Brownface in Bollywood: Why does the Indian film industry continue to perpetuate colorism?

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Bollywood may be best known for its glamorous casts, dazzling costumes, and energetic dance routines. But he also has a much less flattering reputation: for promoting brownface's offensive practice.

"It is actually racism," said award-winning film director Neeraj Ghaywan. "Let's not squeeze our words."

In the United States, the concepts of black face and brown face date back to the 19th century, when white artists darkened their faces with makeup and used racist stereotypes to represent black characters and other ethnic minorities. White artists did this at a time when non-white professionals were prohibited from employment in the industry.

And the practice dates back even further in England to the Elizabethan era, when directors traditionally chose white actors to portray minority characters in Shakespearean plays. Even in recent decades, the African general in "Othello" has been played by a white actor with dark skin, including Orson Welles in 1951 and Laurence Olivier in 1965.

It also appeared in modern movies. Dan Aykroyd wore black faces and dreadlocks in 1983's "Trading Places," and Robert Downey Jr. appeared several shades darker in 2008's "Tropic Thunder," to portray a white Australian method actor who darkened his skin to portray a black man in a Vietnam war movie.

Bollywood has embraced the brown face in several movies by temporarily darkening the skin of artists, especially when portraying characters from disadvantaged backgrounds.

As in the early days of Hollywood, critics of this practice say Bollywood often prefers this approach to hire artists who have naturally darker skin, thereby perpetuating discrimination and inequality in the industry.

For example, the popular 2019 movie "Bala" told the story of a woman who suffered discrimination because of her skin tone.

The woman was played by famous actress Bhumi Pednekar (pictured above), whose skin darkened to play the part. The move was criticized by some Indian media, commentators, and on social media.

Some pointed to the irony of one of the movie's promotional posters tweeted by Pednekar, where his character was. "surrounded by skin lightening products (and) is actually fair skinned and brown in color."
Pednekar defended the director's decision to include her in the film, according to Indian media reports, saying that factors, apart from physical appearance, play an important role: "If a filmmaker has taken me, it is because I add something of value to the movie. "
The director, Amar Kaushik, told the Press Trust of India that he "thought about choosing a dark-skinned actor," but "he felt that Bhumi was excellent for this character."

CNN contacted Pednekar through his agent and Kaushik for comment, but both declined to comment.

A screenshot of Bollywood star Hrithik Roshan in a trailer for the 2019 Bollywood movie

A screenshot of Bollywood star Hrithik Roshan in a trailer for the 2019 Bollywood movie "Super 30." The film was criticized for darkening the skin of the actor who played the role of a teacher from the state of Bihar, which the World Bank describes as "one of the poorest states in India." Credit: Reliance Entertainment / Youtube

The popularity of movies that use brown faces, such as the blockbusters "Super 30" and "Gully Boy," also released in 2019, suggests that Bollywood has yet to receive significant public pressure for a practice that many people consider racist and offensive. .
Bollywood actor Hrithik Roshan attends Hindu religious celebrations in Mumbai on October 7, 2019.

Bollywood actor Hrithik Roshan attends Hindu religious celebrations in Mumbai on October 7, 2019. Credit: Stringer / AFP / Getty Images

& # 39; Glamor behind the mask & # 39;

India's attitude towards equity is an old concept.

"It predates colonialism and it is certainly linked to caste," said sociologist Sanjay Srivastava, who works at the Delhi Institute for Economic Growth.

"Hindu religious texts are full of what we would now recognize as racial stereotypes: lower caste figures like dark and ugly … To be dark is to be a manual worker, to work in the sun. Light skin is also a class mark. "

The arrival of British pale-skinned colonial leaders in the 18th century also had a role to play, deepening prejudice, he said.

"During the colonial era, race and racism functioned in the context of so-called mixed-race populations, the Anglo-Indians. The closer & # 39; closer & # 39; you were to a white parent, the higher up the hierarchy of the race". The British government is also blamed for further polarizing the castes.
Equity, on the other hand, is revered and considered a sign of beauty and status. "Bollywood, and Indian cinema in general, had two notable backgrounds: religious iconography and Parsi theater," said Vijay Mishra, professor of English literature at Murdoch University in Australia and author of "Bollywood Cinema: Temples of Desire."

"For both of them, 'whiteness' was essential," Mishra said.

Hindu gods and goddesses are "remarkably white" except for Shiva, Rama and dark-skinned Krishna, he said. In the Parsi theater, "Parsis, through its Iranian ethnicity, is extremely fair."

Before Hindi sound films were established in India in 1931, the Parsi Theater, influenced by the English colonial theater, served as entertainment for the growing working and middle classes and was very popular.
India's independence in 1947 paved the way for a new constitution that prohibited caste-based discrimination, but still prevails in some parts of India. In their 2019 World Report, Human Rights Watch noted that Dalits, formerly known as "untouchables," "continued to be discriminated against in education and at work."

And colorism, discrimination based on someone's skin color, prevails in Bollywood, Srivastava argued.

"Colorism has no problems at all, as a lot of Bollywood cinema relies on prejudice as a vehicle for entertainment.

"It would be considered perfectly natural that they put on a dark face to portray a dark character … (because the public) also wants to be sure that the glamor is still there, behind the mask."

A screenshot of actor Ranveer Singh from the trailer for the 2019 movie "Gully Boy". The film was criticized for darkening the skin of Singh, who played the role of an aspiring rapper from a poor neighborhood in Mumbai.

A screenshot of actor Ranveer Singh from the trailer for the 2019 movie "Gully Boy". The film was criticized for darkening the skin of Singh, who played the role of an aspiring rapper from a poor neighborhood in Mumbai. Credit: Excel / Youtube Movies

While exact box office figures are hard to come by in India, "Gully Boy," "Bala" and "Super 30" are among the top 25 highest grossing Bollywood movies of the past year. All three wore brown faces.
Actor Ranveer Singh attends the photocall for the movie "Gully Boy" at the Berlin International Film Festival on February 9, 2019.

Actor Ranveer Singh attends the photocall for the movie "Gully Boy" at the Berlin International Film Festival on February 9, 2019. Credit: Gregor Fischer / image alliance / Getty Images

CNN contacted Yash Raj Films who handles advertising for actor "Gully Boy" Ranveer Singh for comment, but they declined.

Representatives for "Super 30" actor Hrithik Roshan did not respond to CNN's request for comment.

The decision to choose a famous, light-skinned actor over a dark-skinned actor is based on a desire to make a big-budget film "financially viable," said film director Neeraj Ghaywan, who has worked on Bollywood and independent films. "This is how people think of Bollywood."

As a member of the programmed caste (or dalit), the lowest rung on India's social ladder, Ghaywan is a rare exception in an industry dominated by higher castes.

He tweeted a call last year for assistant caste writers and directors to contact him for work.

Ghaywan believes Bollywood's lack of diversity may be in part the reason why caste is distorted.

People of the scheduled caste represent 16.6% of the Indian population, according to 2011 census figures. But in 2014, analysis from The Hindu newspaper found that only two Bollywood movies made that year had featured a character. lower caste in a leading role.

However, Ghaywan argued that the root of the problem is that caste discrimination is deeply rooted in India and that Bollywood simply reflects the ideals of society.

"They have been so internalized through our own cinema," he said, referring to an early example from the 1957 Indian epic "Mother India," where actor Sunil Dutt's skin darkened to portray the role of a farmer.

"We internalize it so much that it's part of muscle memory, and we don't even think about it."

Bollywood's endorsement of equity products

But just like discrimination based on caste, discrimination based on skin color is not limited to the big Bollywood screen.

Seema Hari was born and raised in Mumbai. She said she was bullied at school for being dark-skinned and even teased on the street by passersby who would tell her she was unlucky in showing her face in public.

"I didn't know a reality where I wasn't depressed or suicidal in my childhood," said Hari, who is now an engineer and software model for Snapchat based in Los Angeles.

She also campaigns against colorism, which she says is evident not only in Bollywood but also on the shelves of Indian pharmacies and supermarkets that stock skin-lightening products.

Proponents say some of Bollywood's best-known stars are perpetuating a preference for lighter skin by lending their names and faces to industry ad campaigns promoting "fair" creams.

"Some of the ads … were so blatantly racist … If you put a Bollywood star on it, it becomes normal; it becomes what people accept," Hari said.

Society's preference for lighter skin has led to a booming global business in skin lightening products. The international market for skin whitening cosmetics is forecast to reach more than $ 6.5 billion by 2025, according to a report by Global Industry Analysts.
While a handful of Indian celebrities have refused to partner with skin lightening products, some big names have allowed their faces to be used to promote them in India.
Often nicknamed the "King of Bollywood," actor Shah Rukh Khan endorsed "Fair and Handsome," an equity cream for men, for years.
In 2013, a petition calling for an end to discriminatory product advertising garnered more than 27,000 signatories. In 2016 Khan reportedly told The Guardian that he would never use the product himself, although it is unclear if his sponsorship remains active. His agent did not respond to CNN's request for comment.
Bollywood actress Deepika Padukone launches the product "Neutrogena Fine Fairness" in Mumbai on December 7, 2009. Her manager did not respond to a request for comment from CNN.

Bollywood actress Deepika Padukone launches the product "Neutrogena Fine Fairness" in Mumbai on December 7, 2009. Her manager did not respond to a request for comment from CNN. Credit: Stringer / AFPGetty Images

Khan is not the only celebrity who has modeled for skin lightening products. For example, actor John Abraham currently endorses the equity moisturizer Garnier Men PowerLight. "John supports (the) full range of Garnier men's hair and skin care and the communication is hair and skin care," said his manager, Minnakshi Das.

In 2014, the Advertising Standard Council of India (ASCI) issued guidelines on promoting equity products, stating that they cannot show dark-skinned people as depressed or disadvantaged.

While the independent body said they saw a "substantial change" in discriminatory advertising, Bollywood stars continued to appear in the promotions.

In February, the Indian Ministry of Health and Family Welfare proposed a bill that would ban advertisements promoting equity creams, among other items. Violators of the law could face a five-year prison sentence or a fine of Rs 50 lakh (around $ 70,000).

"Celebrity endorsement is a big part of the advertising industry," said Shweta Purandare, ASCI Secretary General.

"It commands about 24% of India's total advertising spending … With new regulations … we hope to see celebrities more cautious." However, it is not clear in the bill whether celebrities themselves would be punished.

& # 39; They just want to be white & # 39;

But skin lightening is not limited to over-the-counter creams.

"We have a few patients who aspire to be in Bollywood (and) who are too involved in skin lightening treatments," said dermatologist Dr. Sujata Chandrappa, who runs a beauty clinic in the southern city of Bangalore.

Customers ask how certain dark-skinned stars became so light. "This is deeply rooted in the Indian psyche, that fairness is the prerequisite for entering the Bollywood industry."

She told CNN that she is trying to dissuade some people from the treatments, only offering the procedure to lighten the skin if a client has skin problems like melasma, hyperpigmentation, sun damage, or age spots. If a client insists on helping him become fairer in the absence of other skin problems, he refuses to carry out the treatment.

"I have a feeling that I am encouraging racism, which is not acceptable. But they just want to be white."

However, conversations about colorism begin to change.

Ten years ago, the Indian NGO "Women of Worth" founded the "Dark is Beautiful" campaign that organizes workshops in schools, universities, workplaces and communities across the country to dismantle prejudiced attitudes towards dark skin.

They also started the petition against Shah Rukh Khan's endorsement of the "Fair and Pretty" cream.

Actress and director Nandita Das at the Sydney Film Festival on June 16, 2018.

Actress and director Nandita Das at the Sydney Film Festival on June 16, 2018. Credit: Don Arnold / WireImage / Getty Images

Nandita Das, actress and spokesperson for the "Dark is Beautiful" movement, said the campaign has encouraged victims of colorism to share their stories, exposing the extent of India's obsession with justice.

"Suddenly, it came to light, something that had been there for so long in our wedding announcements, cosmetics, and products that we see everywhere," Das told CNN. "We wonder why we haven't talked about that much earlier."

Das, who also writes and directs scripts, believes "we have a long way to go" before this billion-dollar industry has a dark-skinned actor in a leadership role.

She said her skin tone would make her "perfect" for a lower caste or class role. But when he plays "an educated or upper-middle-class character, often the director, the cinematographer or the makeup artist tell you: 'Don't worry, we will lighten your skin'."

Das believes that Bollywood directors have the freedom to choose who they want, but she advises thinking "deeper into that prejudice."

Actor Shah Rukh Khan at the 2018 Asian Games in New Delhi.

Actor Shah Rukh Khan at the 2018 Asian Games in New Delhi. Credit: K Asif / The India Today Group / Getty Images

Some experts argue that Bollywood's influence on society is greater than ever, in part due to social media.

On-screen stars "used to be legends no one saw" in real life, film critic Subhash Jha said. "(But) they started getting very close to their fans, so the impact is greater." Bollywood's biggest stars have tens of millions of followers on Instagram and TikTok, the video-sharing social media service.

Hari believes that Bollywood celebrities could be doing much more to change attitudes across the country to dark skin. Imagine "Shah Rukh Khan walking away from an ad (equity product)," he said. "That in itself will change many minds."

But does the persistent perpetuation of colorism in the industry suggest that it is racist?

"Deeply, fundamentally, irrevocably," Srivastava said. "There are no beauty standards tied to dark skin … There is no vocabulary within Bollywood to discuss race at all because in a broader society, vocabulary or context has not been allowed to develop."

When it comes to using brownface in movies, "they don't even think there's a problem," said film director Ghaywan. "That is the biggest problem".

Caption above image: Left, Actress Bhumi Pednekar at an event in Mumbai on January 16, 2020. Right, the actress in the movie "Bala". Her skin darkened to portray her character in the 2019 movie.

This story has been updated to correct the year "Tropic Thunder" was released.



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