An advert challenging the norms of a traditional family in India has gone viral, with more than 9 million views on YouTube.
The ad’s storyline pushes the issue of transgender rights within the country and reveals the human side of the issue in just three and a half minutes.
Released online on March 31, the commercial by medicine company Vicks tells the true story of Gayatri, a young Indian orphan who was adopted by Gauri Sawant, a 37-year-old Mumbai-based transgender woman and social activist.
On a bus on her way to boarding school, Gayatri recalls her life and how she was adopted by Sawant after her birth mother was taken away in an ambulance, never coming back.
Throughout the ad, we catch glimpses of Sawant but she is only revealed in full when Gayatri turns to her and says, “This is my mom. Isn’t she lovely?”
Gayatri says Sawant sends her to boarding school because she wants her to become a doctor. But in the final scene, Gayatri says she would rather become a lawyer, suggesting she would rather fight for the rights that her mother is denied as a transgender Indian.
Trans people cannot legally adopt children in India.
A non-traditional family
The commercial features the real Gayatri and Gauri Sawant.
Gayatri was 6 years old when her mother, a sex worker, died of AIDS. Gauri, her mother’s friend, decided to raise her as her own and is doing it “against all odds,” the advert states as she is unable to legally adopt the child herself.
Commenting online, the ad’s director Neeraj Ghaywan was keen to point out that Sawant plays herself in the commercial. “Just hoping someday the world will be as one,” he wrote.
In a statement, Nitin Darbari, a spokesman for Vicks’ parent company, Procter and Gamble, said the company was hoping to highlight “the importance of care beyond just the traditional perception of family.”
“The campaign shows how people who, though not connected by blood, end up being family through care itself,” Darbari said.
The video forms part of the company’s #TouchOfCare campaign and since its release online, has had an overwhelming number of comments, with the majority being positive.
Similar views have been shared on Twitter.
Politician Shashi Tharoor, who had been at the forefront of a now rejected bill that sought to decriminalize gay sex, tweeted his support of the ad’s messaging.
But actress, artist and transgender rights activist Kalki Subramaniam has mixed views. While she can see it from the public’s perspective, as an activist she questions the benefit the ad will have on transgender communities.
“Yes, this ad promotes transgender rights, our rights as mothers, our rights in social and civil activities, and our right as a citizen but the one thing I don’t like about this ad is that it sensationalizes an issue,” Subramaniam told CNN.
“This is a trend in India. People are using transgender people because it gets a lot of attention but the community is still begging and doing sex work. What are they giving back to the community?” she asked.
Limited progress to date
India’s transgender community, known as “hijras,” can date their origins as far back as 3,000 years ago with mentions in the Hindu epics “Mahabharata” and “Ramayana.”
During the Mughal Empire, which ruled the Indian subcontinent between 1526 and 1858, they are believed to have held significant power, serving as royal advisers and protectors of royal harems.
Their status deteriorated rapidly however during the British empire.
In a paper, Dr M. Michelraj from Annamalai University in India wrote that the British “vigorously sought to criminalize the hijra community and to deny them their civil rights.”
The legacy of this stigmatization lingered and the community continued to face discrimination after independence, often being pushed to the edges of society and forced to depend on sex work to get by.
But in recent years, India has made strides when it comes to transgender rights.
In a landmark vote in 2014, India’s Supreme Court granted the country’s “hijra,” or transgender people, and those classified as third-gender the right to self-identify without sex reassignment surgery. It is one of 20 countries that has passed some form of legislation recognizing their status.
The ruling in India enabled transgender people equal access to education, health care and employment, as well as protection from discrimination, with Sawant being one of the original petitioners to challenge the government, resulting in the passage of the law.
“India is very progressive. A person can choose his or her gender, you don’t need to have a medical certificate. This speaks of our constitutional morality and recognizes gender politics,” said Akkai Padmashali, a transgender activist and founder of Ondede, a Bangalore-based NGO that works with the LGBT community.
But transgender people — along with same-sex couples — still cannot legally adopt children in India.
Subramaniam believes change comes slowly.
“Passing a law doesn’t change society overnight … the government, the public, the activists need to work together to promote transgender rights and equality,” said Subramaniam.
For Padmashali, the Vicks advert is a small step in stirring debate on this issue and bringing it to a wider audience.
“The transgender community has been socially excluded for so many centuries,” she said. “(The advert) shows society that we are human beings. To adopt or to have a child is beyond your gender or sexuality. Gauri Sawant’s life story is a model for society.”