You may have heard that Aishwarya Rai Bachan has become embroiled in a furor over a “racist” ad. The actress is brand ambassador for Kalyan jewelers, whose latest ad shows her in regal dress, lounging under the shade of an umbrella held by a dark-skinned slave boy.
Prominent feminists and child activists were quick to respond with an open letter on Scroll.in, condemning the advertisement for promoting child labour and for being “insidiously racist”. Certainly the contrast between the fair Mrs Rai Bachan and the slave-child’s dark skin is quite marked. The reaction is undoubtedly worse because the imagery harks back to a colonial past that left India scarred. The letter mentions ‘colonial European portraits of white aristocracy, depicting women being waited upon by their black “servants”’.
Kalyan Jewelers claim that the advertisement was intended to present “royalty, timeless beauty and elegance” but the imagery is disturbing, particularly in these supposedly enlightened times.
India actually tops the global slavery index with 14 million people enslaved – that’s 40 per cent of the number of people in slavery worldwide. Like Pakistan, cheap labour also makes domestic help cheap and huge swathes of society are used to being waited on hand and foot.
In such a social environment, it is even more important for influencers like Aishwarya to promote equality and dignity. The actress issued a statement through a publicist that she was not aware of the final image and that this was down to the “creatives” at the brand.
The response smacks of spin.
If you’ve ever hired a celebrity for a show, you’ll know that their team will come in with a list of demands.
Things along the lines of “Sir won’t do any encores, he’ll only sing for 50 minutes, he needs chilled Perrier in the green room” etc etc. True stars have dozens of minions looking out for their interests. Wouldn’t a star’s team also be vetting any campaigns she’s involved with? At best this is negligence by Aishwarya’s team, if they never saw the final images. At worst it’s a cover up to disguise the fact that the racial angle never occurred to them.
Pakistan has had its share of racial controversy in recent years. Aamna Aqeel’s notorious “Be My Slave” shoot used similar imagery to the Kalyan Jewelers advertisement and was slammed across the globe, with articles in the Huffington Post and The Daily Mail. Zubaida Tariq, affectionately known as Zubaida Apa, tarnished her reputation by launching a “Whitening Soap”.
With celebrities both sides of the border promoting fairness creams and actresses routinely lightened for billboards, the glorification of fair skin continues both sides of the border. Isn’t it time both India and Pakistan got over their obsession with fairness?
The problem with this advertisement is not an overt endorsement of fairness. It is the fact that the dark-skinned boy is in a demeaning, servile role while the fair Aishwarya reclines bedecked in jewels, glamourising class differentials. Appearance is certainly used as an indicator of caste or class — but whatever the case, illustrating this in an aspirational advertisement is akin to promoting, or at the very least, tolerating very real instances of cruelty and prejudice.
In a country like India, with multiple ethnic groups, any hint of racism needs to be shunned.
Celebrities like Aishwarya wield huge amounts of influence and should be more careful of how their image is used. I imagine the actress is horrified at being thought to endorse child labour or racism but images like this do nothing to convince a largely uneducated populace that putting children to work is wrong. They perpetuate the myth that fair skin is an indicator of worth instead of an accident of nature.
The actress’ publicists may spin this any way they like but at the end of the day, a celebrity of Aishwarya’s stature has a responsibility to vet the campaigns she takes part in.