A prequel to that Sabhyata Diwali ad

The recent Diwali ad by Sabhyata, a clothing brand, made by the agency ‘P se Picture’ garnered a lot of praise.

The narrative in this ad reminded me of a classic episode of Darpan or Katha Saagar that I used to love watching on Doordarshan in the late-1980s – early-1990s, owing to its fantastic casting and acting, and unhurried pace that lets us sink into the protagonists’ thoughts.

If you have not yet seen the ad film, wait! Read on, and then watch the film (at the end of this post).

The ad film also attracted some amount of criticism and most of it was focused on the ‘lie’ that was supposedly encouraged by the interviewer, and considered (or we, the viewers, were led to believe that it will be uttered) by the candidate.

I believe this focus on the ‘lie’ is completely misunderstanding the story being told in the ad.

So, I thought of an idea to help more people understand what they are watching – allow me to construct the steps that led to what we end up seeing in the end.

In other words, what was the interviewer (the CEO of the company, Charu Chopra) thinking when she sneaked up on the candidate, Sadhna Sharma, without revealing her identity, for the last round of the interview? Why did she choose this unconventional route?

Read on!

“So, what’s the update, Naman?”, asked Charu, the CEO of the company.

Naman said, “Ma’am, among the nine candidates that we have interviewed over multiple rounds so far, I have a clear consensus from the interviewing team. It’s Sadhna Sharma all the way!”.

“Oh good, then! Shall we send her the offer letter?”

Bhagyalakshmi, Naman’s colleague, interjected: “Ma’am, there’s one thing that I’d like to mention. But I’m not sure if this is something I can talk about at all.”

“Why Bhagya? What is it? You know me, you know this company well – why this hesitation? Just say what you have in mind!”, said Charu.

“Ma’am, I think Sadhna is pregnant!”, said Bhagyalakshmi.

Charu was visibly surprised! And said, “Wow, where did that come from, Bhagya? And why should it be a point of concern or even a point worth considering or exploring?”.

Bhagya said, “Ma’am, that’s why I was hesitant to broach this subject. I haven’t asked her this during the interview, and I don’t think it’s my, or anyone’s, place to even ask this unrelated question during an interview.”

“Fair enough, Bhagya. So why bring this up now?”, asked Charu.

“Ma’am, is it possible that Sadhna’s last company asked her to leave after knowing about her pregnancy?”

Charu gave that a thought, and said, “Hmm, that’s possible. Did we ask her why she was looking for a change?”.

Naman said, “Yes ma’am. I did, during my round of interview. Sadhna said that she was looking for better quality of work, as well as better pay. I would understand if she did not mention anything related to pregnancy – that’s entirely her personal prerogative”.

Charu was silent for an uncomfortably long time. Finally, she said, “Ok. This is an intriguing situation to have. We cannot ask her anything directly because if we did, she may think we’re being intrusive, and rightly so – this is none of our business as an organization. And you know our people policy around pregnancy, for both mothers and fathers. It’s no wonder we’re ranked so high in the Great Places to Work report year after year even for a small-sized organization that we are. So, should we use this information, or rather, Bhagya’s guess, in any way at all? Shouldn’t we just ignore it and give her the offer?”.

Bhagya said, “Ma’am, since I have already made one possibly politically incorrect quip, let me make one more!”

Charu said impishly, “Oh, someone is in great form today, eh? Ok, let’s hear it Bhagya!”.

Bhagya laid out her idea: “Ma’am, I think we could try something unusual, provided you are game for it. Sadhna should understand that we are not like other organizations when it comes to the topic of pregnancy and women. She should realize that we are genuinely supportive, and go the whole mile in terms of purposeful policies… and I say this as someone who has gained enormously from such support”.

Charu interjected with a smile, “Bhagya, get on with the idea already, will you?”

Bhagya said, “Ma’am, how about you handle the last round of interview yourself, but without revealing who you are? Wait, before you ask me more, let me finish explaining the idea!!” and paused for effect.

The room was silent.

Bhagya continued, “As an employee, or as a CEO, we, or you, have no business asking Sadhna about her pregnancy. It has no material impact on our offer anyway. But we should make her feel completely comfortable in this organization and know that we will completely support her in every way possible. Towards that, think about who can actually dare to ask her if she is pregnant. Think of a stereotype of a standard intrusive neighborhood aunty who wouldn’t even think before popping such a question. Ma’am, can you play the role of an intrusive aunty type person?”

Charu was both amused and intrigued, but added quickly, “Bhagya, I like the way you are thinking. You want to give me an excuse to broach this subject in a way Sadhna would be disarmed and candid. And perhaps chat more about the reasons why she is quitting her earlier job. But what’s the end game here?”

“The thought I had in my mind was to lead her to believe she is waiting for her last round of interview. You sneak up on her while she’s waiting, get her to open up without realizing that she is, in fact, in her last round of interview already. You could perhaps start by framing the conversation around potential questions in the last round being about family, husband, motherhood, etc. and make her open up on her pregnancy unwittingly, and confirm if it is true indeed. If she denies it, you could just close the conversation and move on so that we could have another final round inside the cabin. But if she confirms it, then you may offer some counterintuitive aunty-type advice just to go with the character you are playing and close it by giving her a gift bag that contains the offer letter. Then, as you move on, we could have your secretary come up to Sadhna and ask her how her interview went!”.

“Whoa, you have thought through this quite well, Bhagya. I think I should ask my secretary to dress up against her usual clothing style on that day – in so-called stereotyped ‘secretary’ type clothing, instead of the gorgeous Indian wear that she is used to. When Sadhna sees Western clothing, her mind would expect another Western-attired interviewer on the same lines, and I intend to be in ethnic wear for this act, as contrast… also considering it is Diwali, next week. This may help Sadhna not see me as an interviewer too, potentially”, said Charu excitedly.

Naman had something to add, though: “Bhagya, do you think Sadhna would not recognize Charu Ma’am? She could have seen photos in the media or even our own website, right?”.

Bhagya said, “Yes, I did consider that, but what’s the harm in trying? If she recognizes Charu Ma’am, she can make some small talk and hand over the offer letter without getting into the question of pregnancy. But, if she doesn’t recognize Charu Ma’am, then she can continue her act.”

“But how would it reflect on a candidate if she doesn’t know how Charu Ma’am looks? I mean, not knowing the CEO of the company she is going for an interview?”, added Naman.

Charu said, “Oh c’mon Namam! I wouldn’t use that to judge a candidate. It’d be a good thing to know, but we should be far more concerned about her capabilities and work-related attitude. It’d be a miss, but I wouldn’t give too much weightage over that.”

“I understand, Ma’am. So, let me get the offer letter ready? And what kind of bag or gift do you want?”, asked Naman.

Charu thought about it and said, “How about an ethnic gift? It’s Diwali time. Say, how about a gift voucher from Sabhyata, the clothing brand? If we can get a gift voucher and their bag, our offer letter could go along with the voucher”.

Bhagya and Naman agreed, and the latter said, “Ma’am, we will take care of this. Is there anything else you’d need?”.

“I’m planning to make parathas at home and have it ready as a conversation starter with Sadhna. Food always helps people open up, in my opinion. I also intend to totally play up my character of the intrusive aunty and put some utapatang thoughts in her head 🙂 I’m going to ask her to not inform the ‘interviewer’ about her pregnancy, if it is indeed true, in the ‘last round’. And see how she reacts. Of course, if she doesn’t recognize me, she could simply humor me by nodding her head and decide to talk about it during the ‘actual’ interview. But let’s see what she does anyway! I also need to talk to my secretary about a signal – as soon as I signal, she could come and interrupt. Actually, as soon as I hand over the gift bag, she should interrupt… before Sadhna is able to see the offer letter inside the bag”, said Charu.

Naman said, “After Sadhna joins, if all goes as per plan, this would be fantastic lunchtime conversation for many, many days!”.

Charu said, “That’s true. But remember why we’re doing this. It’s quite possible that Sadhna’s perspective about employers and how they treat women considering a family is framed by her present organization. We can change it by simply showing her our policies which are better and more purposeful. But we can also communicate them with impact through this ‘act’, in a way she may never forget”.

They all agree, and start making the arrangements for Sadhna’s last round interview.

And here’s what happened in that ‘last round’ interview!