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The icon who had held her stead for an astonishing 30 years is the Liril
girl. Shrinking attention spans and shifting trends notwithstanding, she
continues to epitomize exuberant freshness. The ubiquitous waterfall
has morphed into a glacier. The signature tune Laa la la la laa has
been tweaked to Uff yu maa. Why, its not even the customary lime-
green anymore. Variants like Icy Cool and Orange Fresh have brought
in new hues. But the effervescence of the Liril girls – from Karen Lunell
to the current nymph, Dipika Padukone – is comfortingly familiar.

It was in 1975 that Hindustan Lever Limited added a twist of lime to

soapsuds, and created Liril, the first ever “lime freshness soap”.
Research, meanwhile, had thrown up a startling insight that the only
time the Indian housewife got to herself was when she closed her
bathroom door. That’s when she daydreamed about escaping a
humdrum life.

“The creative rendition of that insight was a girl bathing in a

waterfall” , says Alyque Padamsee, ad pundit and creator of the Liril
girl phenomenon. But then came the tricky part – getting the right
waterfall and the right girl! “Some couldn’t keep their eyes open under
the waterfall. Others didn’t exude the right energy. Yet others had
qualms about donning a bikini.” Then entered Karen Lunell. With
permission from her employers, Air India, the crew flew to Kodaikanal.
That’s where they had found a waterfall, which was perfect in every

When the ad was released, the audience was bowled over. The blithe
water sprite, the dancing waterfall, the catchy refrain – everything was
new and thrilling. The Liril girl became the metaphor for freshness and
at a deeper level, for freedom from the mundane. It struck a winning
chord with the Indian woman and Liril zoomed to the top of the
premium soap segment.
Karen’s romp in icy waterfalls continued for close to 10 years. Says
Kailash, “With each film, we experimented with new techniques like
flash cuts and slow motion. But we never took her away from the
Anjali Jathar was still in college when she was signed on for Liril. She
was thrilled, but nothing prepared her for the ‘waterfall’ ordeal. She
enjoyed every moment of the filming, including the time in Nepal when
she almost drowned. “My raft had capsized and one of the overzealous
Nepalese assistants in an attempt to rescue me, ended up pulling me
into the rapid. He probably didn’t know I was an excellent swimmer. In
the end, I had to kick him and swim to safety”, she laughs.
An unrivalled market leader in the 1970s and 1980s, Liril was facing a
testing time in the 1990s. The woes began with a stagnant market and
aggressive competition from a slew of me-too brands. Besides, the girl-
in-waterfall had become predictable. To infuse variety, Liril introduced
a shower gel, Liril Active Gel.
Out went the waterfall and in came a car wash, and a new Liril girl –
Pooja Batra. The film had the leggy Miss India pull into a deserted car
wash, looking worse for wear. Then, the Liril Gel gives her an idea and
she jumps and dances in the burst of water, ending up as fresh as a
While this was a marked departure from the previous Liril imagery as
well as the jingle, it wasn’t curtains for the waterfall yet.
The waterfall gushed once more in the next film and under it danced
the dimple, exuberant Preity Zinta. Preity had shot to fame as the
impish collegian in the Perk film. With Liril, she got a chance to display
her bubbly charm as well. It was a rockstar in the jungle theme. So she
drummed on plants, blew on reeds, swung on vines and generally let
her hair down.

Unlike the previous Liril girls, however, Preity didn’t turn blue in the icy
waterfall. The film was shot on a set where a waterfall was created
complete with exotic jungle plants and acrylic stones, because she
couldn’t swim!

In 1999, Liril turned blue for the first time with Liril Rainfresh, a blue
variant of Liril Lime. The film with Hrishita Bhatt dancing in the rain set
several precedents. The waterfall was done away with, the Liril girl was
brought to the city and there was a supporting cast as well.

In mid-2001, the Liril girl was spotted on the sands of Rajasthan,

taunting a bevy of matki-bearing women to throw water on her. This
was a fairly radical departure from the blithe, playful Liril girls of yore.
Says R Balki, Executive Creative Director, Lowe Advertising. “The
brand is all about freshness. So how could we use the same metaphors
and the same imagery year after year? We wanted to show a little
aggression, a little teasing.” Tara Sharma, fresh from the London
School of Economics, fit the role of the contemporary Liril girl. Despite
the scorching sand and suffocating heat, Tara went through the routine
cheerfully. That was until she heard the location for the next Liril shoot
– the glaciers in Iceland! Tara laughs, “ I didn’t have to act at all.
Shooting at minus 4 degrees, the shiver was totally natural”.

After this, Liril launched a new orange variant – Liril Orange Fresh with
the zesty fragrance of orange. It also marked the debut of the new Liril
girl – Dipika Padukone.

Spotted on a Limca hoarding in Chennai, 18-year-old Dipika exuded the

joie de vivre that the agency Lowe was looking for. In the film Dipika
capers in the desert with a bunch of village kids. As she leaps and
splashes, you’re suddenly struck by the absence of a water source.
And then dawns realization, that the Liril girl is the source of water!

“What we wanted to convey is that the Liril girl is so fresh, that she is
source of freshness, which she spread to all around” , explains Balki.

The latest advertisement of Liril (La-ira-ila) has taken the audience by

storm as its bilt appeal to the masses and the freshness coruscated by
the models leave an indelible impact on them.

Thirty years is a long time for any brand icon. So is the mystique of the
Liril girl waning? There are two schools of thought. One led by her
creator, Alyque Padamsee who emphatically states, “ Bring back the
waterfall and Karen.” And the contemporary view that sees the Liril girl
evolving with time. But one fact is inescapable. The Liril girl is one of
the most enchanting and enduring fantasies spun by Indian
advertising. It will be a long while before her charisma fades.

First launched in 1959 by Hindustan Lever Limited (HLL), Surf quickly

became synonymous with detergent powders and remained at the top
as the largest-selling detergent powder in the country until Nirma
came. The late 1970s found HLL reeling under the stiff onslaught of
Karsanbhai Patel’s low-priced Nirma. To respond to Nirma, Lintas’
legendary Alyque Padamsee came up with a memorable advertising
campaign for Surf, featuring a middle-class housewife played by Kavita
Chaudhari. Overnight, people on the street could identify Lalitaji, the
practical, sensible, challenging, no-nonsense housewife who lectures
us on he difference between ‘sasti cheez aur asli cheez’ (cheap thing
and the real thing). She was everybody’s mother, wife, daughter-in-law
or neighbour. More importantly, the Indian middle-class housewife,
HLL’s main customer segment, wanted to actually be the strong willed,
level-headed character that Lalitaji portrayed.

Soon, in an ironic twist, the character that became a celebrity because

of brand advertising became larger than the brand itself. By the late
1980s, Nirma had got itself a similar Deepikaji who battered a wily
grocer and stressed if the same quality could be had for a lesser price,
“Koi yeh kyon le, woh na le?” (why would one buy this, and not that?).
The detergent wars were just beginning with Proctor and Gamble
opening a new front with Ariel in the premium segment. All of a
sudden, the rules of the game changed. There was an entirely new
segment with customers who were ready to pay the price for better
“In a sense, the character created for Surf, Lalitaji also explored the
serial idea. Every one loves characters and continuing story lines”,
says Alyque Padamsee.
HLL launched Surf Ultra with Lalitaji’s household, an urban nuclear
family where she was put in the modern role of a quintessential
housewife who was looked upon by everyone around her as a guardian
angel, a problem solver who smartly reassured them “Daag!
Dhoondhte Rehjaoge!” (Stains! Keep searching for them!).
Unfortunately, with the social structure of India changing, the middle
class housewife was no longer the same Lalitaji and Surf Ultra flopped
with Proctor and Gamble capturing a major part of the market share.
‘Lalitaji type’ had become a euphemism for the irritating, aggressive
know-it-all shopper with whom many could still identify, but probably
not as favorably as they did in the 1980s.
In the mid-1990s, HLL was back with Surf Excel. More importantly,
instead of Lalitaji, the protagonist was now a working woman – a
lawyer, a journalist, a businesswoman – facing the challenges of
everyday life. What was retained was her spotless white garb. When it
suffered those inevitable stains, she was calmly assured by those who
looked at her shopping bag – Surf Excel hai na! (Surf Excel is there!)
Lalitaji was gone but the brand clicked with the segment yet again!
Yet another Surf Excel campaign reflected the changing role of the
Indian woman. It showed a yuppie couple entertaining a group of
friends when the husband stains his sleeve. Not wanting to disturb his
significant other, he reads the instructions on the detergent pack and
takes care of the stain himself. She walks in and says knowingly,
“Daag gaya Na ! (Stains did go!).
So, are the days of Lalitaji finally over?

“We are migrating Surf to Surf Excel, as Surf has become generic and
many people today refer to any detergent as Surf. Besides, we feel
that this brand has the chance of attracting new users under the Excel
name,” says Sanjay Dube, Head, Market and Consumer Development,
Hindustan Lever Limited.

The jury’s still out, but HLL must hope that all those consumers who
swear by Lalitaji will soon be chanting, “Surf Excel hai na !”.

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