Their faces are on billboards. One carries a distinctive Louis Vuitton bag. A glamorous supermodel poses in front of them.
It is the advertisement that has sparked outrage on social media websites. Part of the campaign for Sana Safinaz’s designer lawn, the ad showing model Neha Ahmed posing in front of coolies has caused a stir online, with people calling for a boycott of the lawn because they have found the ad distasteful and exploitative.
But at Karachi’s Cantt station, the coolies featured in the advertisement are quite unaware that they’re the subject of dozens of tweets and Facebook updates.
In fact, they have no idea that they are in a lawn advertisement.
Three of the coolies who feature in the Sana Safinaz lawn campaign had no idea it was an advertisement for fabric. “We were told it was for a drama serial,” says Mohammad Ilyas, a coolie from Gujrat.
“This is an advertisement for lawn,” I tell them, zooming into the photo on my phone. “That is the girl… and that’s me in the background,” Ilyas says.
According to the coolies, a couple of weeks ago their contractor (thekaydar) Allah Ditta was approached by the people behind the lawn campaign, who asked for several coolies to feature in a “film”.
The shoot took place at two railway stations over two days, the City Railway Station and the one at Drigh Road. Twelve coolies went to the shoot at City, seven of them to the Drigh Road Station.
“There were about a hundred, 150 people at the shooting,” Ilyas said. “They had arranged for a train (for the shoot). We were told to pick up bags — they had brought all these boxes and bags — and take them on and off the train. The train was decorated with balloons etc.”
The three coolies interviewed described being paid varied amounts. Ilyas said the men were given Rs600 per day for their labour, and were offered food on the first day of the shoot, but not the second. The shoot ran from 6 am to 6 pm. “We make Rs600 or so in a day as well,” said Ilyas, who has worked at Cantt Station for 20 years. “So for us this was labour.”
The men were also given clothes to wear under their distinctive red uniforms and badges.
Shah Mohammad strolls up in his shalwar kameez and begins to put on his uniform, proclaiming him as Number 206. He ties his badge on and then peers at the photo. Sixty-five and a 40-year veteran at the Cantt Station, Shah Mohammad is the man who held the now famed Louis Vuitton bag in the advertisement.
But like Ilyas, he is unaware he’s the star of an advertisement.
“I’ll go and see it now,” he says, when told that the billboards have gone up around the city.
Mohammad says the men were also given an additional Rs2,000 at the end of the day.
But while online commentators have raised questions of exploitation and that the advertisement is in bad taste, Shah Mohammad says, “It seemed fine to us.”
Mohammad Asif, 32, can’t see himself in the image, but says he was at the shoot. He has spent half his life working as a coolie, and says he was paid Rs500 for being at the Drigh Road shoot. “There isn’t anything wrong about this.”’
Shani, part of the Lahore-based photographer duo Guddu Shani who shot the advertisement campaign, told The Express Tribune that the ad has been misconstrued. “This was a theme in the ad campaign. The purpose was that Sana Safinaz is trying to lower their prices and penetrate the masses. So we’ve shown Neha sitting on the floor and mingling with them, but people have misinterpreted that. It’s a big brand, and we wanted to show the mix of a high-end brand with street fashion. We’ve always preferred local places to shoot, we did a shoot last year with Gul Ahmed and the model Ayaan that also featured coolies standing at the side and smiling. We shot other ads in factories with welders etc.”
According to Shani, the campaign makes sense in the larger context of the entire campaign, which comprises print and television commercials.
Shani says the coolies definitely knew they were in a lawn campaign and were “very happy”.
“They were smiling and laughing, they were excited that their pictures would be on billboards.” Abid Ali, whose production company AFAS Productions managed the shoot, said the coolies were paid “Rs10,000 each” for the two-day shoot. “A boy from my staff went to organise this and we had permission to use the trains,” he said.
Designer Safinaz Munir says “people have just taken one image out and are passing judgment” and not “looking at the entire ad campaign in its totality”.
“Our intentions are so pure,” Munir said, “It’s really sad. It doesn’t matter to me that 20, 30 people are passing judgment. On the other hand, we’ve had thousands of people who’ve loved the ads and the designs. And railway stations have been used in so many campaigns — 10 years ago Samina Ibrahim did a very similar shoot for Herald with [designer] Rizwan Beyg, train stations are in the Ufone campaign too.”
But Munir isn’t deterred by the criticism. “We’re public figures and if you can’t take this you shouldn’t be in the public eye. It goes with the territory.”
“Everyone uses porters for luggage. No one carries their own luggage,” Munir said, whose personal luggage was used in the advertisements. “Like your driver drives your car, that’s his job.”
Advertising executive and The Express Tribune columnist Sami Shah says that, “If you spend any time with Photoshop, you can see that the coolies and the woman were shot separately. So this isn’t a case of them and her being in the same shoot at the same time, which would have been, at least, more of a concept.”
Published in The Express Tribune, March 17th, 2012.