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The Elephant in the Room: Racism in India

Nayana Dhanya

13th September 2020


Even though Indians are comparatively darker-skinned than the west, Racism is still prevalent in the country. (Illustration Source: Malay Karmakar)

'Tujhe dekhe ke goriya, Beyonce sharma jayegi' read the 'ground-breaking' lyrics of a dance number from Khaali Peeli starring Bollywood stars Ananya Pandey and Ishan Khatter. Despite its catchy beat and glamorous costumes, the music video currently has close to 1 lakh likes and over 10 lakh dislikes.

The stark difference arises from the fact that the song lyrics present themselves as inherently racist or, more specifically, colourist—a phenomenon Lupita N'yongo termed the 'daughter of racism.'

The lyrics of Beyonce Sharma Jayegi imply that looking at the fair heroine of the movie (Ananya Pandey) would render Beyonce feeling shameful. Not only are these lyrics tone-deaf at a time of global outrage concerning the blatant racial discrimination African Americans face, but also perpetuates the idea that it is superior to have gori or fair skin. Anyone who deviates from this colour is automatically expected to feel shame.

According to a report by The Times of India, the director of the song has apologised and stated that the lyric was never intended racially. The lyricist commented in the same interview saying, "Goriya as a word has been used in many Hindi songs earlier. Our idea was to simply use a synonym to ‘girl’.” In an attempt to curb further criticism, they have also changed the title of the song to Beyonse Sharma Jayegi.

Unfortunately, India's racism issue is more severe and profound than a single apology and a title-change. The glorification of fair-skinned people has been an ongoing trend since time immemorial—and the movie industry has done nothing but further perpetuate these notions.

From behind the scenes to the big screen, racism is a constant presence in the industry. A quick look at Bollywood's most high-earning and famous actors portrays a very ‘fair’ picture indeed. There is a significant disparity between actors with fair complexions and the darker ones.

No matter how talented, the talk always trickles down to colour. According to The Times of India, in 2015 Rishi Kapoor publicly criticised Nawazuddin Siddiqui for his views on clichéd romance in Bollywood. He commented, "You will never get a chance (to act). And you aren't capable of doing it either. You don't have the image; you don't have the talent".

In an interview with Deccan Chronicle, casting director, Sanjay Chouhan identified Siddiqui's looks as to why they couldn't cast him with 'fair and handsome people.' Frieda Pinto has also publicly condemned the auditioning procedure for Indian Films, stating to Independent that the fairer you are, the easier it is. Some of the best-known actors in the industry have, at one point or another, helped keep this notion alive.

From Shah Rukh Khan to Priyanka Chopra, everyone has advocated skin whitening products from Fair and Lovely, Olay, and Garnier. The advertisements for these products often show them in brownface, a phenomenon where actors deliberately darken their skin to represent people from a specific community. These ads appeal to their audience by encouraging them to get rid of their darker complexion—which is usually cited as the reason for their problems—and become fair for a better lifestyle.

These same individuals now discuss issues like the Black Lives Matter movement on their social media pages—demanding justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and urging their followers to speak up about the rampant racism in today’s world. And yet, they refuse to acknowledge the discrimination that occurs right at home.

It comes as no surprise that such an attitude towards discrimination off-screen rears its ugly head on-screen too. In 2008, Priyanka Chopra starred in Fashion in which her character Meghna Mathur is shown to be attending raves and consuming drugs. The next morning, she appears to be shocked and disgusted that she had a sexual encounter with a black man.

Well known and loved songs like Chittiyan Kalaiyaan and Baar Baar Dekho specifically highlight how beautiful the actors are for possessing fair skin. Another widespread trend in the industry is the casting of foreign Caucasian women as background dancers in music videos. There is no logical explanation or context of why they are in the scene other than the fact that they add an aesthetic look. Not only does this glorify being fair, but it builds an unrealistic image of a world where everyone is fair in the minds of the viewers.

As of late, there has been an increase in mainstream movies that have dark-skinned protagonists with established plotlines and stories. Bala, Gully Boy, and Super 30 are three such movies. However, this representation cannot be termed as progressive for the sole reason that the leads of these movies are, in reality, fair-skinned individuals doing brownface.

The issue lies in the fact that the industry is blatantly discriminatory while simultaneously profiting off of dark-skinned individuals' struggles. Dark-skinned actors routinely face rejections from casting directors for their colour, while fair-skinned actors get the choice of going a few shades darker to portray a particular role; a role that would probably help advance the careers of actors with unconventional features.

Inaccurate representation on-screen has repercussions off-screen as well. Far too often, people form their opinions based on what movies portray, believing them to be the reality. Black and north-eastern Indians are continually facing the brunt of this misrepresentation.

The black community is constantly stereotyped to be drug-peddlers, pimps, and cannibals. These harmful notions were converted to action just three years ago, when African nationals in India were blamed for the death of a class 12 student and physically assaulted in Greater Noida, according to Hindustan Times.

In another horrific incident reported by The New Indian Express, two African students were physically assaulted by more than 30 men dressed in security uniforms after being denied entry on campus.

People from the northeast are called ‘chinki’ and made fun of for their appearance. In recent times, ‘coronavirus’ has become a racial slur in India. Alana Gomei, an activist who runs the North East Support Centre and Helpline, told Huffingtonpost that from February 2020 to March 2020, there had been at least 100 complaints about racist attacks.

It is unknown whether life imitates art or art imitates life. However, the fact of the matter is that a majority of Indian society sees no wrong in racist and colourist behaviour. For far too long, people with dark complexions have internalised and accepted the hatred towards their skin. This process begins in childhood and lasts for the rest of their lives.

Ranging from teachers in school consciously picking fair-skinned children to be the star of the talent show to concerned aunties advising young boys and girls to try fairness creams, the discrimination is unending. A study conducted by Neha Mishra from REVA University revealed that 71 per cent of students include the words ‘fair’ and ‘light’ when asked to describe being pretty.

Such perceptions do not go away once they reach adulthood as society urges dark-skinned adults to settle for anyone who accepts them as they are. This is because they are sure that another opportunity like this would not present itself.

The study also discusses the dating preferences of both males and females, revealing that 74 per cent of males preferred light-skinned females. Similarly, 60.86 per cent of females favoured light-skinned men over dark-skinned men.

Such preferences permeate into married life as adults often arrange marriages for their children in India. To qualify as a suitable bride or groom, one must be fair, well educated, and slender. Matrimonial advertisements in India, ranging from across different religions and castes have one common attribute: fair skin. According to Mishra’s study, leading newspapers such as The Times of India have published advertisements looking for ‘fair’ handsome grooms, and ‘extremely beautiful, slim, very educated’ brides.

As the world grows more sensitive to issues like racism and colourism, Indian society must join in as well. Accurate representation and the active dismantling of stereotypes and prejudices are the only ways we as a society can tackle this growing issue.

Starting with the big screen, it is crucial to provide dark-skinned actors with leading roles in movies. Not only is it authentic, but it also helps thousands with a similar appearance see themselves in situations and stories they never have before. Alongside this, fair-skinned advocates would have to acknowledge the rampant racism in the industry and use their massive influence to help those less fortunate than them.

Unlearning harmful prejudices and stereotypes by educating oneself is the need of the hour. Having difficult conversations and taking a stance against someone when they are discriminatory is not only crucial for adults but also children, as they often learn such behaviour by observation. Alongside this, our education system needs a radical makeover to be more inclusive and sensitive. According to India Today, an English textbook in West Bengal taught the alphabet using ‘U for Ugly’ with a picture of a dark person portraying the word.

Change is happening at a slow pace. According to The Times of India, matrimonial sites like Shaadi.com removed their skin filter feature after users raised an online petition against its complexion filter which enabled users to search for partners in a particular skin colour range.

It is at this crucial juncture that people need to grow more aware of racism and colourism while actively changing their mindsets. If people do not stand up and demand change now, it will never happen.

(Sources: The Hindu, Times of India, India Today, Hindustan Times, Independent, The Guardian, Washington University Global Studies Law Review)

Edited by Pratheek S

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