By Shambhavi Saxena:
It started with a boy who couldn’t clear his engineering exam. Then it was about young women in Haryana who were disallowed from going to school. Then a homemaker-mother who had to give up her law degree. These aren’t actual people, though they could very well be, but actors portraying various identities in Idea! advertisements. These half-minute spots are part of the Idea Internet Network meshed together with a real earworm of a jingle, to promote the company’s e-learning enabling internet services. The spots that followed the first full length ad, featured persons whose circumstances prevented them from accessing formal education.
And now, for the first time that I know of, in all my years of TV viewing, I’m seeing a trans woman as the focus of an ad.
The ad is an important one for presenting a non-cisgendered individual who isn’t being used for gags or comedic relief. In fact, it looks like the least transphobic thing to come out of a highly prejudiced society’s visual media (think Gutthi, of Comedy Nights with Kapil fame). There are nasty voice overs of people talking down to the protagonist – “you will study?” or “This isn’t a dance class, get out of here!” – while she speaks of not being accepted by either boys’ schools or girls’ schools.
The hijra community’s erosion from being socially and religiously important (for Hindu and Muslim ceremonies), to objects of contempt and fear, is apparent only to those of us who are already aware of it. For others watching, the sari and close ups of the bindi may be doing nothing for her ‘masculine’ voice. And so the ad only grazes the issue of complex gender identities. Still, the portrayal of a trans woman in sympathetic light rather than something to be laughed at, sure strikes a chord with me.
This does volumes for representation of marginalized orientations, gender alignments and identities (or as we like to say, MOGAI, short and sweet). Remember that pleasantly surprising ad by a Fastrack featuring a same-sex relationship (and a clever pun)? So far, queer or MOGAI representations in Indian media have been disappointingly few and far between – and no, Dostana does not count even a little bit. One hopes the ad encourages more non-cishet people to be claiming screen time across the ads, films and TV shows we consume daily.
The ad series recognizes the hurdles to education that real people face – family responsibilities, lack of resources, patriarchal control of women’s mobility, incapacitating discrimination to name a few – but chooses to overlook some of the root causes in order to promote the product. And that is how ads work. But for an ad series that has so inclusive and democratic a leaning as these, the least we should be doing is investigating the social and economic factors that produce the poor reality of education in our country. In another ad perhaps, Idea!?
I’ll end on a positive note about this ad. If transphobia is the product of a lack of knowledge, of a narrow, uninformed mind, then the theme of education entwined with the figure of a trans woman comes across as quite clever. In an ad that pushes education (and that old Foucauldian relationship between knowledge and power) it dares you to see this person as anything other than just that – a person.