By: Anishi Patel
I can’t speak or understand Hindi, much like many American children of Indian
immigrants. I garble my way through popular Bollywood songs and I watch my movies
with subtitles, but that doesn’t stop me from appreciating Indian cinema.
Unfortunately, the more Indian movies I watch, the more I realize that the common
theme tying Bollywood together isn’t dance numbers, charismatic heros, or
hate-turned-love relationships. It’s a refusal to cast dark-skinned leads.
Climate creates skin color, and India’s population is a perfect example. Those
from the tropics of South India generally have darker skin, while those closer to the
colder, Himalayan north have lighter skin. But, evidence suggests that Ancient Indians
did not discriminate based on color. Multiple deities in Vedic texts and the Hindu
Mahabharata, such as the goddess Kali or the Mahabharata’s protagonist Draupadi, are
described as dark and beautiful. This history changes, however, with invasion. Indian
people, who had been invaded and ruled by the lighter-skinned Mughals, Portuguese,
and finally the British, had consistently seen those of whiter skin in positions of power,
and this is undoubtedly where the history of colorism in India begins.
The first concrete examples of skin color-based prejudice in India are by the
British, who consistently offered those of lighter skin better jobs and treatment. Neha
Mishra, author of “India and Colorism: The Finer Nuances” says that the British
imposition of color-based ideals “shaped the common man’s association of white
colored skin with the ruling class, with power, with desirability, and also with beauty.”
Now, decades after independence, the legacy of British occupation is alive and
well. Residual westernized beauty ideals are so ingrained in Indian society that our
advertisements, beauty products, and movies all scream “lighter is better.”
In fact, it is almost impossible to find a mainstream, dark-skinned model or
actress in India. Try.
You’ll quickly find that the South Indian actresses are there, they just don’t look
like the majority of South Indian women. See, Bollywood’s most prominent female faces
— Priyanka Chopra, Anushka Shetty, Deepika Padukone, Aishwarya Rai, Kareena
Kapoor, and Alia Bhatt — represent many different regions of India, yet not one of these
talented women possesses dark skin. Even Aishwarya Rai, who was born in the
southwestern state of Karnataka, or Tamil and Telugu movie star Anushka Shetty, are
much lighter than the general populations of their home states. It would be impossible
to guess at their origins based on skin tone.
Now, I love Priyanka Chopra as much as the next Nick Jonas stan, but the more
Bollywood chooses to cast actresses that share the same foundation range, the more it
perpetuates colorism. The more it turns a blind eye to the parents forcing children to
play indoors for fear they become tanner, the family members whispering about a
dark-skinned daughter’s marriage prospects, and worst of all, the young girls bleaching
their skin to look like the “fair” beauties they see on TV.
Let me repeat that. Young girls are bleaching their skin. The problem is so
prevalent that the skin-lightening cream market is projecting revenues of almost 704
million U.S. dollars by 2023.
And colorism in Bollywood does not stop at casting. People of darker skin are
also seeing themselves vilified on screen.
In the popular “Baahubali 2: The Conclusion,” a 2017 Anushka Shetty film, the
hero and his brother defend their kingdom against invaders, but here’s the kicker: the
invaders are a Southern tribe called the “Kalakeya,” and they are dark. Very dark. They
wear animal skins, have crude-looking armor, and are barbaric in nature. They are, of
course, the enemy, and the lighter-skinned heros defeat them. It is worth noting that
“Kala” means “black” or “dark” in Hindi.
Vilification of dark skinned characters isn’t restricted to Bollywood, though. This
form of colorism is noticeable in advertising as well. Just five years ago in India, it was
common to see ads in which young women won back their boyfriends or got the job
after using skin-lightening products. Companies like Ponds, Johnson & Johnson, and
Nivea have all aired such ads, and prominent Bollywood actors like Shah Rukh Khan,
Deepika Padukone, and Priyanka Chopra have endorsed them. TakePart writer Melissa
Rayworth summed up the issue: “Ads for skin-whitening creams are ubiquitous in India
and many Asian countries, and many promote that same before-and-after storyline:
Make your skin fair, and you’ll be beautiful and successful, but stay as dark as you really
are and you’ll get nowhere in life or love.”
Fortunately, in 2014, India implemented new advertising guidelines that ban the
depiction of dark-skinned actors as less successful, attractive, or happy. While this is a
huge step in the right direction, the Indian media has a long, long way to go, because
subtle reinforcements of “lighter is better” are very evident. For example, “Fair and
Lovely” beauty products, which have now expanded into “Fair and Handsome” products
for men, are still estimated to command half the skin-lightening market, and while the
company is a household name in India, it is the name itself that’s an issue! Fair and
lovely? Are you kidding me? It’s 2019, and high time we recognize that fair, unfair, and
everything in between is ALL lovely.
And the tides are beginning to turn. Although casting directors and producers do
not readily hire dark-skinned actresses yet, prominent members of the Indian media
have begun to take action against the perpetuation of colorism. In 2013, Bollywood
actress Kangana Ranaut turned down a $281,500 offer to endorse a “fairness cream”
product, and filmmaker-actress Nandita Das has become a leading voice in Women of
Worth’s ‘Dark is Beautiful’ campaign, which celebrates India’s “1.2 billion shades of
So say it, believe it, and make sure all your dark-skinned friends know it: Dark
deserves acceptance onscreen. Dark is not something to fix. Dark is natural, loveable,
Anishi Patel is a junior at Saratoga High School with a passion for creative writing. Her work has been recognized by the Scholastic Art and Writing awards and is in or forthcoming in Skipping Stones Magazine, The Blue Marble Review, and 805 Lit, among others. Anishi will be an Editor-in-Chief for the Saratoga Falcon during the 2019-20 school year, and she is also an editor for her school’s literary magazine, Soundings, and the Siblíní Journal.
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