restless in this broader circumstance so different from the parochial preoccupations of his working life. Now that he was free of this office, said Modi, he was free to revert to being Muslim, he could enjoy the freedom to think and speak and act as a Muslim, unconstrained by duty.

I paraphrase, of course; the prime minister, mindful of the proprieties of office, never used the word Muslim. Liberals were outraged because they made the same mistake I had made when I first saw the commercial: they read Modi’s speech as I had read the commercial, as satire. It’s undeniable that the prime minister was upset with the vice-president because Ansari had been interviewed on Rajya Sabha TV the night before, criticizing the erosion of the republic’s values and speaking of the insecurity of its Muslim and minority citizens. But to infer from this that the prime minister of India was sarcastically trolling its vice-president on this solemn valedictory occasion was unwarranted. No prime minister would do that. It wasn’t vyang that moved Modi, but afsos.

The prime minister spoke in sorrow, not in anger. It must have saddened him that Ansari had been unable to transcend his Muslimness despite the opportunity of high constitutional office. On his penultimate day in office he had chosen to harp on the plight of minorities instead of celebrating the magnanimity of a republic that gave the likes of him a decade in its second-highest office.

Priti Gandhi, of the BJP Mahila Morcha tweeted: “For 10yrs my Hindu majority nation accepted you with open arms, placed you at the pinnacle of power & you still feel uneasy?” It was this feeling that Modi channelled. Instead of abasing himself in the cause of the nation that the sangh believes had graciously fostered him and his kind, Ansari had had the gall to take India and its citizenship for granted. A mere 70 years after 1947, Ansari behaved as if Partition had never happened, as if Muslims could be equal stakeholders in India without going that extra yard to prove their patriotism, by suffering in silence, if indeed they were suffering. There are many grave connoisseurs of India’s communal temperature who don’t think that a rash of lynchings adds up to a fever.

Towards the end of the commercial, there is a long shot of a festive procession led by an elephant and revelry in a large hall lit by rows upon rows of upside-down men dangling from the ceiling like grinning bats. This closing tableau now reads like an exhortation to Muslims and other minorities in south Asia: