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Charminar — the ‘rugged’ cigarettes that promoted toxic masculinity

The brand endorsed an idea of masculinity that involved men inviting you to hold that cigarette as an extension of your hand because that’s what would ‘satisfy’ you.

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New Delhi: There was a time when cigarette packs didn’t carry grotesque pictures that screamed the word ‘cancer’. In fact, in the 1970s, a popular cigarette brand featured Hyderabad’s famous monument, Charminar, on its pack. These attractively packaged cigarettes came to be known as Charminar cigarettes, so much so that every fourth cigarette smoked in India was a Charminar.

Established on 10 November 1930 in Hyderabad, VST Industries Limited was chartered to operate “within the dominions of Nizam of Hyderabad.” A few years into the business, most of VST Industries’ equity was bought over by British American Tobacco, which left the founders with five per cent of the equity.

However, in the early 1970s, the Government of India directed all companies under the Foreign Exchange Regulation Act to reduce foreign shareholding to less than 40 per cent. Charminar was the first brand to become the face of the company and was being sold to the Nizam’s dominions. Tales from World War II suggest that soldiers who camped in Hyderabad loved smoking Charminar cigarettes, so much so that it soon became a national brand, making it to the list of the top 10 selling brands of the world in terms of volume.

But, perhaps thanks to greater awareness about the dangers of cigarette smoking, two decades later, in 1998-99, the company incurred huge financial losses, and Charminar was slowly discontinued in the market. 

The ‘Charminar’ factor

Some credit for the popularity of Charminar lies in its advertising. At a time when cigarette advertisements did not have to issue a health advisory on their packs, advertisements for Charminar cigarettes had an emotive appeal, with popular actors like Jackie Shroff asking you to “Relax, Have a Charminar!”, or another that suggested that one shouldn’t settle for less because, “It takes a Charminar to satisfy a man like you.”

Another Charminar filter ad from the 1970s portrays a young unmarried couple riding a motorcycle. The tagline speaks for the man (of course):

‘Give me a bike
Give me a highway
Give me my girl
And give me the taste of toasted tobacco’ 

Deepak Mankar was part of the brainstorming process of Charminar’s star campaign tagline, ‘Relax, Have a Charminar!’ He remembers feeling reluctant to engage in this creative endeavour. 

“Though a smoker myself, I didn’t want to lure others into it,” he tells ThePrint. When asked about how the tagline came about, Mankar recalls, “I was tense about something on one of those occasions. ‘Hey Deepak,’ quipped Errol Sequeira (a Charminar smoker and the writer designated for the creative assignment). ‘Relax. Have a Charminar.’ Something clicked in my mind. I immediately said: ‘I think there’s your headline, right there’.” 

The idea of using Hyderabad’s famous monument as the face of its brand seemed to do the trick, as the familiarity made the brand a household name. The use of “Indian monuments, architectural elements and photography in the Indian advertising” can be traced from the times of British Raj in Indian subcontinent.

Academic studies infer that advertisements are the “main source of correction between the material culture and human culture”. Advertisements aim to bring out a ‘visual culture’ that traces a connection between “humans and the culture they want to build”.

The print advertisements of Charminar made use of the illustration of the monument, which helped link VST Industries to India’s aristocratic history. In fact, the seventh Nizam of Hyderabad, Mir Osman Ali Khan smoked Charminar cigarettes in order to promote the local industry where they were specially rolled in roasted tobacco.

Also read: Target — the kids’ magazine of the ’80s that has spawned fan groups in the new millennium

Toxic smoke, toxic masculinity

The selling point of Charminar cigarettes was the ‘ruggedness’ that came with it. Looking back, it becomes apparent that these ads promoted a certain kind of masculinity, one that involved burly men inviting you to hold that cigarette as an extension of your hand because that’s what would ‘satisfy’ you. In those days, very much like the car you drove, the kind of cigarette you smoked became a symbol of status and identity. 

Siraj Attari, who modelled for VST’s cigarette brands, says, “I realise how important it is to have a good ad to make any cigarette popular. A Marlboro is associated with a cowboy; Four Square with sailing; India Kings with the high life; Charminar with ruggedness and Charms with the spirit of freedom.”

As suggested by Attari, the Charminar cigarette was the ‘stronger’ one of the lot, conveniently entertaining gender norms attached to the idea of ‘strong’ and ‘rugged’. 


In one of the brand’s ads, two men find themselves competing for that lone pack of Charminar. The competition takes them on a wild horse ride up and down the mountains. After an exhilarating race, one man wins the pack, but here’s where the twist comes in: the lady love of the man who loses is sad over her man’s loss. She nods at the winner and there comes a moment of cosmic comprehension, where the winner hands his victory over to the other man. The victory music plays on, celebrating the ‘bigger man’.

The advertising industry, particularly one selling tobacco products or other male-targeted products have very often toyed with the idea of the ‘better man’ or the ‘bigger man’. Smoking is not seen for itself as an act, rather an event. But what it also does is carry with it some preconceived notions. Owing to how these products are marketed, these ads end up promoting notions of what a ‘man’ needs, desires, deserves or should be — which means that men face the burden of living up to these toxic expectations, while women are, of course, treated as mere accessories.

Research shows that “constraining aspects of male gender norms negatively influences both women’s and men’s health”. These ads are skillfully able to influence people into smoking even when the health hazards that come with it are known to all. 

Another study found that “teenage boys who perceive themselves as the most masculine may be more likely to behave in ways that increase their risk of cancer and other health issues”. This is in comparison to those teenagers who don’t strictly abide by these gendered standards as marketed by industries.

Additionally, statistics suggest that adolescent boys who “stick to popular norms of masculinity” were 80 per cent more likely to chew tobacco and 55 per cent more likely to smoke cigars, even though, as Andrea Roberts, a research associate at the Harvard School of Public Health, says, “There is nothing inherently masculine about putting a bunch of plant in your mouth and chewing it, or lighting the plant on fire and smoking it.” 

But all is not doomed. The advertising industry has come a long way from the Marlboro Man. Today, Gillette is seen taking a stand with an advertisement that called out men to not indulge in the ‘same old excuses’. It asked the viewers to explore the best a man can be, as opposed to its quintessential tagline ‘The best a man can get’. In terms of industries advertising smoking, toxic masculinity (pun intended) is no longer the only way to go. 

Also read: Mungerilal Ke Haseen Sapne: India’s Walter Mitty and a popular political tool


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  1. I would like to see a headline ‘toxic femininity.’ I have seen uniformed school girl smoking on the street. I have seen a lady smoking every 10 minutes. Now i want to see Priyanka Chopra in cigarette ads.

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