In a festive season when Indians have lots of sex, an actress draws fire for promoting condoms

Not openly please, we are Indians.
Not openly please, we are Indians.
Image: Reuters/Lucas Jackson
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A condom ad coming amidst one of India’s biggest festivals, and featuring a former porn star, has sparked outrage in the western state of Gujarat.

Furious traders have written to prime minister Narendra Modi’s government seeking a ban on the commercial hoardings—calling it an “irresponsible and immature attempt to boost sales by putting our cultural value system at stake.”

The complaint is against the Manforce condom ad in the coastal trading city of Surat. The local cops promptly brought down the hoardings. While the ad itself does not mention the word condom or sex, it does show Bollywood actress Sunny Leone and carry the tagline “Aa Navratrie ramo parantu prem thi” (This Navratri, play, but with love).

Navratri, or “Nine Nights,” which begins today (Sept. 21), is a festival observed across the country by most Hindus, who fast and pray for nine days. Piety apart, the festival is also a time to rejoice and make merry. Among Gujaratis particularly, it is marked by night-long social gatherings and community dancing—the Garba or Dandiya dance form being extremely popular.

With large parts of India still socially conservative, festivals like Navratri usher in some temporary levity and euphoria, increasing the chances of youngsters getting intimate with those of the opposite sex. “Children can do anything. Drugs, unprotected sex, and bad company are my main worry,” one parent was quoted by Reuters as saying under these circumstances.

According to the Los Angeles-based AIDS Healthcare Foundation, which works towards the prevention of the disease, there is even a perceived increase in the incidence of abortions post-Navratri festivities. “Sexually-transmitted infections also rise during this period,” said Dr V Sam Prasad, the organisation’s country programme director for India.

In any case, it is often reported that contraceptive sales hit the roof during Navratri, including in Gujarat. Not surprisingly, condom companies look to ride this spike.

However, Leone, a popular celebrity in India, being featured in the ad this time has earned the wrath of Gujarat’s Confederation of All India Traders (CAIT).

In the letter written to the Modi’s ministry of consumer affairs, CAIT national secretary general Praveen Khandelwal has said that the ad is ”shouting out to encourage youths to use Manforce condoms in the name of Navratri festival.” It labels Leone’s presence in the ad as a sign “of lust of earning huge money…brand ambassadors can go to any level irrespective of the pious and religious occasion of Navratri even.”

An e-mail sent to Mankind Pharma, the maker of Manforce condoms, did not elicit a response.

Selling condoms in India

India is a fairly complex market for condom companies.

Less than 5% of households in the country use condoms. Even among those who do use them, their sale or purchase is mostly a hush-hush affair, making it difficult for companies to market and sell their brands. In any case, they mostly rely on pharmacies and online stores for this rather than regular grocery or general stores.

Condom ad campaigns, too, are sanitised to not ruffle prevalent conservative attitudes too much.

However, signing up Leone as brand ambassador in 2012 did a world of good for Manforce condoms. It resulted in a spike in sales, making the brand the largest in the category by market-share.

It wasn’t surprising, considering how popular Leone. In 2016, she trumped prime minister Modi and Bollywood star Salman Khan to become the most searched for Indian personality on Google.

Meanwhile, despite Indians’ professed attitude towards sex, they are among the world’s biggest consumers of pornography.

“The problem really is the billboard. We are a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ society. Sunny Leone is our goddess of the darkened movie theatre or our private bedrooms….When Sunny Leone winks at us from a billboard on a busy highway as we are headed to work or a family dinner, we look away nervously…Sunny Leone reminding us that we might have lustful thoughts during Navaratri embarrasses us even if the condom sales spike prove that she’s on the money,” journalist Sandip Roy wrote.