How Horlicks, Bournvita, and Complan Took Over India

World War I, celebrity ads, and scare tactics ensured that a Western concoction became a mainstay for the subcontinent and its diaspora.

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An Indian shopper browses at a supermarket in Mumbai in front of an aisle full of chocolate malt drinks such as Horlicks, Bournvita, Boost, etc. (INDRANIL MUKHERJEE/AFP via Getty Images)

Mehr Singh


April 18, 2023


9 min

In a 1962 black-and-white ad on Doordarshan, India’s national and sole TV station at the time, a Sharmila Tagore lookalike named Suchitra peers out of a window, her beehive hairdo and bindi intact. She watches her sons making paper boats in the rain. She then takes them to a doctor, who taps a stout jar of Horlicks on the table. The drink, the doctor says, provided “complete nutrition to build resistance against monsoon illnesses,” along with a grocery list of unrelated ailments. 

Suchitra reappeared in another Horlicks ad in 1979, now in color, stirring the cement-colored powder into water. In this commercial, though, her son and husband are playing with slingshots outside their home, while she sits inside with her daughter. A god-like voice exclaims, “Like any good mother, Suchitra…gives her family Horlicks!” Later, when Suchitra’s husband breaks a window with his slingshot, the narrator jokes, “Boys will be boys.”

While such stereotypes have aged like milk, a bevy of sugary, malted food drinks with hyperbolized nutritional benefits — think Amitabh Bachchan-endorsed Bournvita or Sachin Tandulkar-approved Complan — remain a collective, sweet memory of many South Asian childhoods the world over. While the West has mostly moved on from the concoction and nutritionists have debunked their inflated health claims, these chocolatey malt drinks are still a billion-dollar-plus business in India. 

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