Women take on Shah Rukh Khan for promoting skin-lightening cream

In India, a country with a strong bias towards fair skin, a women's group has taken on the Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan for endorsing a skin-lightening cream

The actress Nandita Das is the poster girl for the 'Dark is Beautiful' campaign in India, a country where fair-skinned people are seen as more attractive.
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In a new advertisement for the skin-lightening cream Fair & Handsome, a product of the Indian cosmetics giant Emami, the actor Shah Rukh Khan throws a tube of cream to a young male fan. In the next scene, the boy's skin is lighter, his smile confident. The message? Fair skin is a prerequisite for success.

Khan is now under pressure from an online petition organised by Women of Worth (Wow), a group in Chennai, to stop endorsing such "regressive" products.

Posted on the website www.change.org/darkisbeautiful, the petition says that such advertising reinforces the deep-rooted perception in India that dark-skinned people are less attractive and less successful.

Pitted against Khan is the well-known actress Nandita Das, whose face is on Wow posters attempting to spread awareness of the "Dark is Beautiful" campaign (www.darkisbeautiful.in).

"Mr Khan, we invite you to join celebrities such as Nandita Das and use your influence to promote the positive message: 'Beauty Beyond Colour'," says the petition.

The campaign seeks to draw attention to the negative effects of discrimination based on colour. The petition has got 8,000 signatures so far - a tiny number in a country of more than one billion people.

Khan is not the only Bollywood star to endorse such products. John Abraham, Katrina Kaif, Shahid Kapoor and Deepika Padukone have also lent their names to various brands of "fairness creams".

"Once the petition has grown, we plan to ask Shah Rukh Khan to stop appearing in these adverts," says Kavitha Emmanuel, Wow's founder.

"People like him can influence attitudes positively, but instead he is using that power to propagate the view that fair skin is more attractive."

The preference for light skin is a cultural one that's etched in the country's psyche - Indians spend billions of rupees every year on skin-lightening creams because fairness is equated with beauty and social status.

Take Das herself. An actress who has appeared in films such as Deepa Mehta's Fire (1996) and Earth (1998), Das has experienced the full force of such prejudice.

Everything written about her in the press, Das says, contains a reference to her skin colour, as though it is something that defines her.

"When I was a child, people made comments such as 'Poor thing, she is so dark' or 'You have nice features despite being dark'," reveals Das. "People have said: 'How can you be so confident when you are dark?' Had it not been for my parents, for whom this was not a topic of conversation, I would have grown up believing I wasn't good enough."

It's no surprise that Das has agreed to lend her face to the project. She has also campaigned against domestic violence as well as the discrimination faced by people who are HIV-positive.

Wow is also trying to raise awareness about colour prejudice in schools and colleges. "I've seen kindergarten children saying they used a particular soap to wash their face and "it hasn't become white". Their self-esteem is badly affected," says Emmanuel.

One online supporter of the petition wrote: "Advertising fairness creams is outright racism. Cannot believe that Indians follow such racism proudly, day in and day out."