Home/ Opinion / Online-views/  New Biba ad: Breaking a regressive tradition or propagating a new one?

Who would have thought apparel brands in India would be our answer to Germaine Greer? But it seems that the fashion brand Anouk, which made an ad on the rights of to-be-mothers in the workplace, has started a trend. Because yet another advertisement has been released by yet another apparel brand—this time, Biba—which while selling clothes also tries to serve as a homily on women’s emancipation.

The Biba ad shows a dusky woman sitting in front of a mirror in an ornate salwar kameez sighing heavily and putting on gold earrings—her complexion is important because the casting of a dusky model usually only means that a brand is trying to be different. The woman’s father enters the room and asks her to get ready quickly and come downstairs as the to-be groom’s family is waiting to meet her. She turns to her father and asks her how she can decide to get married to someone by simply feeding him a plate of samosas. (A worthy question because that’s a sure shot way of ensuring the groom gets a cardiac arrest.) The father simply asks her to hurry up and leaves. Cut to the two families chatting and sitting around a coffee table. The groom’s family says that they really like the to-be bride and ask if they should consider the rishta settled. But the father of the prospective bride says they have to visit the groom’s house to see whether the boy can cook and do household chores. Because only if he can, will they ‘give’ their daughter to the boy’s family. Because their daughter can’t marry him if he can’t cook or do any household chores. The to-be groom’s mother says he can barely make a packet of noodles. To which the father of the bride replies that then they can’t get married as she can’t live on noodles (which is odd, because since she has all limbs intact, she could always make samosas and eat them). The groom-to-be then says that he’ll learn to cook in 10 days, and then they can come to the boy’s house, ‘ladka dekhne’. Everyone smiles adoringly at each other. And the last frame of the ad reads—Change Is Beautiful.

The ad’s descriptor on the Biba YouTube page is—She didn’t want to spend the rest of her life with a stranger. She didn’t want to adhere to what was expected of her. She was pleasantly surprised by what was to follow. Watch the whole story unfold here. #ChangeIsBeautiful

Now I’m all for commercials depicting an improved socio-economic-cultural world for women and a more gender-balanced one. After all, between a 500-word editorial/ article in a newspaper/website and an interestingly made 2-minute advertisement on television, the latter will definitely be seen and remembered by more people. So good on Biba, that they’re at least trying to change the gender narrative. And yes, it’s obvious they’re shaking the boat gently, but not rocking it.

Their target audience are urban women—so I understand why they’ve shown a woman agreeing to her parents choosing or vetoing a groom for her. Showing her wanting to choose her own partner would be too much. After all, however regressive and gender-imbalanced the practice of arranged marriages may be, they’re quite the norm in urban India. In September 2014, around 600 couples from metro cities in India participated in a study, conducted by an online matchmaking service Truly Madly.com. According to the findings, 69% marriages are still arranged in comparison to only 31% love marriages. In 2013, according to The Taj Wedding Barometer, a survey conducted by the Taj Group of Hotels, Mumbai, with 1,000 people, around 75% of Indians preferred arranged marriages. The survey covered Mumbai, Nagpur, New Delhi, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Ahmedabad, Surat, Chennai, Kanpur and Ludhiana in malls/markets frequented by people for wedding preparations. The study unsurprisingly found that “while women preferred their parents’ and family members’ decisions in deciding their future life-partner, men tend to take an independent decision about their future spouse".

So I get the propagation of arranged marriage, so to speak. But what is this ad saying? What is this change which is beautiful that it’s talking about? That both husbands and wives should cook for each other? And if the prospective husband doesn’t, that’s reason enough to cut him out of the race? This is ridiculous on so many fronts.

First, not once in the ad are we told or given an indication that the girl wants to keep working or studying or wants a career. So going by the facts given to us—it’s very obvious that the bride’s key skill is being shown to be her house-keeping skills which includes cooking. As a cook myself, I believe that this is a skill which should not be dissed. That’s what she brings to the table, pun intended. The husband, I’m assuming is employed and will be going to office. This is reverse sexism, if he’s expected to not only go and earn a living, but also come back and cook for his wife who is sitting at home. Second, if it’s filling the woman with trepidation to choose a life partner over a plate of food in her own house, how does choosing him over a plate of food in his house make the situation any different?

What would have made sense was if, keeping her samosa-making skills in mind, she had said that in exchange for cooking, keeping house and looking very pretty I must say, she wanted to ensure that she was procuring a man who will be able to hold his job and pay for her upkeep. Now that’s as much of a fair trade as possible in the world of arranged marriage. But that would be too much of calling a spade a spade.

Also, I’m all for casting dusky women. Especially after the whiter-than-snow appearance of Kajol in Dilwale, who seems to have been washed rigorously with Rin. But why must the dusky actresses in ads always be the ones to be doing something hatke? From the Anouk-lesbian couple ad or the Anouk-Radhika Apte ad or the Tanishq second marriage ad, you can pretty much count the ads with dusky/dark actresses on your fingertips—and you can spot the trend if you watch any of these ads. This is a similar stereotyping to the way anglicised-looking actresses like Helen, Parveen Babi, Zeenat Aman, Kalpana Iyer were always the seductresses in films. No—or at best, very few—good girl roles for them.

As a dark brown woman myself, I’m absolutely pleased as punch that dark models and actresses are being cast. But let’s at least try and not typecast them. And dear apparel brands, while it is commendable that you’re at least trying to do something different from just telling us women that we need to wear your clothes to land ourselves a man or a job or both, is it really so tough to think through what message you’re trying to convey?

Tell your ad agencies to take a deep breath, put down those samosas they munch on during creative brainstorming sessions and evaluate whether they’re breaking with regressive traditions or simply propagating a new and even more ludicrous one. Otherwise you won’t blame us viewers for believing that clothes do not make a woman nor a commercial progressive.

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Updated: 04 Jan 2016, 12:35 PM IST
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