On Sunday evening, when the International Indian Film Academy Awards were screened on Indian television, actor Deepika Padukone made a stirring speech after being named the Best Actress in a Leading Role for her film Piku. Padukone said:
“When I was growing up my father said to me, ‘To be the best, always remember the three Ds - Discipline, Dedication and Determination. Follow your heart. Do what you are passionate about.’ Sport has taught me how to handle failure. It has also taught me how to handle success. It has kept me grounded. It has taught me humility.
“Two years ago I struggled with depression. I was sinking. I almost gave up. But it was the athlete in me that gave me the strength to fight and never ever give up. And so I want to say to every girl and every boy and every woman and every man – play a sport, because it changed my life and it will change yours too. Sport has taught me how to survive. It has taught me how to fight. It has made me unstoppable.”
The speech was followed by a screening of Nike’s new ad, featuring Padukone, who was a national-level badminton player before she took up acting full-time, and other Indian athletes. On Monday morning, Padukone posted the video of the ad on her Facebook page along with the text of her speech.
The video, not surprisingly, has received millions of views and been lapped up by the media – Indian and international – as well. But while everyone raved about the fact that the ad was built around athletes, very few pointed out that the only identified star, Padukone, is not a sportsperson anymore. And not all the women in the ad are even sportspersons, some of them being models.
The reason to centre the campaign around Padukone, with 3.1 crore and 1.5 crore followers on Facebook and Twitter respectively, is perhaps obvious. But what about the actual sports stars?
“It’s one of those ads that can bring a tear to the eye of even the most cynical ad watcher wary of selling female empowerment back to the women it’s meant to empower,” wrote Melissa Locker for Time, in a piece titled “India’s female athletes take center stage in Nike’s powerful new ad”.
ScoopWhoop’s Saurav Bhanot covered it with the headline “Deepika Padukone stars alongside 10 badass athletes in this powerful Nike anthem”, in which he wrote that the actor, “along with 10 of the most talented and celebrated sportswomen in India, is out to encourage young women, and even men to get out and play a sport”.
Only trouble is: ScoopWhoop did not bother naming any of these 10 “badass athletes”. Neither did Time, who did not forget to point out that the song in the video, “Da Da Ding” is by hip-hop artist M.I.A.’s collaborator Gener8ion.
The irony of the popularity of the ad was not lost on some Twitter users too:
Livemint and Mashable were among the few who did name some of the athletes – hockey player Rani Rampal, footballer Jyoti Ann Burrett and cricketers Harmanpreet Kaur, Smriti Mandana and Shubhlakshmi Sharma – but the five names were straight out of Nike’s press release.
Nike itself does not name or feature any of the women from the ad on its website apart from Padukone, and leaves it to the media to publish the names from its press release or by themselves. Asked if it ever struck the company that people would not recognise any of the athletes, a spokesperson for Nike said, “That perhaps is a reflection of the present state of sport [in India]. The objective of the campaign is to inspire and remind women that they are as much athletes as they are women. All women featured in the campaign are athletes.”
A pity, then, that despite breaking new ground in a country where brand-building hasn't really focussed on women athletes, the ad drew attention to itself rather than the people it featured.
Still, an ad campaign focused on women's sport and fitness is probably a first in India. Big brands and advertisers rarely support women’s sport in the country. Only top performers like Sania Mirza, Saina Nehwal and Mary Kom are among the handful of sportswomen who have appeared in Indian advertisements. In March this year, Star India had to stall its marketing plans for the Women’s World Twenty20 tournament after the broadcaster did not find any takers from the advertising fraternity.
These are some of the women who are featured in the ad along with Padukone:
Joshna Chinappa: Squash player who is currently ranked 10th in the world.
Rani Rampal: Member of the Indian women's hockey team. She started playing for India at the age of 15.
Ishita Malaviya: India’s first professional female surfer.
Jyoti Ann Burrett: Footballer who plays for the Indian women's team as a striker.
Tanvie Hans: Footballer who plays for English club Fulham Ladies FC. Since she holds a British passport, she is barred from playing for India.
Harmanpreet Kaur: Plays for the Indian women's cricket team as an all-rounder. She is also the vice-captain.
Smriti Mandhana: Opening batsman of the Indian women's cricket team.
Shubhlakshmi Sharma: Plays for the Indian women's cricket team as an all-rounder.
Shweta Hakke: Sprinter
Shwetha Subbiah: Personal trainer
Gabriella Demetriades: South African model-turned-actor
Jaie Bhadane: Model
Naina Mansukhani: Song writer and singer
Corrections and clarifications: This article has been edited to change the designation of Harmanpreet Kaur from captain of the Indian women's cricket team to vice-captain and Tanvie Hans's current club from Tottenham Hotspur to Fulham Ladies FC.