The Indian granny who left thousands teary-eyed

Uma Tembulkar Image copyright Anushree Fadnavis/Indus Images
Image caption Uma Tembulkar began performing in ad films at the age of 70

In the youthful world of Indian advertising, Uma Tembulkar, 78, is an unlikely celebrity model.

Ms Tembulkar is the lead in the advertisement, British Airways: Fuelled by Love, that has gone viral on YouTube and has Twitter tearing up over her.

The six-minute film, uploaded a week ago on YouTube, has had more than one million visitors and made Ms Tembulkar a welcoming face that's beaming from a billboard at the Mumbai airport.

"Ms Tembulkar brings on a heavy dose of emotion to the ad; meaningful not melodramatic," says advertising expert Vidhya Sankarnarayan.

"It resonates with Indians like the granny who feels dislocated on flights and connects at a human level," she says.

An emotional flight

Ms Tembulkar said the British Airways ad was easy to enact because it had "two strangers who show kindness and compassion to each other, breaking cultural and generational barriers".

A look at the ad would explain why she's spot on.

The film shows a septuagenarian returning home from visiting her son in London.

She struggles while fastening the seat belt and bending over her arthritic knees to pull on her socks. A young stewardess, Helena Flynn, on her maiden flight to India, comes to her help.

The lady wells up, missing her son. The stewardess comforts her and is invited home by the elder woman.

A visit to the south Indian home is full of effusive Indian hospitality, good food and a slice of culture and a high dose of warmth.

Image copyright Pavol Kajan
Image caption The British Airways film was Ms Tembulkar's 70th ad film
Image copyright Pavol Kajan
Image caption The ad shows the crew giving extra care to the elderly passenger
Image copyright Anushree Fadnavis/Indus Images
Image caption Uma Tembulkar lives with husband Mahesh Tembulkar in Mumbai

"I wanted the ad to debunk the stereotype of the uptight British person and rude Indian traveller and Ms Tembulkar touched the right chords," says director Neeraj Ghaywan, feted recently at the Cannes film festival.

This was the indie filmmaker's first venture into ad filmmaking and he found Ms Tembulkar "just the perfect face of dignity and affection".

And the social media response has been effusive praise for the ad.

Today, Ms Tembulkar gets grabbed for selfies on her morning market run to buy vegetables and milk.

Global granny

"It was an honour to act in the British Airways ad and I thoroughly enjoyed travelling to London," she says.

Ms Tembulkar has been married for 60 years and led life as a homemaker with an enduring passion in Indian classical music that helped her "overcome fear of performing before an audience or the camera".

She now watches over a brood of grandchildren, who are students in Harvard and Carnegie Mellon, travelling frequently to holiday with her scattered family across the globe. "My passport is the fattest," she chuckles with quiet pride.

"My life as a model began at 70," she speaks carefully in English, though she is also fluent in her native tongue Marathi, and Hindi, Bengali and a smattering of Gujarati too.

The actress in her was discovered by young friends at a family gathering and in the last eight years, she has acted in more than 60 advertisements for products as varied as insurance companies, furniture, cooking oils, biscuits and more.

"Look at her: she's the quintessential Indian granny and her predicament while travelling alone is real. That has made the ad work," says Mr Ghaywan.

He praises her as a "super granny" who travels alone frequently to visit her children and grandchildren, and understands the "emotional palette with her restrained, yet powerful performance".

Image copyright Anushree Fadnavis/Indus Images
Image caption Ms Tembulkar is the archetypical Indian granny who lives in a busy suburb in Mumbai
Image caption Ms Tembulkar has also starred in an advert for an online furniture company


Experts say ageism has never been a problem in India and has always helped in selling products.

"Like the grandpas from India and Pakistan for the Google ad, age never goes out of style in Indian advertisements," says Ms Sankarnarayan.

Unlike an earlier generation, the granny in the British Airways ad travels business class in comfort, though not schooled in global travel; she represents the old setting off alone to connect with scattered families across the world and makes a human connection that makes the ad tick.

Many say the ad helps to debunk the stereotype of the rude Indian in-flight traveller.

"Ms Tembulkar does a fantastic job of giving the contemporary Indian traveller a face," explains Ms Sankarnarayan.

Given the soaring success of the advertisement, the sky is the limit for this granny.

Sudha G Tilak is a Delhi-based independent journalist