This Dubious New British Airways Ad Speaks Volumes About How White People See Indians
If you're familiar with the Broadway musical Avenue Q, you already know that "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist." And so, it would seem, British Airways is not exempt.
In a recent BA campaign, "British Airways: Fuelled by Love," the video is ostensibly meant to portray the airline as worldly, loving and connected. But they may have achieved just the opposite.
Posted on Monday, "Fuelled by Love" is getting praise from, of all places, YouTube commenters, one of whom described it as "bursting" with humanity.
But here's another possible characterization: condescending, patronizing and fetishizing.
Directed by award-winning Neeraj Ghaywan, the 6-minute short film shows a young white flight attendant, Helena, on her first trip to India. She befriends an elderly Indian woman on the 10-hour flight from the United Kingdom to the subcontinent, as Helena aids the passenger with everything from putting on the woman's socks to providing emotional comfort.
"Are you okay?" Helena asks said old lady as she tearily looks off into the distance. "Oh, you're crying. Did something happen? Is there a problem? Are you in any pain, I can..."
"I miss my son," says the nameless Indian woman.
"Look, we're not in the same position, but I really do understand," the flight attendant says. "When you miss someone, you miss someone."
"But look on the bright side," Helena adds, trying to cheer her up. "Think of your family back in Hyderabad. They miss you, too. And I bet they're so excited to meet you. Yeah? Look, why don't we take your mind off things — put on a good movie?"
The problem lies in the tone and delivery. The British Airways employee, speaking to the woman as though she's a child, reeks of the "white savior" trope. In return for her kindness, the Indian woman invites the savior to her home for an immersive experience in the exoticism of the natives.
"I never thought I'd go, but there was something in her smile," Helena narrates in a voiceover. "You know, that childlike persuasion." Yes, childlike persuasion.
What follows is a whistle-stop tour through practically every stereotype associated with the Indian subcontinent. A young girl does a traditional dance for Helena and the family as an amused Helena claps along.
"I never thought I'd go, but there was something in her smile. You know, that childlike persuasion."
Then comes the sitar. And the chai-drinking lesson. And the feast, filled with exotic delicacies. The ad successfully portrays the platitude of Eastern mysticism, enchanting Helena throughout.
In the pièce de résistance, mother India endows Helena with a personalized, embroidered handkerchief. Helena is moved to tears, because awww.
The misguided representation — which Condé Nast Traveler positively reviewed in its article "New British Airways Ad Will Make You Cry (and Miss Your Mom)" — depicts Indians as simplistic, inferior and bound to the generosity of Westerners.
And, finally, the tagline, "Loving India back since 1924," the year British Airways started offering flights to India. Loving them back? According to whom, exactly?
In the early 20th century, "loving India back" came in the form of violent subjugation of the Indian peoples during a nearly century-long colonization. The British co-opted India's resources and recklessly withdrew their occupation in 1947, such that more than one million Indians died and fifteen million were displaced.
Watch the full short film here: