On May 25, the brutal killing of black man George Floyd by white policemen in Minnesota , USA, triggered off a worldwide outrage against racism and colour discrimination. Exactly a month after Floyd’s murder on June 25, India’s predominant cosmetic company Hindustan Unilever made history of sorts when it decided to drop ‘ Fair’ from its flagship product Fair & Lovely, a product of marketing mythology , a skin-enhancing beauty cream which, according to an unnamed source from the company, mints approximately 540 million US dollars per year for its parent company.
In a country where the skin-tone to this defines one’s status in society , the ‘fairness’ cream represents all that is wrong and ostensibly irresolvable in the socia hierarchy. The Indian film industry which mirrors societal virtues and malaise has propagated the skin-tone phobia from time immemorial. Earlier only the light-toned actors were allowed prominence in Bollywood’s hierarchy. Of course there were exceptions such as the late Smita Patil whose smouldering dusky demeanour set the screen ablaze in films like Bhumika and Chakra.But her impact and influence were short-lived as she died at age 36 of post-pregnancy complications in 1986.
Thereafter there was no major dark-skinned actress of note in Bollywood for many years except perhaps Bipasha Basu , the Bengali bombshell who created ripples with her duky persona in films like Jism and Raaz.
Of late at least two major actresses Deepika Padukone and Priyanka Chopra who possess a darker skin-tone have successful broken the ‘class’ ceiling whereby Hindi cinema perpetuated the myth that women and men from the socio-economically challenged strata were dark-skinned.
Internationally-acclaimed actress Tannishtha Chatterjee(known for her outstanding performance in the British film Brick Lane , also Parched, Angry Indian Goddesses and Lion) says she was offered roles of downtrodden rural women in Indian films because of her dark skin. “And when I played urban characters I was helpfully told to use skin-lightening makeup to look urbane. Pretty is equivalent to fair-skinned.This prejudice is all-prevalent in our country. Look at how shoddily Africans are treated in our country. 90 percent of us Indians are dark-skinned.There are other body biases in our society. But skin prejudice hits at a person’s self esteem.It is rooted to the caste system.”
When Tannishtha did an Australian film titled Un-Indian some critics commented on why such a dark girl was cast as a savvy working-woman in Australia. “Someone wrote they should’ve cast someone pretty.Pretty is equivalent to fair skinned!! I’ve never endorsed fairness creams.I’ve never allowed anyone to make me look gora (fair-skinned) on screen. Our film makeup artistes are subject to the fair-is-lovely mindset. And using fairness creams is unhealthy .Why propagate an unhealthy lifestyle?”
In fact a large number of fair-skinned Indian actresses have shied away from endorsing ‘fairness’ creams. One of them, Dia Mirza(known for her work films like Sanju and Thappad )admits she erred by once endorsing a fairness cream. “My first ad as a model was for a fairness cream. It was an opportunity to work, earn money at the time, I didn’t think much of it then. But with time and some awareness I personally don’t feel the need to endorse fairness products. It’s a personal choice, made from the belief that such an endorsement will continue to create divisions in our social structure, it creates a false sense of beauty and reinforces stereotypes that must be abolished.”
Bollywood actors like Shah Rukh Khan,Hrithik Roshan and John Abraham who have endorsed skin-whitenening creams are shy of admitting to it.
Actor Arjun Rampal(known for his work in Rock On,Raajneeti and Om Shanti Om ) who has endorsed Nivea’s cosmetic lineup for men says he never endorsed any skin whitener. “I didn’t endorse a face whitening cream ever. I am not of the belief of that. If you see the commercial you will know. In fact it’s a jab at face whitening products. Where I categorically state that, shade cards are for walls not for the face. The product I endorsed was for dark spots reduction or pigmentations which happen commonly in India due to the sun. Wouldn’t endorse anything I don’t believe in. I definitely don’t believe in fairness creams. Always found that whole concept weird and racist.”
Internationally renowned actress Nandita Das(best known for Deepa Mehta’s two elemental films Fire and Earth) has faced multifarious levels of discrimination for her dark complexion. “All around us the images of women and men, are those with light skin. Be it films, television, magazines, hoardings, ads…everywhere we have “fair’ people, in a country that is largely dark!Every skin-care product has a skin-lightening element.”
Nandita feels dark-skinned people are often made to feel inadequate. “Right from their childhood.We have made identities like nationality, religion, caste, colour of our skin, sexual preference , all given identities, the reasons to judge people. Identities where we have had no role to play. We just happen to be born with it. Shouldn’t we be assessed by our thoughts and actions instead? In the Indian entertainment industry being fair is one of the primary ingredient of good looks and good looks, a primary criteria for being acceptable.”
The skin-tone narrative in Bollywood operates in paradoxical ways. Not only are actresses with a darker skin-tone repeatedly invited to play downtrodden women, actresses with light skin are painted black literally to play such roles. Way back in 1970 India’s greatest filmmaker Satyajit Ray signed the very light-skinned actress Simi Garewal to play a tribal woman in the Bengali film Aranyar Din Ratre. Garewal recalls being painted in black from head toe every day during the shooting.
Cut to modern times. In 2019 actress Bhumi Pednekar was painted black to play a dark-skinned woman in the film Bala. There was a major hue and cry in the social media as to why an actual dark-skinned actress was not signed to play the part.
Feminist writer Kannika Dhillon(who scripted acclaimed films like Manmarziyan ,Kedarnath and Judgemental Hai Kya) feels a subtle shift in colour prejudices in cinema and society. “I feel a more inclusive idea of beauty in the pop-culture narrative especially Bollywood is what one hopes to achieve.Over the years there is a heartening but slow acceptance of less than perfect beauties… messy hair, imperfect skin tones….Be it the freckled heroine Kangana Ranaut in Tanu Manu Returns, Taapsee Pannu with unruly hair in Manmarziyan , or Sayami Kher’s non-glamorous workingclass look in the recent Netflix film Choked… there is more emphasis on real than unrealistic ideal of achieving perfect beauty. I hope that process of demystification is further consolidated… and that we move away from the age-old fixation of Gori – Chitti (fair and lovely) in Bollywood.”
Kannika would also like to see the word ‘ fair ‘ disappearing from matrimonial advertisement sections of newspapers. “Can we just have one day when bridegrooms do not seek ‘fair’ partners through matrimonial ads?Priyanka Chopra is a global icon representing brown skin! And the Indian ideal of beauty! Deepika Padukone is considered to be an epitome of beauty as well in this country.So definitely with these beauties as current icons, the idea of only fair-skinned as beautiful takes a well- deserved beating. Being beautiful in our own skin is the ideal way forward.”
Adds Tannishtha, “This prejudice has to change. 90 percent of us Indians are dark-skinned.There are other body biases in our society. But skin prejudice hits at a person’s selfesteem.It is rooted to the caste system.”
Curiously male actors in Bollywood do not encounter colour prejudice. Nawazuddin Siddiqui says he has not been questioned for his skin tone. “No filmmaker has told me to lighten my skin colour .I’ve never been found to be unsuitable for a role because of my complexion.”