19th July 2020

India’s Fair-Skin Phobia Gets A Wrap On The Knuckle

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.”

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 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.”

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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.

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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.”

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