An advertisement for traditional Indian jewellery starring a transgender model is winning hearts in India.
The one-minute-40-second video charts the story of transition of a trans woman – an awkward teenager with facial hair and self-doubt who transforms into a beautiful confident bride.
With 22-year-old Meera Singhania Rehani in the lead, the video by Kerala-based jewellery house Bhima depicts the love and acceptance that the protagonist receives from her family – each milestone in her life is celebrated through the gold jewellery they gift her.
Titled Pure as Love, the ad has been viewed more than 900,000 times on YouTube and 1.4 million times on Instagram since its release in April and has received rave reviews.
Meera, a student of sociology at Delhi University and part-time model who came out to her family two years back, says when she first heard about the ad, she “was very sceptical”.
“I didn’t want someone to appropriate my trans identity for commercial use. I was also nervous since the film involved transition and as a pre-transition person I’m shown as a man with a beard.
“But when I read the story and researched about the director, I said yes. And I’m glad I did. Doing this has also helped me become more comfortable with myself,” she told the BBC.
India has an estimated two million transgender people, and in 2014 the Supreme Court ruled that they have equal rights under the law as people of other genders.
But abuse and stigma remain. Many transgender people are thrown out of their homes by their families, and most still make a living by singing and dancing at weddings or child births, or through begging and prostitution.
Kerala is India’s most trans-friendly state – in 2015, it became the first to unveil a Transgender Policy to end stigma and discrimination towards the sexual minority group. But transphobia remains as real in Kerala as anywhere else in India.
Navya Rao, online marketing head at Bhima and the brain behind the ad, told the BBC that her proposal for the campaign was met with “fears and apprehensions” from her colleagues.
“All our previous ads had happy heterosexual brides. So we were worried about how people would perceive it and react to it.
“Most of our stores are in rural parts of the state. We were not sure how much exposure people there would have had to these issues.”
But the 96-year-old jewellery house, with dozens of stores in southern India and a branch in the United Arab Emirates, decided to go ahead with the ad to “give a social message” and “start a conversation”.
Ms Rao says she was well aware that the campaign could backfire. Memory of last year’s controversy over an advertisement by popular jewellery brand Tanishq also instilled fear – that campaign with an interfaith couple was withdrawn after a right-wing backlash on social media.
Meera says she “was expecting a lot of conflict, especially since the ad shows a Hindu wedding which directly challenges the Hindu hetero-patriarchal system”.
But Pure as Love has received little hate and the response, Ms Rao says, has been “overwhelming”.
“There was some criticism of the ad and we were accused of lending a voice to a cause that’s unnatural and not supposed to exist in society. But our inboxes have been filled with positive messages. Many from the LGBTQI community reached out to us saying the ad had touched their heart,” she said.
Sudha Pillai, a writer and brand strategist at Firework, a video platform, described the ad as “revolutionary”.
“I watched it on a Malayalam news channel and I thought they might not sell any jewellery, but if the idea was to grab eyeballs, they did it,” she said.
“I’ve never seen any traditional brand do something so drastic. To take that kind of a risk for a traditional jeweller was revolutionary,” she added.
On Instagram, many described it as “brilliant” and “beautiful” and confessed that they were “moved to tears” watching it.
“Thank you for giving me someone I can aspire to be on screen,” read one comment on YouTube. “I am moved to tears to know that you’ve used a trans person for this film… For the first time it feels like my story matters TOO… and our lives deserve to be happy TOO. This is remarkable! ❤️ Bhima.”
In India, where films and popular culture still mostly portray transgender people as caricatures, Ms Pillai says ad campaigns like this can be a game-changer.
“Advertisements and TV series are much more impactful than movies. They are played repeatedly in homes and have the power to change opinions. There can be a bit of resistance to them initially, but they can be a game-changer.”
Ms Pillai says when she praised the ad on social media, she mostly expected responses from conservative Indians and angry trolls.
“There were some differences in opinion, but the number of those who felt threatened was tiny. More than 95% responses were positive and that in itself was very heartening,” she said.