It was only in May this year that Bollywood had promptly responded to the Black Lives Matter protests in the US following George Floyd’s murder, graciously extending their support to the cause of anti-racism. Further, when Hindustan Unilever decided to drop the word “fair” from its skin lightening cream Fair and Lovely, some stars commended it as a positive move towards ending colourism in the country. Cut to September 2020. A song was released yesterday from Ananya Panday and Ishaan Khatter’s upcoming film Khaali Peeli. At first glance, the song’s name – Beyoncé Sharma Jayegi – invites intrigue. But a few seconds into the song, you’ll know what an awful mistake it was to press the play button.
Here is a section of the lyrics that is making everyone on social media cringe: Bhadkeeli nakhreeli, chamkeeli lachkeeli, tu jo kamar yeh hilayegi, ho tujhe dekh ke goriya, Beyonce sharma jayegi. The fact that the song, in the same breath, mentions Beyoncé and goriya (girl with fair skin) has led to an outrage.
Social Media Apologises To Beyoncé On Behalf Of Bollywood
No sooner was the song out, Twitterati called out everyone associated with the “item number” – the song’s composer duo Vishal-Shekhar, lyricists Kumaar and Raj Shekhar, and the song’s stars Ananya Panday and Ishaan Khatter. It also didn’t help that both these young actors hail from prominent film families, which gave people campaigning against nepotism another reason to hate on the song.
But largely, everyone had, and should have, an issue with the lyrics. Social media users also apologised to American singer-songwriter Beyoncé, hailed as Queen Bey by her fans, around whom the song revolves.
Sharing a clip of the video, a user wrote:
beyoncé honey , we are so sorry 🥴 pic.twitter.com/abS5MShFth
— ➰ (@kiaraastan) September 7, 2020
Predicting the furore that was about to unfold, another user wrote, “Oh no, those lyrics are looaadddedd. Don’t think they’re ready for the discourse this is going to kick off.”
Meanwhile, fans of the pop singer had a whole other problem than the song’s colourist undertones. They were appalled at Bollywood’s audacity to compare Queen Bey to Ananya Panday. Expressing this sentiment, a user wrote, “What.utter.bullshit. Ananya Pandey, being compared to THE Beyonce… the CLOWNERY.”
Memes began taking on interesting crossovers, the most topical being this one that managed to rope in Kokilaben, the star of the moment (and rasodas everywhere):
— Punit lakra (@Punitlakra2000) September 8, 2020
The Song Isn’t Really Taking A Dig At Beyoncé, But It’s Still Problematic
When you first hear the lyrics of Beyoncé Sharma Jayegi, the use of goriya and Beyoncé in the same line will seem justifiably wrong and racist. Especially because Beyoncé is a black icon and one of the leading champions of the Black Lives Matter cause. But if you’re able to brave the bad music and listen to the song more than once, you realise that the lyrics don’t actually insinuate that Beyoncé will shy away because Panday is a fair-skinned woman. They mean that Ananya dances and moves her waist so much better than Beyoncé that it will bring Queen Bey embarrassment.
That said, the song is still problematic. Because of its use of the single word goriya. This word connoting a fair woman has been explicitly put in the song to describe Panday’s skin, obviously meaning it as the highest of compliments. Why, in 2020, and after all the debates around colourism in India, did Bollywood choose to put this word in the song? Why is “fair” still being used as a “positive” adjective? It is literally just a bodily feature – shouldn’t it be seen as such?
We are a country that is obsessed with skin colour. That is why when ‘Fair and Lovely’ changed its name to ‘Glow and Lovely,’ thousands of people were satisfied with the change, even as the underlying product’s USP remained the same – that of skin lightening. Even Shaadi.com claimed to have removed their skin tone filter. But has that really stopped families from looking for fair brides for their sons, or vice versa?
Bollywood And Its Obsession With Fair Skin
And how much of a role does Bollywood have to play in all this? Plenty. This stereotype of fair skin being seen as an advantage has been preferred by the film industry for decades, where every actress looks like every other, because a certain skin colour, body type, height, weight is seen as desirable. The ones that don’t conform to these “beauty standards” – like Deepika Padukone or Bipasha Basu, who have darker skin – are called “dusky beauties.” Highly patronising term.
Even in our films, dark skin is always seen as a “hindrance” that needs to be “overcome.” It is never just a natural feature. For instance in Bala, Bhumi Pednekar, a fair actress, was embarrassingly brownfaced for the role. And when dark-skinned actors like Nandita Das do roles, they are told, “don’t worry, we’ll lighten your skin.'”
It’s heartening to see that the audience has begun understanding the nuances of how stereotypes of colourism are propagated through Bollywood. And have begun calling the industry out on its nonsense. Bollywood needs to read the room and work to improve itself. Because honestly, listening to more songs like this one from Khaali Peeli, Beyoncé most definitely sharma jayegi.
Image credit: YouTube screenshot
Views expressed are the author’s own.