Om Shiva

Today we discuss this video. It’s a commercial by Cinemax:

Now, what was your first response? It’s certainly a lovely ad, and the music is transcendant. But it is classical Hindu religious music, and its words are sacred Vedic text. My friend Shreya alerted me to the controversy surrounding this marketing piece, and I’m of the opinion that some canny, Westernized South Asians were behind it.

The question remains, is it offensive? Personally, I’m removed enough from religion that it doesn’t bother me. In fact, I rather enjoyed the imagery of my favourite superheroes (whom I’ve always considered a mythological pantheon of gods) splayed to the music of one of the world’s oldest religions. But I see how it could bother others, especially since the audience is not savvy to the nuances of Hinduism.

If, for example, the ad were deemed socially acceptable in India, where knowledge of Hinduism is deepest, then it would be fine elsewhere. But I really doubt it would get any sort of penetration in India without some serious rioting.

The fact remains that the West really knows very little about Hinduism and other specific aspects of South Asian culture. Pretty much all we get here is yoga, Deepak Chopra and whatever Madonna cares to filter for us. Thus, every image, every iota of South Asian culture broadcast to the mainstream must be considered an ambassador of the whole. Every visible minority member who’s ever been called upon to represent his entire race or culture, however unwillingly, knows what I’m talking about.

Thus, to see one of the sweetest aspects of Hinduism –its devotional music– co-opted by a marketer, with all the soul, wisdom and beauty of its content stripped away and replaced with Cinemax iconography, is understandably troubling to many. To many Hindu sensibilities, this would be the same as using Christian gospels as the soundtrack to hardcore porn. Sound extreme? Consider that the ad ended with the holy word, “Om”, as Borat flashed his semi-naked ass. The disrespect is palpable.

Now, like I said, the ad doesn’t bother me personally much. In fact, I quite enjoy it. But I’m not the norm, I’m not the sea of the conservative South Asian middle class, soon to be one of the greatest markets in the world. Cinemax not only made an ethical slip up by producing this video, they also may have committed a dire strategic error.

But I will end with another video, officially 30 years old this week, and considered the Finest Moment in TV History by many: