karwa chauth ad, dabur karwa chauth ad

In 1998 when Deepa Mehta’s Fire released in India, it caused a huge furore. The movie showed two women finding love and solace in each other and eventually leaving their husbands to live together. Perhaps the story was far too ahead of its time in the 90s India, and was met with strong protests. There was sloganeering, the film’s posters were burnt, and the movie’s screening was stopped across theatres in Mumbai. The then Chief Minister of Maharashtra, Manohar Joshi had reportedly supported the protests against the film and said, “I congratulate them for what they have done. The film’s theme is alien to our culture.”

Cut to 2021, almost 23 years after Fire and two years after the regressive Article 377 was scrapped decriminalising homosexuality, we seem to find ourselves in a disturbingly similar situation.

Consumer goods company Dabur, which owns the fairness bleach brand Fem, released a new ad on the occasion of Karva Chauth. This is a festival where married women traditionally pray and fast for their husbands’ safety and long lives. In this ad, however, two women in a same sex partnership were shown celebrating the festival together.

The advertisement begins with a young woman applying the bleach on her partner’s face and a shot of the product itself. This is perhaps to ensure that people don’t forget it’s primarily an ad for a face bleach. Or as it now sold, a product that will give you a golden glow. A mother/mother figure appears and gives the two women traditional outfits that will match the bleach’s ‘golden glow’ and tells one of the women that she will look like a ‘chand ka tukda’, a common euphemism for looking fair and lovely. The women are then seen completing all the traditional rituals like viewing the moon and giving each other water to break their fast.

While a section of social media users praised the ad for being progressive, there was a strong negative reaction as well, with many criticising the ad for allegedly using a Hindu ritual to advocate change or progressive thought. Karva Chauth may seem harmless on the face of it- perhaps a way for women to dress up and socialise in the olden days, or get a break from unending household chores.

But a celebration of one’s marital status becomes problematic when you see how shabbily widows continue to be treated in India. In India, all auspicious occasions — whether it’s a simple pooja at home or a wedding ceremony — are designed for a married couple, or the male head of the family to conduct the proceedings. Though there has been a lot of social awareness raised around the treatment of widows in India, our festivals and rituals have not been modified to be more inclusive of them.

Unfortunately, instead of engaging in a debate about why the ad was considered offensive by some, the brand was attacked for deliberately offending Hindu sentiments. In an environment where the usage of Urdu words in an advertisement for Diwali triggered a backlash, or questioning the custom of ‘Kanyadaan’ caused a ruckus, an ad with two women celebrating Karva Chauth was unlikely to be accepted.

Not surprisingly, the self-appointed guardians of Hinduism soon entered the fray with threats of legal action. Madhya Pradesh Home Minister Narottam Mishra said, “I consider this a serious matter, more so, because such advertisements and clippings are made on the rituals of Hindu festivals only. They showed lesbians celebrating Karva Chauth… In future, they will show two men taking “feras”. This is objectionable.”

Ideally neither should be an objectionable situation, especially since courts have declared that homosexuality is not a crime, a sign of mental illness or any other kind of deviant behaviour. The hue and cry are also baffling considering this is not the first time two women have been shown as a couple.

Myntra launched an ad a couple of years ago where two women in a live-in relationship get ready to meet the parents. Bhima jewellery did a fairly ground-breaking ad of a young man slowly transitioning into being a woman and finally dressing up like a bride at what one can assume was her wedding. However, the brand smartly stopped short of showing an actual wedding or revealing who the other partner was. Tinder had a television ad where same sex couples were shown amidst heterosexual couples celebrating love in all its forms.

The problem here seems to be a force fitting of a same sex couple, especially two women, into a Hindu festival whose very essence lies in celebrating heterosexual marriages and relationships. The ad also rather awkwardly force fits the face bleach into the ad, because no matter what her orientation, a woman has to ‘glow’, be ‘radiant’ or like the mother in the ad says, be a ‘chand ka tukda’.

The advertisement is definitely a positive attempt at broadening and questioning the boundaries around love in our society. However, showing women even in same sex relationships celebrating Karva Chauth, seems like a well-intentioned but half-hearted attempt at appealing to a younger audience. Perhaps a man using face bleach to look good for his hungry wife when she views him through the sieve, would have been more out of the box.

What was even more regrettable, was the manner in which Dabur apologised and withdrew the advertisement. To be fair they had made an earlier statement in which they stated their commitment to “diversity, inclusion and equality”. But perhaps the fear of being targeted by a notoriously vindictive establishment forced them to change their statement.

Sadly, an unconditional apology dilutes its supposedly progressive agenda entirely. While there is empathy for the circumstances in which they had to change their stand, a large company like Dabur allowing politicians to bully them, sets quite a frightening precedent.

Unfortunately, you can’t glow with pride and then bleach the rainbow under political pressure.

By William Regal

Used to think I was a tad indecisive, but now I’m not quite sure.

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