On the surface of it, it would seem as if we have come a long way. In 1996, Deepa Mehta’s Fire was banned because it showed a lesbian relationship between two sisters-in-law in a Hindu family. The director and the actors Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das even got death threats from right-wing groups. In 2015, India — or at least the microcosm of it that makes its opinions known online — is celebrating an ad film that shows a young lesbian couple preparing to meet the parents and declare their love. In fact, although the film is being hailed as the first of its kind, I remember a lighthearted ad from Fastrack a year or so ago, also about ‘coming out of the closet’.
Of course, the irony is not lost on anybody that two years ago, the Supreme Court actually overturned a 2009 High Court order that had declared Section 377 unconstitutional. In other words, a same-sex relationship is illegal in India today, even as we suddenly >seem okay about celebrating it in popular culture . In fact, the recent Bollywood film, Margarita, with a Straw, had the protagonist with cerebral palsy exploring a lesbian relationship; and, strangely, neither fringe elements nor our delicate Censor Board tried to ban it.
Over the ages, outdated and unjust laws across the world have always had to play catch up, as social mores have changed far more swiftly than formal codes. Until as recently as 1967, when a law finally overturned it, interracial marriage and even sex between people of different races was considered a criminal offence in the U.S.
It took decades of struggle before the American Constitution was amended in 1920 to allow women to vote. So it is hardly surprising that as countries across the globe slowly move to legalise same-sex marriage, India is still struggling to decriminalise same-sex relationships. Long before the law here catches up, the people will have. And, ultimately, the law will too.
The film that has caught everyone’s attention was made for Myntra, the online shopping portal, for its ethnic clothing brand Anouk. What’s the connection, you might ask, but companies are increasingly using social messages as a way to create sticky branding. It is one of a rather syrupy three-film series called ‘Bold is Beautiful’, conceptualised by Ogilvy & Mather, and each story is about women’s rights — single mothers, lesbians, and sexual harassment, respectively — along the lines of the Tanishq ad that broke taboos about remarriage some time ago.
Economic reasons Both Myntra owners and the film’s creators naturally claim that their aim in making the film was social change, but it obviously helps their bottom line tremendously that a theme dealing with alternative sexuality gathers them more eyeballs than a year’s advertising budget would have. But we still have to give them credit for courage. Given how intolerant we have become as a society, with every chance that the film and the brand could have been targeted by raging yobs, it was a brave move.
Some LGBT activists have commented on the upper-class, comfortable and safe life of the gay couple in the ad, far removed from their own lived realities of sordid discrimination and ostracism. It is an important point, because regardless of the courage shown or the professed aim of social change, the ad was made for a specific commercial purpose — to sell the products of an online clothing brand. This brand’s market segment will typically be young, upmarket, urban, modern, web-friendly, and — most important —highly likely to include lesbians or young women whose friends are lesbians. That’s why the film chooses a chic, boho and clean setting, something the main buyers of its clothes will identify with.
On the other hand, television often screens an ad for platinum jewellery, an exorbitantly expensive product whose buyer is likely to be older, far more well-heeled and conservative. Far from breaking new boundaries, in a clear bow to its market segment, the film endorses and encourages the age-old tradition of arranged marriage!
What is significant in all this is the fact that Myntra and its advertising agency have cottoned on rather early to the fact that the LGBT segment is growing in numbers, visibility and economic clout. They now have purchasing power, which the market cannot afford to ignore as easily as the courts have ignored their demand for legitimacy. As always, markets will lead social change.
In the West, for example, long before same-sex marriage was legalised, what was already booming was the industry for gay people. An entire sub-economy thrives on business from same-sex couples, ranging from gay pubs, clubs and hotels to boutiques and ‘gaycations’ customised by travel agencies for gay clients. There are LGBT bookshops, film-makers, wedding planners, spas and health clinics. The LGBT tourism business in the U.S. is reportedly worth 65 billion pink dollars a year, while in Europe gay tourism reportedly brings in some €50 billion per year.
In fact, as same-sex marriage is legalised and LGBT communities begin to get mainstreamed, these markets are beginning to see the trend come full circle — exclusive gay pubs and pink spaces are gradually shutting shop, not just for business reasons but because sections of the community don’t want to be ghettoised.
The LGBT economy in India has barely started, so there is a long way to go, but what is becoming increasingly clear to businesses and marketers is that they cannot afford any longer to ignore the community. As same-sex couples and people with alternative sexualities get more confident and self-assertive, the pink rupee will begin to dictate to the market. And political and legal rights follow very close on the heels of economic power. Not only will products and services oriented to the same-sex community contribute to an increased and a more public discourse about their identity and acceptance, it will provide the final push towards mainstreaming the community.