Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, long seen as one of the darlings of Bollywood and India for that matter, found herself in some hot water this past week after an advertisement she did for a huge Indian jewellery chain was slammed for being racist and promoting child slavery.

Given that the Bachchan family, which Aishwarya married into in 2007, is seen as Bollywood royalty, the embarrassment at not being politically correct would have been huge. The former Miss India first runner-up and Miss World 1994 is also a Goodwill Ambassador for the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS).

20140215boxThe critically acclaimed and award-winning actress (Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Devdas, Provoked), has acted in some 40 films, many of which have been huge box-office successes, hence her ability to attract endorsement deals. Though she has not appeared in a film since 2010, Aishwarya has nevertheless remained in the public realm, walking the runway for famed Indian designer Manish Malhotra, attending film festivals in Cannes, France and awards festivities in the United States.

Her classic beauty has also piloted her into being pursued as brand ambassador for many international companies and products including L’Oreal, Pepsi, Coca Cola, Casio, Palmolive, Fuji film, Longines watches, De Beers Diamonds and Kalyan Jewellers.

It was through the last named entity that Aishwarya found herself being roundly criticized this past week. Kalyan had placed an advertisement in a national newspaper in India last week, which featured a bejewelled Aishwarya reclining on a chaise longue while a dark-skinned child held a parasol over her. The company said the advertisement was intended to present “royalty, timeless beauty and elegance.”

Instead, it sparked outrage across social media and a group of activists quickly penned an open letter to Aishwarya calling on her to disassociate herself from the advert and ensure its withdrawal. The ad is truly reminiscent of that well-worn, despicable image of slavery, in which the slave is pictured holding a parasol over or fanning his/her master/mistress and you just know that the slave has been standing there for an interminably long time. Aishwarya’s light complexion and the child’s very dark skin, coupled with his emaciated arms and protruding belly, suggesting malnutrition brought the imagery forcefully home.

Kalyan Jewellers got more attention than it had perhaps sought and none of it positive. A group of social activists said the image reflected 17th and 18th century European paintings of noblewomen with their child servants and was “insidiously racist”. “While advertisers routinely use fantasy images to sell products, they must surely desist from using images that condone, legitimise, normalise, or build desirable fantasy around slavery or servitude of any kind, including child slavery or child servitude,” the group wrote.

The letter awakened Aishwarya to the fact that the photo shoot she had done for the ad had been altered and her publicist quickly issued a disclaimer. The photo had been ‘weathered’ to make it appear old, Aishwarya’s face had been further lightened, the chaise changed to look older and the child, who was not real, had been photo-shopped in.

All of this had been done, the company said, in the name of creativity. It later took the decision to pull the ad. But it had already been shared umpteen times via social media, so it remains out there. The company has been slammed as sick and insensitive, given the fact that thousands of rural Indian children are sold into bonded labour every year, and the country is home to more than 14 million victims of human trafficking.

Aishwarya’s publicist gave the impression that she had been unaware that the photo had been altered, which raise the question of creative license. If companies can decide to basically do what they want with someone’s image after the fact, then advertising contracts will have to be drawn up which explicitly spell out how far they can go.

This incident should also serve as a warning for advertising models the world over. Extensive damage can be done by unscrupulous people, if your image no longer belongs to you after they would have photographed it. Not everyone has the clout of an Aishwarya Rai Bachchan. Bad publicity can be destructive.

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