By Sanjana Sanghi:
A full page advertisement for Kalyan Jewellers in The Hindu on April 17, 2015 featuring Aishwarya Rai Bacchan has created a furore among child rights activists, feminist activists and the general public. A look at the advertisement (below) will allow greater understanding of the grave societal implications it has.
Here we see Aishwarya Rai Bachchan in a set up that resembles 17th and 18th century white aristocracy in colonial Europe, fully clad with heavy jewellery, contrasted with a black-skinned slave-boy struggling to hold an umbrella over her head. The advertisement was given the effect of a rugged painting, rather than a 21st century HD digital photograph, that further strengthens the undeniably racist thrust of this depiction.
The open letter brought out by various activists demanding immediate public retraction for the advertisement also carries images of the Victorian portraits that facilitate understanding the similarity between the two.
First, to see Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, who in addition to being a global icon is also an International Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations, in this racist and questionable advertisement is rather saddening and entirely unexpected. Secondly, advertisements are the most direct and powerful form of piercing into the audience’s mind. As creative producers, presenting visual fantasy and idyllic versions of a woman that every common woman would like to emulate, and common man would desire to see, is justified. However, using a rather famished looking black skinned little boy to hold up an umbrella is neither acceptable, nor does it add, in any capacity, to the message being sent across. This juxtaposition is unacceptable because it is wholly racist, is evidently promoting child labour and is also romanticizing child servitude.
As a Bollywood icon and a public figure that the nation looks up to, such excesses are hugely damaging. It is of paramount importance that child slavery, or servitude is in no way legitimised, fantasized or normalised by advertising agencies using popular figures and attractive visuals. They almost instantly nullify the efforts being made by human rights and child rights activists to combat child labour and institutionalize an atmosphere free of slavery and exploitation. Agreed that Rai’s intentions were not to cause this damage, but agreeing to be a part of this objectionable visual portrayal should have been avoided in the first place.
The slave fantasy seems to be frighteningly appealing considering it has been used multiple times before. One reference of such usage was made in the open letter, of an ad campaign by Pakistani designer Aamna Aqeel, called “Be My Slave”.
As we await appropriate redressal of the many issues this advertisement has raised, I do believe (or rather hope) that Rai’s intentions were not to permeate these negative and objectionable messages to the nation’s public.
Update: According to this report, Kalyan Jewellers has pulled down the ad.