The recent controversial Tanishq advertisement that created a storm is a fabled fairy tale full of fluff, bubble wrapped in superficial notions of Ekatvam—a transcendental concept that unfortunately has been downgraded to the mundane.
Let me begin with this inter-faith marriage anecdote from real life. A friend’s daughter married a Muslim boy from a progressive, ‘secular’ wealthy family. Some time back, they had invited me for the traditional Hindu baby shower ceremony. I was bewildered because of the apparent incompatibility between customs and traditions of the two different faiths. Interestingly, this seemingly ‘progressive’ family had also insisted that their daughter-in-law convert to Islam before marriage.
Segue to the controversial Tanishq jewellery advertisement that was withdrawn recently after unprecedented backlash in social media. The advertisement was positioned as a paean to a seamless celebration of the coming together of two individuals and their families in an inter faith marriage.
Undoubtedly, the advertisement is compelling. The monochromatic aesthetics, subtle lilting music, seamless mingling and blending of scenarios, creative voice over and dialogues culminating in a crescendo – Ekatvam, celebrating the beauty of Oneness – had a surreal, feel-good quality. Equally, its syrupy, saccharine, sentimentality had an unreal quality .
I particularly liked the advertisement for subverting the deeply entrenched negative stereotype of the relationship between a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law. And here was a mother-in-law who was an ally of the daughter-in-law! This certainly was an empowering counter narrative.
More important, however, towards the end of the advertisement, the daughter-in-law, displaying her Hindu identity markers (such as the bindi, albeit nothing more than a teeny weeny dot!) overwhelmed by the show of generosity of her marital family, nevertheless, assertively asks her mother-in-law a pointed question:
“Ma! These customs are not followed in your family, are they?”
I sensed a deeply perceptive Hindu daughter-in-law who was aware that there were essential differences between the two faiths that could not be erased. The dividing line between ‘us’ and ‘them, existed, albeit invisible. And that she had the courage of conviction to voice her apprehensions to her mother-in-law.
However, her discerning voice was permanently muted by her mother-in-law’s disarming strategic response, “But keeping a girl happy is the responsibility of every family, isn’t it?”
In doing so, the mother-in-law artfully dodged the equally strategic question. The patronising, condescending attitude embedded in her reply was on fully display like the illuminating glare of a 1000-watt bulb. Unfortunately, however, as the advertisement makers wanted viewers to believe, power, privilege and the doles of tokenism doused the passionate enquiry of the daughter-in-law and the rest as they say, is history…
The syrupy, sentimental, saccharine advertisement once again segued into a confluence of happy faces and voices that culminate in the mother-in-law fastening a chunky piece of Tanishq jewellery on her heavily pregnant daughter-in-law…. who, we can expect, lives happily ever after…
In 1817, well known British poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge coined the now celebrated term “willing suspension of disbelief” as the essence of artistic faith. Simply put, the term refers to the ability of readers or viewers to let go of reality and accept the artistic offering. And that’s what the makers of the Tanishq advertisement set out to expertly re-create and they almost succeeded.
They created a paradisical version of an inter-faith marriage that is wrinkle-free, blemish-free. It thereby effectively erased and whitewashed the grim realities of most inter faith marriages with the mandatory conversion of the Hindu bride which also confers legal entitlements mandated on the conversion.
While viewing the advertisement, however much I desperately desired to suspend my disbelief, it kept surfacing resiliently. Literary critic and author Norman Holland in Literature and the brain writes about how the viewer or reader is involved in experiencing art or literature and the neuropsychology of our engagement with art. He writes eloquently about the neurological activity related to willing suspension of disbelief:
“Coleridge asked readers of his fantastical poems, including The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, to give him “that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.” That phrase, ‘poetic faith,’ encapsulates what our brain is doing. It isn’t that we stop disbelieving—it’s that we believe two inconsistent things. We accept that we are sitting and reading or watching a movie. We also believe or, more accurately, feel that what we are reading or viewing is happening.”
The essence of willing suspension of disbelief is being magically “transported” to another world, an alternative reality, however impossible it may be. This helps us to unconditionally invest emotionally in a work of art. According to neuroscientists, this shuts down the pre frontal cortex, the decision making part of our brain and enables us to hold or juxtapose two contradictory realities.
I, for one, was unable to resonate on a deeper level with the Tanishq advertisement simply because the dissonance between the lived realities of inter-faith marriages and its screen. The air brushed, photoshopped quality of the advertisement created significant cognitive dissonance. It didn’t shut down my pre frontal cortex; I was no longer just a disinterested viewer…
What’s in an advertisement? I wondered. Apparently, plenty. Was it my new found sense of wokeness or awareness of the nuances of historical and contemporary realities in Bharat and across the world? Or my growing awareness of the centrality of sampradaya (customs and traditions) that cannot be simply transported in isolation from the context in which it is embedded? Or the importance of being grounded in one’s own religion and sampradaya and abdication of pseudo-secular, liberal values at the shrine of decolonisation?
For these and other related reasons, the Tanishq advertisement does not resonate with me. It reminds me of a fabled fairy tale full of fluff, bubble wrapped in superficial notions of Ekatvam—a transcendental concept that has been downgraded to the mundane.
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