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We Need to Talk About Bollywood's Problem With Making Actors Darker Than They Are

Brownface is not cool, you guys.

by Arnav Das Sharma
10 June 2019, 10:13pm

A screen grab from the trailer of Super 30 starring Hrithik Roshan

This article originally appeared on VICE India

Bollywood has a problem. On the face of it, it might sound like it’s only to do with its make-up army—the ones ODing on hideous brown facepaint and bronzers. Take Hrithik Roshan in the newly-released trailer of the movie Super 30, for example.

The movie, whose trailer dropped recently, is slated to be released worldwide on July 12. It’s based on the true story of an Indian guy named Anand Kumar, a poor man hailing from the north Indian state of Bihar, who also happens to be a mathematical genius. The movie shows how Kumar formed a group of 30 bright students from underprivileged backgrounds, and took it upon himself to help them crack one of India’s most competitive engineering exams.

While all this sounds like a promising premise, the reason this movie has landed itself in a soup is because Roshan, the actor playing Anand Kumar, is shown to have a skin colour that is at least two tones browner than he really is, almost making him look like a bizarre bronze statue. Why was this done?

Bihar, where the movie is set in, has faced an identity crisis for long, being associated with lawlessness, utter underdevelopment, and political anarchy—even though this is a fallacy as the social indicators in that state have largely improved over the years. Now, superimpose the background of the character that Roshan plays with two other recent Bollywood releases in which the actors have been brownfaced—Alia Bhatt in Udta Punjab playing a migrant labourer and Ranveer Singh in Gully Boy playing a boy growing up in slums—and you’ll realise the common thread. All the brownfaced actors have played characters hailing from poorer backgrounds. Common sense suggests that skin colour has nothing to do with economic and social conditions like poverty and caste, and any argument otherwise can safely be clubbed under the broader rubric of ‘racism’ and ‘classism’. But such logic seems to elude Bollywood.

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Ranveer Singh (left) in Gully Boy and Alia Bhatt in Udta Punjab, both, had their skin tones darkened in the movies. Both portrayed characters from lower income backgrounds.

Within the Indian film industry’s collective imagination, the concept of beauty and superiority has historically been associated with fairness. This is best exemplified in the story of Nawazuddin Siddiqui, an award-winning Indian film actor who is considered one of the country’s finest. Siddiqui in various interviews has spoken about how he had to struggle to get film roles just because he did not look like a typical ‘hero’, which is Bollywood-speak for a man who is tall, fair and chiselled. But more than the body type, it was his skin colour that held him back in the industry.

From Bollywood to advertising, this obsession with fair skin has itself become an aspirational need. A 2014 marketing study, for example, found that over 90 percent of Indian women, especially young girls, seek fairness or skin lightening as one of their biggest desires. Indian matrimonial advertising, for example, repeatedly seek out men and women who are fair and ‘good-looking’, almost always clubbing the two together to mean the same thing. In fact, the outrage over fairness beauty products is only increasingly growing in some quarters in India, with some socially-aware influencers and actors refusing to endorse such products.

If, in the United States, racism has its roots in slavery, the roots in India are with its tryst with colonialism. White skin, historically, has the colonial connotations of being associated with both power and privilege, while dark skin meant the opposite.

But beyond colonialism, this Indian prejudice against dark skin is also quite ancient and goes back to its caste system. It was there where fair-skinned people were those who were wealthy, and were born into privilege. The dark-skinned ones, on the other hand, were those who belonged to lower castes, worked on the fields, and were continually oppressed by the ones higher up on the caste ladder. In other words, this prejudice against darker skin tones, is an unconscious throwback to our violent history of caste oppression. In fact, it is not surprising that the Sanskrit term for caste is ‘varna’, which essentially means ‘colour’.

Why are we not outraged, though? Save a couple of stories, most of us have not even heard of brownface, let alone know how close to home it hits. "In the west, there is 'blackface' where white actors opt for exaggerated stereotypes but it is criticised severely there,” said sociologist Sanjay Srivastava to PTI. “In India, fair skin tone is aspirational while dark skin tone is associated with people who are lower on the caste and class hierarchy and popular culture just perpetuates this stereotype. This is why youngsters appearing for interviews use fairness creams because somehow they believe fair skin colour represents a value. There is not much outrage because people are used to this discrimination.”

Maybe it is too much to expect such nuance and social consciousness from Bollywood, but Bollywood’s problem with brownfacing is not a new one. In 1983, Zeenat Aman played the role of a sweeper in Pyaas, putting on brownface make-up. But more than three decades have lapsed since then. It’s high time Bollywood discarded the artifice and grew up.

Follow Arnav Das Sharma on Twitter.