Of missing bindi and portrayal of protagonists in Indian advertising

It is festive season now in India and mass media is full of ads from retail, jewellery and fashion brands. Some of the ads which featured protagonists in traditional Indian wear but without a bindi on the forehead faced criticism on Twitter (where else?) and some even tagged the brand handles.

The question, ‘does art imitate life or life imitates art?’ is perhaps a difficult one to answer. In this context, advertising & marketing folks aim (or claim to?) have the pulse of the consumer and spot and maybe even anticipate consumer trends and behaviours. The context of the script, portrayal of the protagonists, language and the kind of setting and props – all tend to reflect contemporary consumer mindset and aspirations.

The ad industry considers portrayal of women – be it as a professional, mother or housewife as an important yardstick of mirroring society. In such portrayals, the attire worn by the protagonists – saree, salwar or western wear and her ‘look’ is also considered important. Of course the same is true of the male protagonists too. Over the years, industry leaders themselves have commented on the missing ‘bindi‘. So that by itself if not a new trend.

Tanishq jewellery ad

Personally, I find both the above ads totally lacking in celebratory mood and out of sync with festivals such as Navratri and Deepavali.

The missing bindi is a reflection of the tastes of a section of urban women in India. In metros, one does notice that many women, even when wearing traditional outfits do not choose to wear a bindi. For some it has become an optional accessory rather than a mandatory – a fashion choice than a tradition.

Of course it is their personal choice. The reasons or motivations behind this choice could be many. Some may feel that wearing it is not cool enough or does not go well with the outfit they are wearing (especially if it is western wear). Outfits worn by celebrities, influencers and media personalities may also pay a role in personal choice. I have seen family portraits of a famous cricketer from Chennai on Instagram and noticed that the wife chose not wear a bindi even with a traditional outfit.

For years now, kids in certain English-medium schools have been told not to wear any forehead marks when attending school. This seemingly small ‘diktat’ has a deep implications and they grow up being averse to wearing bindi or vibhuti, tilak on their forehead. Among girls even keeping flowers on braids is a rare sight in urban households. So we have a couple of generations already giving up on ‘traditional’ markers. And many parents with teenage daughters are OK with the non-bindi, non-traditional wear lifestyle. It is common among the affluent and upper-middle class society in urban India and thankfully not so much in small-town India. The former segment reminds me of that quote attributed to Thomas Macaulay: ‘Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect’.

It may all seem like much ado about nothing, but this is how traditions are abandoned – one step at a time. One has to accept such changes but is it all a welcome change? I am not sure.

Some men too feel odd (I used to) wearing a tilak or vibhuti on the forehead and going to office in western formals. Personally speaking, maybe it was a lack of self confidence or pride in one’s identity. I used to wipe off the mark after my morning sandhavandanam before heading to office. Over the years, I have overcome that hesitation and actually feel good in being my own self. In a way, I stopped being apologetic about an identity of mine which I consider important.

Everything, including our food habits and fashion changes. In 2021 one doesn’t expect people to have tastes and sensibilities from the 1980s. Movie dialogues, lyrics and what is considered ‘acceptable’ has all changed. However, I personally feel that the core of one’s identity and certain basic tenets of a way of life have to be retained. At least, we must all do our bit to retain them. In many urban homes today, the younger and middle-aged will be at a loss to know what needs to be done to perform rituals or celebrate festivals in a traditional way. The future generations will know even little as nothing would remain to be passed on. There is a real danger of a rootless society emerging in urban India where traditional festivals are limited to wearing ethnic outfits and feasting on good food.

The portrayal of protagonists is also a function of the background, mindset and outlook of the advertising planners and creators. In advertising, as with popular cinema, there is an issue of stereotyping. Punjabis are portrayed as jovial and boisterous. People from the four (different in every way) southern states are ‘clubbed’ and given a ‘South Indian’ look (whatever that means) complete with (ironically) vibhuti on the man’s forehead. They are shown wearing a veshti and made to ham their way in terms of accent – either in Hindi or English. In a way, they are still stuck in Padoson mode with that ghastly, condescending portrayal.

There are also other factors at play – for e.g. the creative director, art director or stylist may come from a section of the society which has no interaction with or insight into the lives of people for whom the product or service is meant. During my advertising days, I have come across several creative and production folks whose world only revolves around the affluent people of South Mumbai. They’d fit right in to the upper crust of the West and would probably not be able to relate to the life and tribulations of an average middle-class household in India. In such a situation, ‘this is how they must be’ attitude takes over and the consumer is made into a caricature.

In the case of the missing bindi ads, especially from the premium jewellery brands, I doubt whether that look appeals to or resonates with a majority of their potential customers. Even with Tanishq’s Diwali ad last year, I wrote:

The visual cues (pastel shades, conspicuously absent bindi on women, ethnic fusion kind of attire), the language (English) and the messaging (preaching a certain way of celebrating the festival with emphasis on no fire crackers and ‘lots of feasting and dressing up’ is likely to appeal to that affluent, upmarket audience. 

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The portrayal of protagonists is a choice and a prerogative of brands. In a vast, plural country like India it is impossible to reflect the nuances of each region in advertising. Overall I think the industry has two approaches: (a) stereotyping – assuming ‘they will be like this’ and (b) assuming all of India identifies with or aspires to have the lifestyle of the affluent or English-speaking upper-middle class folks from metro India. The jewellery ads portrayal certainly give vibes of the latter kind.

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