Why ‘brownface’ in Bollywood really gets under the skin

The Indian film industry’s obsession with colour is a serious problem

Actress Bhumi Pednekar as she appers in a promotion image for new film 'Bala' (left), and in real life. 
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Brownface has spawned serious global debate about racism recently. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau suffered embarrassment in September when images surfaced showing him in brownface at a party during his college years. It's easy to analyse the problem when the offender belongs to a group that has ­traditionally held all the power. When a privileged white man uses a marginalised ethnic group's skin colour as a costume, it's not difficult to see why that's deeply problematic and troubling. But can a brown person be guilty of brownfacing?

As it turns out, the answer is yes. Bollywood has found itself facing several brownface controversies of its own. Earlier this month, the trailer for Bala was released with much fanfare. While most viewers appreciated the humour of the premise – a young man struggles with premature balding – Indian women on social media weren't too pleased with the obvious darkening of actress Bhumi Pednekar's skin for the film. The objections were two-fold. The more obvious consideration was: why couldn't they simply cast an actress with naturally dark skin to play the part, if skin colour was central to the role? The other point, and this one is trickier to explain, was why the actress's skin colour was important to the story.

There's no common sense answer for why the makers of Bala would choose to lather bronzer on a fair-skinned actress instead of simply hiring someone they thought looked the part. And the question of why the filmmakers felt skin colour was so important can only be answered when the movie is released next month. But the debate points to a larger, disturbing pattern. In recent years, Bollywood has shown a growing appetite for films set in rural and small-town India, telling stories inspired by real people. Unfortunately, brownfacing the lead characters has become a thoughtless go-to device by filmmakers to establish the characters' "authenticity" in those roles, even when it adds absolutely nothing to the narratives of the films.

The film Super 30 sparked a backlash this year, when its star, Hrithik Roshan, a very fair-skinned actor, was seen sporting so much brown make-up that it almost looked as though he had mud smeared on his skin, ostensibly to "look the part". But Super 30 is based on the life of Anand Kumar, an inspirational teacher from Bihar, a state in eastern India, a man whose skin is nowhere near as dark as Roshan's portrayal. Similarly, Sayani Gupta's character in Article 15 (a Dalit woman from a village in Uttar Pradesh), Ranveer Singh's character in Gully Boy (an aspiring rapper from the slums of Mumbai) and Alia Bhatt's character in Udta Punjab (a migrant labourer from Bihar) were noticeably darkened, even though their skin colour had no relevance to the script or their roles. The movies also all received rave reviews.

Actor Hrithik Roshan wore brown make-up in his portrayal of teacher Anand Kumar (left)
Actor Hrithik Roshan wore brown make-up in his portrayal of teacher Anand Kumar (left)

The association between skin colour and social class is clear. But this assumption on the part of Bollywood insiders should come as no surprise to anyone. The Indian film industry's affinity for fair skin is no secret, and for decades Bollywood has glorified lighter skin as the gold standard for beauty. Even today, songs praising the lead actress's beauty almost always include a mention of her "gora rang" (white colour) – think "chittiyaan kalaiyaan" (white wrists), "gore gaal" (white cheeks), "gore mukhde" (white face), the list is endless. To make matters worse, on many occasions, dark-skinned characters – especially women – have been mocked mercilessly or shown to be seen as unworthy of love by the people around them, as was the case in movies such as Doosri Sita, Pyaas, Brahmachaari, Nasseb Apna Apna, Apne Rang Hazar and so many other Bollywood projects. The Indian film industry also overwhelmingly favours light-skinned actors over dark-skinned ones. That tendency is so well established that, on occasion, Bollywood has even attempted to pass off white actresses as Indian. That was the case when Brazilian actress Giselli Monteiro made her debut in Love Aaj Kal as a Punjabi woman. Two other popular actresses with incredible mass appeal but limited acting talent – Katrina Kaif and Nargis Fakhri – are half white. In direct contrast, many talented actors with darker skin tones have found themselves either openly ridiculed or sidelined in the casting process due to their colour. Some have even spoken publicly about it.

Actress and producer Nandita Das is one of the most vocal critics of the colour bias in Bollywood. Last month, she launched an India's Got Colour campaign with a two-­minute music video addressing discrimination on the basis of skin colour. Das has also often discussed how news articles about her always mentioned her "dark and dusky" skin as if to "qualify that she's dark and yet she's an actor".

In 2017, Sanjay Chauhan, the casting director of Babumoshai Bandookbaaz, referring to the film's lead actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui, said in an interview with the Deccan Chronicle that "we can't cast fair and handsome people with Nawaz. It would look so weird. You have to take people with distinct features and personalities when pairing them with him". Siddiqui posted a response on Twitter, without referring to Chauhan directly. The actor said: "Thank you for making me realise that I cannot be paired with the fair and handsome because I am dark and not good looking, but I never focus on that."

In 2016, actress Tannishtha Chatterjee appeared on an Indian comedy show to promote her film Parched and her skin tone was the subject of so many jokes that she walked off the set and wrote a long Facebook post about the experience, saying it was the same as bullying.

It's disappointing that even now, an industry as influential as Bollywood still seems to perpetuate harmful stereotypes associated with skin colour. Big-name stars such as Shah Rukh Khan, Deepika Padukone, Sonam Kapoor, John Abraham and Shahid Kapoor have endorsed skin-lightening creams, feeding into the perception that the industry has an unhealthy obsession with fair skin. Even though there are a few stars, such as Ranbir Kapoor, Abhay Deol, Bipasha Basu and Taapsee Pannu who refuse to sign such endorsement deals, by and large, Bollywood continues to play ball.

While Bollywood may not be entirely responsible for the wider preference for fair skin, its continued patronage has to have contributed to the growth of the $450 million (Dh1.6 billion) fairness cream industry in India. As long as Bollywood continues to assert that fair is beautiful, there will be no stemming the demand for light-skinned brides and grooms across all religions and communities in the country – you only have to look at the matrimonial sections of newspapers or scroll through websites to know how desperately desirable fair skin continues to be in postcolonial India.

In such an environment, when filmmakers shrug off any responsibility for the messages their movies might be sending to the public, they are instead steadily reinforcing the association between dark skin and undesirability. If left unchecked, brownfacing might become as big a problem within Bollywood as the gender pay gap or nepotism.