One of the most memorable sequences in Gully Boy is the one where Murad and his friends drive around downtown, and against a soft background score, live out an anarchist’s dream. Young vigilantes, they vandalise billboards of models promoting capitalistic beauty standards. Then they spray over a fairness cream advert to make it read: “Brown & Beautiful”. A brown-faced Murad looks on in admiration before the gang drives off. The irony of it all is at once glaring, and rather uncomfortable. “Brown & Beautiful” is an oxymoron in an industry like Bollywood that makes money out of both fairness creams and brownface culture at the same time.
Fairness Creams and Hypocrisy
When the Black Lives Matter movement gained momentum last month, Bollywood celebrities were quick to hashtag tributes to George Floyd and call out racism in America as soon as the issue began trending. Netizens were quicker to point out that most of the celebs speaking out had endorsed fairness creams in the past. The internet calls a spade a spade- even bigwigs like Sonam Kapoor and Priyanka Chopra were not spared, and rightly so.
Now, with effects of the BLM movement trickling into the Indian industry, brands that once openly endorsed that fair skin is greater than dark skin, have been forced to reinvent. Cream brand Fair & Lovely and matrimonial site Shaadi.com, the two top culprits, have taken a step in the right direction by dropping ‘fair’ from the name and removing the skin colour filter respectively. Some people applauded this new beginning, while others felt it was just not enough for Fair & Lovely to remove the word but continue to sell the fairness product.
Either way, some change has come. But the beauty industry is not an isolated offender. It feeds off its older, more dangerous sibling – Bollywood. The film industry has immortalised active discrimination through its brownface culture. “It’s actually racism. Let’s not mince our words,” director Neeraj Ghaywan told CNN.
What is Brownface?
Remember how in Gully Boy Murad is a dark-skinned fellow despite Ranveer Singh being a fairly light-skinned guy? Or how in Super 30, Hrithik Roshan, homegrown Greek God, plays a brown-skinned Anand Kumar? And how in Bala, Bhumi Pednekar’s Latika Tiwari appears to be a bad spoof of every brown girl in the country? Plus how a fair Alia Bhatt playing a Bihari migrant worker has a shocking tan in Udta Punjab?
That is brownface. It is the culture of using an embarrassing amount of face paint to colour a person’s skin darker than what it really is.
Originally, the culture of blackface, and its derivative brownface, dates back to America in the early 1800s, where plays employed non-black actors to play black roles. This may sound like an honest attempt at the well-meaning representation of black people, but it wasn’t. White actors’ faces were painted black and features exaggerated, resulting in a deliberately unnatural-looking character. It wasn’t mimicry, it was mockery. The end result was a caricature of a black person with racist overtones.
Colonialism, of course, was a major factor that contributed to the perceived superiority of white skin over all others. In India, this effect of colonialism only bolstered the already existing colour divide. Bollywood, as expected, borrowed a lot from these prejudiced traditions.
Brownface in Bollywood
The Hindi film industry today uses brownface to blatantly portray a character from a disadvantaged background. Colourism, as it so exists, then also affects all other attributes of that character- their clothes, manner of speaking, living conditions, everything. Take Gully Boy, for instance, since it is the one with most accolades. Murad is an aspiring rapper residing in the slum lanes of Dharavi in Mumbai. To give him “that” look, Singh’s face was artificially browned to match the character’s background. If Murad were a world-renowned singer, his face would have been fair and lovely.
If you think this is bad, allow me to tell you about old Bollywood. In 1963, a film called Meri Surat Teri Aankhen was released. A spin on the adage “beauty lies in the eye of the beholder”, it showed Ashok Kumar in the role of a vampire, with a “scary” face painted all-black, living with Muslim parents. Clearly, there was only racism and religionism in the eye of the beholder.
Again, in Fashion (2008), Priyanka Chopra’s character faces an existential crisis when she wakes up in bed with an African man. This absolute aversion and hatred for black skin is not a popular trope in Bollywood anymore, because there are too many vocal people keeping check. The norm is now to cash in on “Brown & Beautiful.” But Bollywood is failing terribly at this too.
Brownface Promotes Racism
One may argue that it’s only natural for directors to cast the best actors and mould them according to role. That is the very concept behind films. But this becomes problematic when it begins to typecast things. Brownface, for instance, seeks to associate a certain character with a certain background. In a country like India which ostracises dark people and where colourism is rampant, using brownface even for the purpose of representation does more harm than good.
And we know it’s not true that poor Bollywood with its heart of gold actually wants the best for brown people with storylines that seek to uplift them. If it really wanted to do so, it would have widened its diversity and not gatekept brown-skinned actors from becoming mainstream. But it doesn’t. Director-actor Nandita Das, who also runs a campaign called India’s Got Colour, told CNN that whenever she plays “an educated or upper-middle-class character, often the director, cinematographer, or makeup person tells you: ‘don’t worry, we’ll lighten your skin.'”
The brownface problem goes beyond Bollywood’s photoshop skills. It is far too deep-rooted in the Indian subconscious to be solved by a mere plot point in a movie. Still, it would do well for the industry to put away its brown paints for some time. Perhaps forever.
Tanvi Akhauri is an intern with SheThePeople.TV. Views expressed are the author’s own.