India is a land of cultures, and among the many unique ways that this culture prevails – is the Bollywood film industry. From hip-hop songs to elaborate outfits, from catchy songs to jaw-dropping dialogues, it is an industry of its own kind. Within the glamour of it all, a lot of us continuously overlook the ugly reality of colourism.
You might be wondering- What is colourism? There isn’t enough literature on the topic. In addition, our autocorrect will most likely change it, or mark it wrong when we type it. However, the word has now been used for decades and has become more frequent in the past few years by scholars and activists alike.
As defined by ThoughtCo, colourism refers to discrimination based on skin colour. Colourism disadvantages dark-skinned people while privileging those with lighter skin. In many places, colourism may be more related to class and caste than to white supremacy.
If you go through a list of the most successful and highly-paid actresses in Bollywood – chances are you won’t find an actress with a dark skin tone.
Although European colonialism has undoubtedly left its mark worldwide, colourism is said to predate contact with Europeans in Asian countries. There, the idea that white skin is superior to dark skin may derive from ruling classes having lighter complexions than those in the blue collar sector.
Unfortunately, the issue of colourism still prevails in India, and problems related to it can be seen every day. In the Indian subcontinent, which is predominantly brown of varying shades, women with dark complexions are subject to stigma. There are very few dark-skinned Indian women in the public eye. Years of British colonialism and imperialism has glamourised and glorified white skin so much that even an industry as big as the film industry couldn’t escape it.
Bollywood’s large list of leading actresses is full of pale-skinned women with dark hair. There is barely any representation of dark-skinned women in the industry. If you go through a list of the most successful and highly-paid actresses in Bollywood – chances are you won’t find an actress with a dark skin tone.
Notice something weird? One common thing among all of these actresses is their skin shade, much fairer than what you will find in most Indian women. To be clear, in no way am I trying to insinuate that these actresses don’t deserve these places. All of them have worked hard to get to where they are. The problem here is systematic racism and filmmakers who continue to exploit it to make big bucks.
In addition, this problem isn’t just what an outsider who has no connections to Bollywood would say. Nandita Das, an award-winning and talented actress, has openly spoken about how on multiple occasions she was overlooked for a part due to her dark complexion in Bollywood movies.
The dominant assumption of beauty in our country is a Brahmanical one: it demands a fair, slim, tall aesthetic of women.
Internationally known superstar 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. Frieda Pinto has time and again accused Bollywood of being fascinated with white-skinned actors and has openly expressed her disgust about the auditioning process for films in India. She had said that she has had to leave many auditions as casting directors had asked her to use fairness creams, which she was completely against.
There have been numerous incidents that showed Bollywood’s obsession with light-skinned actors, that belittle dark complexions. According to reports, Kareena Kapoor allegedly called Bipasha Basu a ‘kaali billi’ (black cat), referring to Basu’s dusky complexion. While Bipasha never cleared the air over this controversy, it still remains one of the low points of Bollywood.
Here are the kind of ads that get circulated in mainstream media:
Big-time actors with huge fanbases are still advertising products like these. Fair and Lovely, and Fair and Handsome are popular skin-lightening creams and by associating this product with Bollywood stars – it sends out the message that Bollywood does support the idea of fair skin being “better.”
Furthermore, it glamourises these products, which aim to spread this problematic message of beauty and feminine ideas about women. It can all be connected to show how various aspects of the film industry are interconnected with each other and build on ways of spreading the same message of preferring fairer skin.
Not only are these harmful representations limiting a diverse group of people and skin colours from being shown to upcoming generations, but they are also instilling white supremacy in Indian culture. It goes on to create hatred for dark-skinned people. Intolerance stems from the fact that dark-skinned people are alienated – for many never see them in movies, or in main roles and doing something heroic.
To add on to this, in India, the issue of colourism and casteism go hand in hand. The dominant assumption of beauty in our country is a Brahmanical one: it demands a fair, slim, tall aesthetic of women. This is largely ignorant towards several women who belong to castes/tribes/areas that differ from such orthodox images. This is innately offensive towards not only different religions or non-dominant castes but the nation and its diversity as a whole. It feels hypocritical when we think about how a nation who prides itself in its cultural history demands western features from women.
It is time that we collectively recognise this internalised hate and intolerance that has been breeding in Bollywood for decades. We need to start being more acceptable. I am a firm believer in the fact that lack of difference is wrong. Of course differences exist – among cultures, among races, among various communities. But what we need to learn is that these difference mustn’t define superiority. We need to become more accepting and open-minded. Perhaps in the near future, we will have the representation we deserve.
Featured image used for representational purpose only. Image source: Business of Cinema