What popularized the baby name Sanjana in India in the 1990s?

The character Sanjana/Sanju (played by Aishwarya Rai) from a Lehar Pepsi commercial that aired in India in 1993.
“Hi, I’m Sanjana. Got another Pepsi?”

In her fascinating essay “The Namesakes,” author Sanjana Ramachandran tells the story of how a soft drink commercial that aired In India in 1993 popularized the baby name Sanjana.

Before we get to that story, though, a bit of background:

India, upon attaining independence in 1947, established a state-controlled economy that was essentially closed to the outside world. Under this system, the Indian consumer had very little choice in the marketplace and had to endure long wait-times for goods like cars, scooters, and wristwatches.

Even television — which introduced in the late 1950s, but didn’t go national until the early 1980s — was controlled by the state; government-owned Doordarshan was India’s sole broadcaster for over three decades.

All this changed in mid-1991, when India was forced (due to an economic crisis) to initiate a series of reforms. With economic liberalization came choice for the consumer, who could now start buying imported goods at the store and enjoying new content on television.

In the early days of India’s newly invigorated economy, American company PepsiCo — using the Indianized name “Lehar Pepsi” (lehar means “wave” in Hindi) — launched a marketing campaign in India that featured the Hindi-English slogan “Yeh Hi Hai Right Choice Baby, A-Ha.” (It was a spin-off of the “You Got The Right One Baby, Uh-Huh” campaign in the U.S.)

One of the commercials in that campaign was a 50-second spot that aired in 1993. It starred Bollywood actor Aamir Khan and two then-unknown female actresses, Mahima Chaudhry and Aishwarya Rai (pronounced ash-WUH-ree-ah RIE, roughly).

Here’s the commercial:

Here’s a description of the commercial, in case you don’t want to watch:

A young man is alone in his apartment, absentmindedly singing to himself, when the doorbell rings. He opens the door to find a pretty young woman, who enters and says, “Hi, I’m your new neighbor. Can I have a Lehar Pepsi?” He responds, “Uh, yeah, sure.” As he heads to the kitchen, he shows his excitement with a jump and a quiet “Yes!” She is idly looking around his apartment when he reaches the fridge…only to discover an empty bottle of Lehar Pepsi. He calls out (in Hindi) to ask if something else would suffice. She responds (in Hindi) that no, only a Lehar Pepsi will do. He already has one leg out the kitchen window as he calls back, “No problem.” He goes out onto the fire escape — the window slams shut behind him — and jumps down to the street. It’s raining outside. He spots a store selling Pepsi across the street. He tries to cross, but nearly gets hit by a car, so instead he jumps roof-to-roof over the traffic to reach the store just before it closes (diving beneath the security shutter as it comes down). He has a bottle of Pepsi in his hand as he runs up the fire escape steps. He finds the window locked. Just as the woman starts walking toward the kitchen (calling, “You okay in there?”) there’s the sound of glass shattering. The man comes out of the kitchen — soaking wet, out of breath — and hands her the bottle, saying, “Your Lehar Pepsi.” Then there’s a knock at the door. The woman says, “That must be Sanju.” “Sanju?” the man repeats, with a worried look on his face. A second woman suddenly comes into view behind them. She leans seductively against the wall and says, “Hi, I’m Sanjana. Got another Pepsi?”

The man’s moment of distress toward the end stems from the fact that “Sanju” is a gender-neutral diminutive. He assumes that Sanju must be male — probably the woman’s boyfriend — but is pleasantly surprised to see that this is not the case.

The Lehar Pepsi commercial was edgy and young, and TV audiences loved it:

The immediate reaction to the commercial was so overwhelming that the makers had to disconnect their phone lines. “Everyone aged 12 and above was calling to ask, ‘Who is this Sanju?’” [director of the commercial Prahlad] Kakar recalled.

Among the admirers were a number of expectant parents. According to voter rolls from the 2015 Delhi assembly elections, “more than twice as many Sanjanas [were] born in 1993 [than] in the preceding three years.” In fact, data indicates that the names Sanjana and Aishwarya both saw an increase in usage thanks to the commercial. Sanjana Ramachandran says that this “points to an interchangeability in markers of aspiration between character and actor. It was the aura — the ‘vibe’ — that parents were going for.”

Ramachandran spoke to nearly 50 other Sanjanas via the internet, and discovered that many of these Sanjanas were born years after the commercial had stopped airing:

Sanjana Parag Desai’s mother had known what she was going to call her daughter for eight years. Sanjana Harikumar’s mother had known for nine. […] Arun Thomas, who named his daughter Sanjana in 2009, vividly recalls the first time he heard the name.

Oddly, the name saw higher usage in the U.S. as well in 1993:

Girls named SanjanaGirls named Aishwarya

Perhaps the commercial influenced U.S. baby names via Indian-Americans who were traveling back and forth between the two countries that year…?

If the commercial was indeed the influence, then it didn’t have the same effect on the name Aishwarya, which wouldn’t debut in the U.S. baby name data until 1995 — after Aishwarya Rai won the Miss World pageant in late 1994.

What are your thoughts on the name Sanjana? Do you know any Sanjanas named after the Pepsi commercial?

P.S. If the Lehar Pepsi commercial seemed eerily familiar to you — as it did to me at first — stay tuned for tomorrow’s post!


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