July 7, 2021
In India, Coca-Cola, the dark, fizzy thirst-quencher, is the ultimate accompaniment to any meal. Ice-cold, it perfectly balances the heat from meaty biryani; it contrasts the sweetness of butter chicken as effectively as it douses the creaminess of dal makhani. Indo-Chinese, the country’s favorite fusion food, seems tailor-made for a glass of Coca-Cola, and it’s exactly the bubbly counterpoint you want with fried, savory chakli. Coca-Cola — or Coke — feels like it’s always been a part of Indian cuisine. And if you forget it, its advertising certainly won’t let you. “Thanda matlab Coca-Cola” (“Cold drink means Coca-Cola”), Bollywood superstar Aamir Khan, the company’s then brand ambassador, repeated in a string of advertisements in 2002, reiterating the soda’s inextricable hold on Indians.
Today, Coca-Cola — developed by the Atlanta-based Coca-Cola Company in 1866 — is one of the most recognizable brands in the world. It is available everywhere except North Korea. In 2019, India became Coca-Cola’s fifth-largest market in the world, selling 1 billion unit cases in the country. It has grown alongside India’s youth, with now-iconic television ads starring Bollywood superstars Hrithik Roshan and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, to modern-day ads that feature up-and-coming stars like Deepika Padukone, Varun Dhawan, and Alia Bhatt. But for a brand that feels so ingrained in Indian culture, it’s surprising to note that it was not always that way: Coca-Cola was banned from India for nearly 20 years.
This is the story of how India loved, lost, and returned to Coke.