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Backstory: When two models and a python to boot outraged the moral police

Backstory: When two models and a python to boot outraged the moral police

Backstory: When two models and a python to boot outraged the moral police
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By Sundeep Khanna  Mar 14, 2022 3:56:35 PM IST (Updated)

The black & white ad was the brainchild of Elsie Nanji, the founder of Ambience Advertising, and the nude photoshoot was done at her home in Kashid by legendary photographer, the late Prabuddha Dasgupta.

Few ads in India have caused as much shock and awe, primarily among the moral police and the regulators, as the one for Tuffs shoes in 1995 featuring models Milind Soman and Madhu Sapre, with some help from a python. Wearing nothing more than a pair of Tuffs shoes, the two, perfectly sculpted models who had both been champion athletes, looked happy holding each other while silently messaging the virtues of the product.

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Sapre, who had recently been crowned Mss India, had finished second runners up at the 1992 Miss Universe pageant in Bangkok. Soman was by then a rising star on Indian screens, featuring that same year in the popular music video, Made in India, by Alisha Chinai.
The client was Tuffs Shoes, a part of Phoenix International, which was exporting shoes in large numbers to the Russian market. At home however, Tufts was a relatively unknown brand, trying to gain some share in a market dominated by Indian companies like Action Shoes and multinationals like Reebok.
The black & white ad was the brainchild of Elsie Nanji, the founder of Ambience Advertising, and the nude photoshoot was done at her home in Kashid by legendary photographer, the late Prabuddha Dasgupta. While the python ad garnered all the hype, it was only one of a 6-part series that was launched.
Predictably when the ad hit the periodicals there were howls of protest particularly from the Shiv Sena in Mumbai. On a complaint filed by the Mumbai Grahak Panchayat and the Swayamsevi Grahak Sangathana, the ad was banned and the two models were charged with violating the Indecent Representation of Women Act, 1986, and subsequently under Section 292(A) of the Indian Penal Code.
A case was also filed against the ad agency under the Wildlife Protection Act for the illegal use of a python and for cruelty to animals. The ad agency’s managing director Ashok Kurien was arrested and had to fight the case for years. The publishers and distributors of two magazines that featured the ads were also named in the charge sheet.
After 14 years of a legal battle, finally in 2009 the case was dismissed and both Soman and Sapre along with six others were acquitted. The presiding judge MJ Mirza in his judgment observed, “What may be obscene for a group of society may not be obscene for another group.”
The ad won some awards and initially it did boost sales of Tuffs Shoes though eventually the brand failed to take off in an Indian market where large MNCs and Indian companies were competing aggressively for the youth market. Sapre subsequently migrated to Italy while Soman went on to become a well-known actor, and fitness enthusiast.
—Sundeep Khanna is a former editor and the co-author of the recently released Azim Premji: The Man Beyond the Billions. Views are personal.
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