In-film advertising is a common thing these days – much too common (I sometimes fall asleep in a hall even before a movie begins, in the time it takes for the list of sponsors and media partners to display). But what happens when a brand is so big and so representative of a way of life that its very appearance in a film – however fleeting – can add layers to the narrative? Take the case of Coca-colonization, a term that links the world’s most famous soft drink with American cultural imperialism (and with enterprise, vitality, crassness and all the other supposedly American qualities that infuriate and fascinate people around the world).
Coca-Cola and cinema are roughly the same age (the drink was first bottled in 1894, a year that also saw the first copyrighted American film, Fred Ott’s Sneeze) and they have had many pleasing meetings over the past century. Once in a while, Coke has been central to a film’s plot – Billy Wilder’s One Two Three has an executive trying to get the drink into the Russian market during the Cold War years – but more often it has made humorous cameo appearances, as in Wolfgang Becker’s Goodbye Lenin! where a bed-ridden German woman, unaware of the fall of the Berlin Wall, is startled by an enormous Coca-Cola banner outside her window.
In movies by directors as different as Jean-Luc Godard and Frank Capra, Coke has been used to denounce or celebrate aspects of Americana. Sometimes both things have been done in the same sequence: in I am Cuba (which I wrote about here), a distraught farmer sets fire to his crop when he learns that his land is being sold to capitalists; but simultaneously, in a joyous scene set at a nearby bar, we see his children drinking Coca-Cola and dancing at a jukebox playing rock music.
A lovely early sequence in the 1946 British film A Matter of Life and Death takes place in a black-and-white Heaven where deceased soldiers from battlefields everywhere (rugged Sikhs and excitable Frenchmen among them) are just arriving. When a group of Americans burst in, the background music becomes loud and strident, almost as in a radio commercial. The soldiers survey this strange new place, then point excitedly at something; the camera draws back to reveal a Coke machine, and the Yanks are feeling right at home again.
In a film that is largely about the differences between the English and the Americans (and the need to come together for a common cause during WWII), this good-natured but wary scene suggests the ambivalent attitude of the former Empire to the brash young country that was about to become the next superpower. ("Officer's quarters, of course," says one of the armymen, Coke bottle still in hand, to Heaven's receptionist. "We're all the same up here, Captain," she replies stiffly.)
I confess to not having seen the 1950s Hindi film Miss Coca Cola, but the oldest instance I know of the use of Coke branding in a non-English-language movie is in the Ozu classic Late Spring (made in 1949, which was coincidentally the year Coca-Cola came to India for the first time). It’s just a two-second shot – as the heroine Noriko cycles with a male friend, we see a Coke ad in the foreground – but a notable one in a movie made just a few years after the war, and by a director who was known for calmly observing his society’s gradual shifts toward a more westernised way of life. (Here is a post about another later Ozu film Good Morning, in which television comes to Japan in the 1950s.)
My favourite cinematic Coke moments though are the ones that align comedy to subtle social observation. In the uproarious The Gods Must be Crazy, Kalahari bushmen discover an empty Coca-Cola bottle that introduces them to the concept of personal property; when this ferments feelings of envy and possessiveness, they decide that the ghastly object must be chucked off the edge of the world. But an equally funny – and more caustic – reference to Coke as a symbol of the Capitalist Way came in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove. With the nuclear destruction of the world looming, a British group captain named Mandrake must get a crucial code across to the US president. He needs loose change for the phone booth, so he asks an American colonel, Guano, to destroy a nearby Coca-Cola machine and get a few coins out.
“That’s private property,” Guano bristles, “You’ll have to answer to the Coca-Cola company!”
The words are said with such reverence that there’s no missing the point: even at a time like this, corporate profit gets right of way. And when the Coke machine is eventually shot open, it’s almost like an apocalyptic prefiguring – because not long after this, the film ends with the planet blowing up. What we thought was just a fizzy drink turned out to be a cornerstone of our civilisation.
[If you remember any other notable Coke scenes in movies, please share them here]
Yaadein. Yaadein. Yaadein.ReplyDelete
The blatant, shameless placement of bottles, key chains, cans and what not all through the story was unbelievably shady!
Its probably the worst example of product placement in movie history!
Diptakirti: haven't seen it. Any prominent Coke appearances?ReplyDelete
Jai! You forgot Superman flinging General Zod into the giant Coke billboard in Superman II.ReplyDelete
Are you kidding? Coke is like one of the main cast of the film, other than Pass-Pass.ReplyDelete
During her dying moments, Rati Agnihotri hands over a Coke-bottle-key-chain to her husband, Jackie Shroff. For the rest of the movie, the key-chain is symbolic of the deceased wife and mother.
In another Subhash Ghai monstrosity - Taal, Coke signifies all that is pure and beautiful about love. Sharing a coke is the ultimate symbol of love, friendship and forgiveness.
I remember reading somewhere that in Taal, Ghai had alternatively shot all the Coke scenes with Pepsi, and shown the footage to both companies. The coke footage was retained because they came up with the higher bid.
The 1985 Australian film "The Coca-Cola Kid" has my favorite coke-related storyline and scenes. The hot shot Coke executive travels to a corner of Australia to take over the local soft drink company. Haven't seen it for ages, but this has inspired me to track it down.ReplyDelete
Abhimanyu - *hangs head in shame* In fairness though, I haven't seen that film for many years.ReplyDelete
Dustdevil Liz: I knew about The Coca-Cola Kid (was a Greta Scacchi fan back in the day), but I haven't seen it.
Deepti: wow, that sounds highly traumatising. Love that Ghai Coke-Pepsi story though. And if you remember his hitch-hiking cameo appearance in the "Ding Dong" song in Hero, he had his "thumbs up". So many cola associations around the man!ReplyDelete
In so many Hindi movies, Nirupa Roy and others have said "Tumne mere Coke se janam diya hai." Need to catalogue all those references too.ReplyDelete
Forget about Subhash Ghai and Coca Cola. The worst pimp and shameless corporate peddler in Indian cinema is Priyadarshan.ReplyDelete
I remember five minutes of the hairy monster Anil Kapoor and Cinthol soap. I have no idea why the hairy monster needed to take a shower at that point in the story.
We all know Subhash Ghai is a crude, despotic POS. But Priyadarshan is Subhash Ghai multiplied by Kanti Shah.
My memory fails me when I need it! There was a Rajesh Khanna film in which he was a stuntman, and the in the opening scene of the film, he jumps off a galloping horse, and emerges unhurt, and comments something like "Yeh Thumsup ka kamaal hai"ReplyDelete
"Priyadarshan is Subhash Ghai multiplied by Kanti Shah."ReplyDelete
Isn't that a bit harsh? Anyway, loved the comment so much, I've tweeted it. Also shared the blog, of course.
Sorry for spamming the comment space, but there's one more I remembered:ReplyDelete
In Kahani Kismat Ki, at a critical moment near the climax, Dharmendra risks his life to retrieve a video tape that is supposed to hold some important evidence to prove his innocence. At a tense moment when the tape gets projected on a screen, everyone is baffled to find, not a crime video, but a coca cola commercial!
Anonymous: I feel your pain. I also feel for that bar of Cinthol soap. Pity Anil Kapoor wasn't around when the original Jaani Dushman was made - the werewolf costume/makeup would have been unnecessary.ReplyDelete
There was a Rajesh Khanna film in which he was a stuntman...
Rantings: you could have ended the sentence there and it would already be one of the greatest sentences in Bollywood history.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JpZb8Dnbwlk have you guys seen this legendary performance by KhannaReplyDelete
Not a movie sequence but a talk about soft and hard exports and Coca cola by Ashis Nandy http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VJapHrADHFkReplyDelete
kabul express had a scene with a coke/pepsi truck with some commentary on american motives..ReplyDelete
The first movie that came to my mind was Taal. Coke was all over the place in Taal!! That was one of my first introductions to product placement in movies.ReplyDelete
I have a faint memory of Kishore Kumar and Madhubala sipping on 'Coco Cola' in Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi. The Indian pronunciation (for lack of better word) of Coca Cola has always interested me, I think no one uses it anymore though. I have heard that in older movies or heard from older folks.ReplyDelete
A charming post. We now need a similar one on books. One recent book with a coke reference is, of course, Open City, where those coke related passages are among my favorite ones in the book.ReplyDelete
"Three Kings" - Vaguely remember something with Coke or Pepsi..ReplyDelete
Love your title Jai.ReplyDelete
nice post..liked the idea.ReplyDelete
In one of the songs in 'An Evening in Paris' (this one: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XShduZ5rFtw) , Sharmila Tagore offhandedly picks a bottle of Coca Cola out a vending machine. It's probably intended to show off the vending machine thingy more than the coke, but still...ReplyDelete
In Shree 420, when Raj arrives in Bombay, there is a Coca-Cola sign on a gateway or the side of a flyover kind of bridge. I think he passes under it.ReplyDelete