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The politics of Photoshop
Sidin Sunny Vadukut

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December 11, 2007

Mumbai is quite the melting pot of cultures. Well, it's more of a vast, seething morass of peoples who sometimes, without warning, lean out of a BEST bus and regurgitate well-chewed paan (betel leaf) all over your windshield.

Paan badly stains paint goddamit!

But let me not let personal sentiment cloud this column which is supposed to highlight the cultural diversity of this city and how the various political parties attempt to appease the varied multitudes using only a desktop computer and nifty image processing software.

Mumbai has more hoardings per square foot than any other city I have seen in the world. (I have been to four countries you know.) Traditionally, and I am going by instinct here, good hoardings are all about location. Find a place where the ideal consumer gathers in large numbers with enough time to consume your hoarding and you have an ideal spot to erect your publicity signage.

The average person tends to spend vast amounts of time in Mumbai doing nothing. Mostly because you're waiting for something to happen -- your train to start, the signal to turn green, the cop to wave you ahead, the guy at the ATM to finish his withdrawal, the cheque for the column to come.

And these inordinate amounts of waiting tend to make the entire city a healthy breeding ground for thousands upon thousands of hoardings. Most traffic signals abound with them. Yes, there is the occasionally amusing one, of course. The always inventive and amusing Amul hoarding is one that is anticipated eagerly on a weekly basis. Yet, for each one of those, there are a thousand banal ones for television serials.

The TV serials ones sprout up like mushrooms suddenly, when a show is scheduled by some channel, and then bizarrely use the English alphabet to blare out Hindi taglines.

"Ek TV serial, jaisa aap ne kabhi na dekha ho! Kyunki isme Ronit Roy nahi hai!" (A TV serial like no other! One that doesn't star Ronit Roy!)

But of late I have begun to notice a new class of hoardings that brings together the best of political opportunism and the many benefits of information technology.

Like I said, Mumbai is quite the mixed vegetable curry of cultures. Therefore, appeasing and addressing the various cultural and sub-cultural constituents of the city is essential for any political party. Or at least for those that intend to play a role in political proceedings. (The Freelancers Party for Free Liquor is prepared to wait for a people's mandate.)

Now, there are two broad ways to go about warming the cockles, if you will, of the many different societal segments of Mumbai. You could actually do something to uplift these folks by building them better roads, better homes and do the sort of thing that our politicians are currently learning how to do by going on international study tours to countries in Scandinavia.

Or you could make it LOOK like you care deeply about them.

And the latest tool in this PR sleight of hand is the Photoshop-ed hoarding.

Adobe Photoshop is a popular piece of software that is used in image manipulation. The exact function of the software is pretty self-evident from the name of the software itself. 'Photo' stands for photograph and 'Shop' stands for the fact that you can do a lot of shopping with the money you save from buying pirate copies of the software from vendors in South Mumbai.

Practitioners use Photoshop to touch-up and make minor edits to photographs or other images you scan and upload. It is extremely versatile and this is particularly evident on matrimonial sites. With just a few clicks a person who otherwise would describe his complexion as 'silhouette' becomes a much more popularly pleasing 'wheatish'.

Yet the most innovative use of Photoshop I have seen in a while is the way the politicians of Mumbai use it to reach out to the sections of society that they have lost touch with over the prevailing years. That portion of the populace I like to call the voting public.

When some form of election is around the corner, the politician sits up and takes notice. Suddenly he remembers that it's been a long time, approximately a term in office, since he was in touch with the voting masses. And then, after spending a few jealous moments contemplating upon President Musharraf and his productive, democratic ways, the politician decides he needs to connect with the people.

He immediately calls for a festivals calendar and an accomplished Photoshop operator.

And then suddenly the creative political hoardings begin to make their appearance.

Each politician in Mumbai has a photo taken of themselves that they have quite the fancy for. It is probably the one in which they look the youngest and most handsome -- when the smile is at its best and the body language is most imperial. A high-resolution of this photo is handed over to the operator.

The operator then sets out to make hoardings.

Just around a Muslim festival the hoardings come out all over Bandra and the Byculla side with each politico wearing an ethnically suitable fur cap. As is the norm, each hoarding will showcase one important individual in large profile and the rest scattered all over the rest of the hoarding. However the fur cap on each one of them is identically placed, slightly tilted to one side.

Come Gandhi Jayanti and the fur caps are replaced with a neat array of crisp white Gandhi caps Photoshop-ed onto the exact same collection of heads. The operator does not apply even a smite of imagination. The most he will do is resize them to fit the heads. And even that is sometimes missed. Leaving some of the local 'samaj sevaks' looking like they bought the cap before shrinking in an intense sauna. Recently, black tilaks were the norm in a show of unity with the pilgrims who thronged the city for Ambedkar Jayanti.

And the poses! Sonia Gandhi [Images] is always seen leaning forward and waving. Sharad Pawar [Images] is normally grinning widely with his chin tucked into his chest. Balasaheb is pausing, pensively, mid-sentence. Raj Thakeray is always pointing expansively towards the left with his back to you.

But whatever their poses, the Photoshop-ing cannot be missed. Sometimes, in a bizarre show of political unity, you sense that the fur cap is the same across party lines and head sizes. Identical to the vertical crease in front. The same Photoshop guy?

Of course, it's all weird political gesturing. Most people can make out the cold, insincerity of it all. They can easily see beyond the thin veil of make-believe and see them politicians for who they are: vile demigods eager to tap into our own social insecurities and win our valuable votes.

To use a popular Malayali metaphor: that dal is not going to cook in our oven sir! We are not going to fall for this ridiculous opportunism. We will make up our minds on our own!

Well, I think so. I hope so.

Earlier columns:

More adventures of the Vadukuts, mister and missus, can be found at Domain Maximus.

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