It’s an ad for Vicks, maker of cold and cough remedies, produced for the Indian market. It’s had 9 million views on YouTube so far. And it’s launched a discussion on social media about the rights of transgender people.
The 3 1/2-minute commercial, released online on March 31, doesn’t mention any products. Instead, it tells what is labeled as a “true story.”
A girl in her teens, looking out a bus window, says she’s on her way to boarding school because her mother wants her to be a doctor. Then the girl, Gayatri, tells how “mom” was kicked out of her own home when she was 18. And she took in little Gayatri after her birth mother was taken away in an ambulance and never came back.
Earlier in the ad, we see the mother only from the back. She’s wearing a sari. Then we see her face, with a red bindi on her forehead. Gayatri looks over and says, “This is my mummy. Isn’t she lovely?”
The ad does not mention that “mummy” is Gauri Sawant, who was born a boy and came out as a woman in her teens. But that’s the point of the final scene:
“In our civics text books, we read that everyone is entitled to the same basic rights,” Gayatri says. “Then why is my mom denied them? This is why I’m not going to be a doctor, but a lawyer. For my mom.”
Then the logo of Vicks appears with the words: “Generations of Care.”
The story is indeed true, and the the real Gayatri and Gauri Sawant appear in the ad. But certain details are omitted from their story. The child was 6 when her mother, a sex worker, died of AIDS. Gauri, then 27, was her mother’s friend and stepped in to raise her.
Some people think the ad exploits transgender people to sell a product. But on social media, where everyone is always ready to express outrage, the response has been resoundingly positive. On Facebook, where the video has racked up 2 million views and thousands of comments, most are a variation on, “This made me cry.”
Neeraj Ghaywan, the director of the ad, wrote on YouTube:
“Thank you everyone! Just a note: It is actually Gauri Sawant (and not an actor) playing her part. Of course, legally she cannot adopt a child. Just hoping someday the world will be as one. Again, thank you for this overwhelming love from all around.”
“Motherhood has no gender” is a comment that’s been repeated across all social media.
The ad has also raised a debate about adoption and other rights for transgender people in India.
Gauri Sawant is an activist for transgender people and runs an NGO in Mumbai. She was one of the original petitioners to challenge the government of India for equal rights and recognition for transgender people, resulting in the passage of a law by the Supreme Court of India.
As of April 15, 2014, application forms for college or documentation have had male, female and third gender as category options. And “third gender” people have been added to the quota for “Other Backward Classes” who are eligible for affirmative action, giving them a chance to apply for jobs in the government or to educational institutions that might not previously have considered them. Other provisions of the law, such as campaigns to diminish social stigma, have not yet materialized.
When it comes to adopting a child, the law in India is still murky. While it is clear that same sex couples cannot adopt children, it’s unclear if a transgender person, applying as a male or female, could. The Vicks ad raises questions about what rights “mummy” does indeed have to raise the little girl.
In an email, Nitin Darbari, marketing director for Asia at Procter & Gamble, said the goal of the ad was to start a conversation and “celebrate” the changing definitions of family. “We are overwhelmed by the reactions and the willingness to engage in the conversations and the number of people who have evinced interest/stepped forward,” Darbari wrote.
For Harrish Iyer, an equal rights activist in Mumbai, the best thing about the ad is that it, “does something even our mainstream media hasn’t managed: This ad normalizes [people who are transgender]. So many times if there’s a gay or trans person portrayed, they’re a caricature or a cause.”
Chhavi Sachdev is a journalist based in Mumbai. Contact her @chhavi