The new Anouk ad doesn’t give the best career advice for women

'The Calling', the ad featuring Radhika Apte as a pregnant woman, seems to have more than its fair share of haphazard messaging

It’s very rarely—in fact I can’t think of even one other example—that you see an ad in which the protagonist is a visibly pregnant working woman. That is till the latest ad by Anouk, a “contemporary ethnic apparel" company. Anouk’s ad, The Calling, which everyone’s speaking of and clicking on, features Radhika Apte and Shernaz Patel and actually goes where no man has gone before.

Other than featuring a pregnant woman who works in an office, it also tackles the issue of workplace discrimination against women. It’s short and succinct, getting across its point of view that women need to be treated as equal citizens in the workplace and that we are capable of determining their careers and future themselves. Basically, women don’t need to be beholden to the system.

In the ad, Apte is pregnant and has finished making a presentation to some clients. Her boss, Patel compliments her and then they both get in Patel’s car to head home. In the car, Patel compliments the jacket Apte is wearing and comments that “it almost hides your bump". She says it in an even tone. Apte takes umbrage and confronts Patel about not liking her being pregnant and that she has assigned her clients to a male colleague and is promoting him over Apte. Patel tells her this is because the new client needs the architect to be present for the next six months, which Apte won’t be. And that when she re-joins work, they’ll consider her for a promotion. Apte says that’s unfair going by the amount of work she’s done on the project, and then guides the car into a massive driveway with large gates where builders are walking around and tells Patel she’s starting her new office and is leaving the company. Patel looks visibly stumped and asks her not to do so. Apte alights and walks into the camera and her bright future.

Now, I don’t tend to take ads very seriously because most of them will do anything to sell their product. Conjuring up the most absurd sequences like Madhuri Dixit doing aerobics with her family and then feeding them Maggi noodles for breakfast, or the benefit of a light bulb being that it will make you look fairer, or that wearing a vest will help you jump off a waterfall and save a drowning pup. But Anouk has made it a point to address women’s issues, and sometimes very effectively, so one must take them seriously.

Other than for them all sharing M. Night Shyamalan-esque names, two of the ads, The Visit and The Whispers, were quite impressive and pushed the envelope on presenting single mothers as people who can be great parents and not require a man in their lives, and of lesbians being as normal as straight people when it comes to relationships and wanting their parents to accept their partners. The Wait, though, was nonsensical, because why would you even engage in a conversation with a man you feel is harassing you. But maybe their creative director was out of town.

The Calling seems to have more than its fair share of haphazard messaging. This is the first time the brand has used established actors like Radhika Apte and Shernaz Patel. And also the first time I think Patel plays an evil character.

First off, I think it’s commendable to even conceptualise using a pregnant working woman as a protagonist. And to think of addressing the issue of workplace discrimination for women. But I do have a problem with the almost black and white tone with which the situation is dealt with.

First, not once is it said that the company is not giving Apte maternity leave or that it’s going against India’s Maternity Benefits Act (1961), according to which companies have to give employees 12 weeks’ paid maternity paid leave. Should women get longer maternity leave? Of course. And the government has said that it plans to increase leave to 24 weeks (around six months). But till such time, Apte’s character is getting her due.

She’s upset that someone else has been assigned her accounts. Think of it from the company’s point of view, which even she as the senior lead on the account should be. Is it practical to have someone take on her accounts while she’s away on leave? I’d say yes. No client is going to sign on a company if they’re told there’ll be no one leading their account for the first three months of them coming on board.

Apte also wants her promotion before she goes on leave. Replace her with a man who is taking paid medical leave for three months, which is in itself an impossible situation. Few companies would give anyone a promotion right before they go on paid leave. You can demand they do so, but there’s no reason why they should.

What was the most disturbing was the last scene, where Apte after expressing dismay for being treated unfairly reveals to her boss that she has secretly been building her own business while drawing a salary from her day job. What if during the conversation in the car Patel had said that she’d seen the light and Apte indeed deserved a promotion before she went on maternity leave? What then? Would Apte shut her new office and business? I’m not even getting into the fact that Apte’s massive office in a lush part of Mumbai leaves me wondering why she even needs to work for anyone else.

I understand that Anouk wants to show that women can take their careers into their own hands. But how this is shown is extremely dodgy.

One, it’s not the wisest move to tell women to chuck their maternity leave—which they’ll have to do if they quit before they start maternity leave. How do they know they’ll have a non-problematic pregnancy or their newborn child won’t require extra care? To show this as a good move is beyond impractical.

Two, of course starting your own enterprise is a good option. But how many people can afford to do so and is it really wise to do this while you’ll be looking after a newborn? Sounds like madness to me. Also, it’s highly unprofessional to be building your own company surreptitiously while working somewhere else. Not the makings of a great employee or a business leader. Professionally, I would trust Apte’s character as far as I could throw her—if even that.

Three, while standing up for women’s rights, the ad reinforces an oft-repeated belief—that a woman is a woman’s worst enemy. Patel is the anti-feminist over here. A portrayal which is a little counter-productive for a brand hoping to change the way women are perceived.

My fourth point of contention isn’t about dodgy logic, but about how pregnant women are never shown as even slightly overweight or uncomfortable in their shape-changing bodies. Apte is so stunning and well-turned out that you can understand why Patel complimented her attire. The day I see a pregnant woman shown with dark circles or water-retention, I’ll say we have an evolved brand.

Yes, Anouk’s heart is in the right place. But what is the final message you get from the film? That if you’re pregnant, it’s okay to stab your current employer in the back, not negotiate better terms for yourself and throw yourself from a simmering fire pan into a raging fire by saying bye-bye to maternity leave and hello to setting up a new venture. It’s always good to address women’s issues, but when you don a feminist hat, you should at least try to do so sensibly.

My advice—don’t change your career based on Apte’s character, you could change your wardrobe though and pick up that jacket.

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