The advertisement for Myntra's clothing line Anouk, which was incorrectly branded India's first lesbian ad, has gone viral, notching up more than a million views on YouTube, despite its meandering storyline, mushiness, and length.
On the surface, it ticks all the right boxes – oh, look, here's this lesbian couple, and they're as normal as normal can be, in our heteronormative perceptions of a 'normal' relationship; and, guess what, they're both pretty and they both use kaajal, so there's no butch partner; they mock-argue and pout; they caress each other before a parental visit; one of the girls is dusky; one has long hair, and the other has short hair; one speaks Tamil, albeit almost unrecognisably, and the other is a Hindi-speaker.
The ad could not possibly be more politically correct while being beautiful and fanciful. South Indian in love with North Indian, girl in love with girl, hair and complexion and makeup perfectly complementary.
And, yes, it is an improvement on the tacky Fastrack commercial that preceded this.
Contrary to popular belief, neither was India's first gay ad. Hindustan Times had come up with a far more palatable commercial featuring how most people tend to react to homosexual PDA.
Full points to the makers of these ads, because they are excelling at their jobs. These videos will be noticed, and discussed, and even brands that had no mileage earlier will be recognised because of the unusual angle.
It happens every time an ad features a dusky woman, or a large woman, or – hey – a dusky mother getting married for the second time, or a teenager scurrying about to get her mother ready for her second wedding. We rave about them, and then start finding fault with the inconsistencies in their reality.
Let's not forget that these are ads. They will all feature beautiful people, they will all be pretty and glossy, with all the impossibilities that make them commercially viable ads. Often, the storyline will have as little to do with the brand as Amitach Bachchan has to do with cooking Maggi noodles.
And this is all right, because they are advertisements, using all the strategy and marketing gimmicks they can to make the brand stick in your mind, and hopefully push sales.
The problem begins when we want these advertisements to authentically portray relationships and attitudes.
When we dissect these ads for sense and substance, we come to the inevitable conclusion that, while seeming to be 'inclusive' and 'progressive', they could also be interpreted as talking down to a particular demographic – “oh, look, we've not left you out.”
The fact is, if this ad had featured a heterosexual couple, we would have been bored out of our skulls. It is inexplicably long, and we have no idea what it is trying to showcase until the end, and then we realise it didn't quite showcase that at all. It would have perhaps made more sense if it had been an ad for the brand of kaajal rather than the clothing line.
So, the copywriters and filmmakers came up with a clever idea.
And, after we have seen the advertisement, our collective reaction traces an arc:
Step 1: Oh, wow, look what they did!
Step 2: But is that really what happens?
Step 3: They've got everything wrong!
Step 4: Oh, well, at least they tried.
Ads are not meant to be our beacons of light. At the most, they can create the illusion of breaking stereotypes. In order to aesthetically appeal to us, they cannot help but construct a false reality.
What we need to understand is that a commercial is not a documentary, or a portrayal of society as it exists. It is a sponsored film that intends to lure viewers into thinking of the brand, and hopefully buying it.
Especially in India, we have a tendency to ascribe undue importance to advertisements, and those featured in them.
Take the case of Maggi noodles. How does it make sense to file FIRs against the celebrities who endorsed it? One is either buying Maggi because one likes its taste, in which case the celebrities are not to blame, or one is buying Maggi noodles because Amitabh Bachchan, Preity Zinta, and Madhuri Dixit were paid to claim that they eat it, in which case one ought to be sued for one's stupidity.
It doesn't really matter that the Anouk girls are pretty and use makeup and coo about hair. The ad is selling a product, not setting a trend.