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Does Bollywood promote colourism?

12 May 2017

“Bollywood actresses are so attractive,” he said.

“Yeah, that’s because they’re not dark like the Indians we know,” his friend added.

As much as this comment angered me, it was not the first time I had heard someone attribute unattractiveness to dark skin. My whole life I had been complimented on my skin tone and reminded of how lucky I was to be an Indian girl with fair skin and light eyes. And although I was considered as one of the “fortunate ones”, I had witnessed cousins and friends be overlooked and ridiculed due to their darker complexions.

In a society where Bollywood stars are considered godly, there is a responsibility for the film industry to recognise and tackle the colourism it promotes. Last month, Indian actor and producer Abhay Deol called out fellow Bollywood stars such as John Abraham’s (pictured) on social media for endorsing fairness creams and promoting the troubling belief that darker complexions are inadequate. Although the Facebook post went viral and gained media attention, a larger conversation is necessary to tackle this issue. Bollywood needs to reevaluate its role in promoting racist perceptions.

In Indian society women with dark complexions are often not given the attention and credit that they deserve. There are few beautiful, dark skinned Indian women in the public eye The glorification of fair skin is persistent throughout Indian society so it should come as no surprise that the colossal movie industry in India, Bollywood, does not steer away from these stereotypes but often further perpetuates them. 

Bollywood’s large roster of leading actresses is full of pale skinned women with dark hair. There is barely any representation of dark skinned women in the industry. Nandita Das, who is an award winning and talented actress has openly spoken about her experiences in Bollywood and how on multiple occasions she was overlooked for a part due to her darker complexion. Even the internationally known star Priyanka Chopra has spoken out about her earlier days in Bollywood and how directors often told makeup artists to apply more makeup to give her fairer skin.

Similarly, many Indian film stars have appeared in advertisements for skin whitening creams, including superstars Katrina Kaif, Deepika Padukone and Shah Rukh Khan. These ads are seen on television, newspapers, magazines and billboards throughout the country, which advocate the idea that the only way to be beautiful, valued or wanted is by having lighter skin. This has led to a skin lightening cream empire that sells 233 tons of skin bleaching and skin whitening products each year.

And when makeup and creams do not do the trick producers go beyond India’s border to recruit fair skinned foreign models for roles in their films. In the last decade there has been an influx of foreign actresses making successful careers in Bollywood films. Many do not speak Hindi and more often than not, they have had no experience acting before their debut film. While Indian born actresses struggle to find a foothold in the competitive industry, actresses from Britain, Sweden and Brazil are taking coveted roles. Bollywood insiders have commented that the reason for their success is plain and simple – they have fair skin, light eyes and are attractive to Indian audiences.

Plots and songs in Indian films also glorify light skin. In the popular film, Fashion starring Priyanka Chopra, her character hits rock bottom after realizing she has had a one night stand with a black man. Considering her character has done morally questionable things throughout the film, it’s telling that her lowest point is shown as sleeping with a dark skinned man. Furthermore, popular Indian songs which are essentially colourist, like ‘Chitiyaan Kalaiyaan’, top the charts for months – the song translates to “I have white wrists and they are yours now”. The video for the song even features all white background dancers while dark skinned men are seen as the lowly drummers.

The Indian film industry’s deep admiration for fair skin and disdain for dark skin can be summed up succinctly – Bollywood is racist.

Whiteness permeates Indian society. Years of British colonisation reinforced the hierarchy of the Indian caste system, further perpetuating the belief that the “higher” castes that held all the power and wealth had lighter skin. In postcolonial India, striving for a lighter complexion is the only way Indians believe they can attain this supremacy.

So I am calling you out Bollywood. Until you stop perpetuating regressive stereotypes and discrimination against people with darker skin, we cannot progress as a society.

And we definitely cannot prevent backhanded comments that equate the value and attractiveness of a person based on how much melanin is in their skin.