Recently, a commercial made by the clothing line, BIBA, hit the Indian market. Its significance lay in its “Change the Convention, Change is Beautiful” tag. The message was straightforward – we need to change Indian attitudes regarding gender roles. At the outset, let me say there are many things wrong with the ad, especially when one stops to think how it could possibly bring about a change when the young woman in question is voiceless. In fact, when I first watched it, my own reaction was: “And just what change are we talking about here?” Upon deeper reflection, however, I realized why the commercial may indeed be a step forward, albeit a tiny one.
The whole arranged marriage setting might be baffling to a Western audience, but fact of the matter is, it is a regular feature of Indian life. Generally speaking, the two sets of families meet up at the prospective bride’s home. They exchange pleasantries over tea and snacks; presumably a preliminary “background check” has been done on both sides – how educated is “the boy,” where does he work, how much does he earn, does he have his own flat, etc, etc. For “the girl,” the question usually hinges upon her educational background, physical attributes and culinary skills.
The actual commercial begins with the young woman’s father telling her to hurry up as the guests are waiting. To this she replies, “Papa, am I supposed to decide who I am going to be spending the rest of my life with over a plate of samosas?” The next scene is spot on in that the groom’s mother is the star of the show. As a young lady she probably started out much the way our heroine does here – timid and shy. Over the years through raising children and meticulously running an extended household she has worked her way up, thereby earning the right to be the center of attention. This dichotomy – of women fearing/ being feared – is not unusual and has a lot to do with marriage and sexuality. A married woman earns high status as a “pativrata” or one who is dedicated to her husband, so long as she knows her limits. As she gets older and rears children, her sexuality presumably waning, she no longer poses a threat to the social order she fought hard to win over. In any case, the conversation in the commercial is pretty much between the young lady’s father and the young man’s mother. Our heroine is silent throughout. Yes, the ad is full of red flags – the young lady in question is just expected to look pretty, and be a mute spectator to events that will have a momentous impact on her life (I will focus on the female angle even though it may appear strange that a grown man has Mummy speaking up on his behalf). In typical fashion, the ad reinforces attitudes that “elders” are always in charge – in this case, the groom’s mother and the bride’s father. The bride along with her mother is virtually non-existent. Well, she is present, but basically as an exhibit. And when the groom-to-be does speak up, it’s to her father.
That said, let me turn to why there may be hope even in this seemingly dismal scenario. Patriarchy is entrenched in Indian culture and society, and whether we like it or not, arranged marriages are going to be around for a while, that too in the manner depicted by the ad. But (having been privy to such conditions myself, one in which the boy’s family usually has the upper hand), I did find it refreshing that the bride’s father “dared” to check if the groom could cook, thereby implying that this domain wasn’t just restricted to women. In a movie or real life, chances are he and his family would have walked out at this insult. Here, surprisingly, the boy replies that he can’t right now, but the fact that he’s willing to give it a try symbolizes hope on many levels.
The whole setting may be disturbing given that the bride-to-be has no say. But through her person – “am I supposed to decide who I marry over a plate of samosas” – the audience can question the very concept of arranged marriages wherein two people (rather two families) decide the future course of their lives over a meeting or two. The commercial – one that is made by a corporation – is after all meant for the general public for whom such scenarios are familiar. Had the director insisted the woman speak up for herself, chances are viewers would have been put off by her “overbearing” nature, and the commercial dismissed as “filmy” with zero recall value. There is no doubt that women should be allowed to speak up for themselves and to just say no to situations they are uncomfortable with. But would it be fair of me – an upper class, upper caste, Western-educated woman – to assume they have the same resources that were available to me when I decided to get out of an unhappy marriage (one of the most trying times of my life)? In South Asia especially immediate family, extended family, friends, neighbours, the dog, all have a say in your personal life. And while I look forward to the day when someone – man or woman – will have the courage to stand up to their own convictions within this intricate social matrix of ours, I am convinced there are many ways to bring about change; and one of them is to include men in the dialogue concerning gender and sexuality. There are, no doubt, different approaches, but in the case of this commercial at least, I can see how targeting the system from deep within has the potential to bring about change, even if it’s by taking baby steps; I can see how it is more than simply a commercial about whether men can cook more than just noodles.
Vibha Shetiya was born in India and raised in Zambia before moving back to India as a teenager. She has been living in the US since 1999. She has degrees in journalism and religion and a Ph.D in Asian Cultures and Languages. Vibha moved to Albuquerque in 2014 from Austin where she completed her dissertation on feminist versions of the “Ramayana,” an ancient Hindu epic. She teaches at the University of New Mexico.