Boroline at 90: An evergreen saga

Chandrima Pal | Updated on November 22, 2019

Tube effect: For Bengalis, the shurobhito (fragrant) antiseptic cream” — as the jingle goes — is as much a part of life as, say, the monkey cap   -  Boroline

The Swadeshi movement, a Bengali businessman and a hand-held cream churner: That’s the story of “shurobhito antiseptic cream” Boroline, now 90

The queries — and the feedback — often surprised and occasionally amused the bosses. Someone had lost the little black cap of Boroline and wanted a replacement. Another woman wanted to carry a dozen tubes to the US as a gift and asked for a dealer discount. An artist in Scotland wrote to express his gratitude: The cream had helped him deal with paint-induced skin rashes.

Even until a few years ago, Debashis Dutta, the managing director of GD Pharmaceuticals Pvt Ltd, the Kolkata company that makes the antiseptic cream, replied to every mail it received. “But it is not possible any more,” he says. There is too much mail coming in, and way too many emotional anecdotes about the cream for him to respond to each personally.

Boroline turned 90 this year; social media, with a plethora of stories and memories, tipped its hat to the cream that — its proponents hold — battles everything from dry and itchy skin to pimples and rash.

“How this product continues to have such an emotional chord with our customers even today — everywhere in the world — is incredible,” says Dutta, the grandson of the company’s founder, Gour Mohun Dutta, who launched the cream in 1929.

For Bengalis, the “shurobhito (fragrant) antiseptic cream” — as the decades-old jingle goes — is as much a part of life as, say, the monkey cap. This fondness for the cream often sparks some self-deprecating humour too. Three years ago, singer-vlogger Sawan Dutta kicked up quite a comic storm with her video An ode to Boroline. “It’s good for my skeen,” she sang with an exaggerated Bengali accent, “and for my keeth and my keen.”

The singer, who too grew up with the green tube always at home, says: “Some friends had been making fun of Bongs for using Boroline to solve every problem in their life, so I thought let’s see if I can make a song around that.” And while she was taken aback by the overwhelming response to the vlog, she insists that the cream is “irreplaceable, unique, does multiple jobs and is inexpensive”.

Debashis Dutta will tell you that the customer’s attachment to this “curious all-purpose miracle cure” is so strong that the company has not changed the formulation since its launch. The company has also not felt the need to invest in a social media or customer support team, as loyalists do an excellent job of it, he says.

Dutta was not even aware that Boroline had arrived at its 90th-year milestone until some people tweeted about it. “We keep saying 1929 is the year the product and the brand name was formally registered but my mother used to say that my grandparents started making this cream even earlier.”

The story goes like this. Gour Mohun Dutta, a successful entrepreneur in Kolkata, had made a neat fortune by importing cosmetics made in England. In 1905, with the partition of Bengal, a Swadeshi wave engulfed the region. The senior Dutta decided to create an alternative to the expensive and imported creams that were popular then. He began by fashioning a hand-held churner with a capacity of 25 kg, and putting together easily available ingredients such as boric acid, zinc oxide and lanolin.

His wife, Kamala Bala, and children would stay up late into the night, churning the cream and filling it into the small tin pots he carried the next morning to his shop in the business district of Burrabazar. Boroline — a portmanteau word combining boric acid and lanolin — was an instant hit.

“Publicity was by word of mouth,” Debashis Dutta says. But his grandfather also had a head for marketing. Whenever he went on pilgrimages he carried tin plates with the brand name and logo, and nailed them on roadside trees. The other blitz was on the day of independence in 1947. The company put out an ad in all newspapers, asking people to exchange a cutting of the ad for a free sample of the cream. One lakh samples were distributed in Calcutta that day.

There are many such stories that tumble out of the enduring green tube. For instance, when Gour Mohun’s son, Murari Mohun, suddenly died at the age of 56, his wife, Bela, took charge of the company. “Between 1986 and 1991, we went through the toughest time of our life,” Dutta recalls. “We were making huge losses... But she managed to steer us steady and we survived.” It was no mean feat. In 2018-19, the company sold 13,18,450 kg of Boroline and clocked a turnover of ₹159.35 crore.

Today the company is helmed by Dutta and his wife, Mahashweta, who have allowed the brand to chart its own course in many ways. It comes in a new green-and-white tub (priced at ₹10), though the green tube (₹22) still rules. The company has two manufacturing units — in Chakbagi, 16 km from Kolkata, and Ghaziabad, on the outskirts of Delhi.

While two other brands from the house of Boroline — Eleen hair oil and Suthol (an antiseptic skin gel) endorsed by actor Akshay Kumar — have been successful, their baby oil failed to take off. It was a huge learning on how the Boroline tag could not sell just about anything. “We realised we had to play to our strength,” Dutta says.

There are no grand celebrations lined up for the 90th anniversary, but the company is looking ahead. “For 90 years, our customers have been our brand ambassadors, our PR agency, and our best advertisers, and it is their faith and goodwill that will show us the way,” he says.

The countdown for the 100th year, as Dutta says, has begun.

Chandrima Pal is a freelance writer based in Kolkata

Published on November 21, 2019

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