The Bollywood film industry is a global phenomenon built on glitz and glamour. But it has also faced accusations of being among the biggest purveyors of racism for glorifying fair complexions in its hyperbolic love stories and catchy songs. Now, amid anger over what some consider Bollywood’s hypocritical stance on Black Lives Matter, the industry has finally been forced to confront one of its most enduring taboos.
Bollywood has witnessed considerable liberalisation in recent years. But while taboos such as same-sex relationships have been relegated to a past in which stars hid behind a rose bush to steal a kiss, the industry’s determination to cling to colourism – prejudice against people of your own race on the basis of skin colour – has become a cause of anger and dismay.
The issue erupted earlier this month when a number of stars, including the industry’s biggest export, Priyanka Chopra Jonas, posted their support of BLM on social media. While Chopra’s message was perhaps aimed at her western fan base, Bollywood enthusiasts swiftly seized on her post to highlight her appearance in an advertising campaign for skin-lightening products and for perpetuating what many consider racial stereotypes in films such as Fashion.
Chopra and other stars were also criticised for protesting against racism in the west while allegedly remaining silent on issues in India such as attacks on Muslims and other communities, and the abuse of migrant workers, particularly from Africa.
While the country’s obsession with skin colour has its roots in the caste system and its history of colonial subjugation, a new kind of caste system is emerging now, defined by symbols of success. The film industry is built on marketing an aspiration in which fair skin is seen as much a status symbol as designer handbags and sports cars.
“The Indian Hindu caste system is part of the problem of colourism in India and was exploited under colonialism. These power relations are still seen in Bollywood today,” said Dr Rajinder Dudrah, author of The Bollywood Reader.
“Bollywood is associated with glamour and promotes aspirational Indian values of wealth and success. It sells that aspiration via its stars, who promote skin-lightening creams as part of their star personas. This has highlighted the ways in which Bollywood mirrors attitudes to skin colour and social hierarchies prevalent in Indian society.”
Million-dollar skin lightening contracts were once considered as much a part and parcel of Bollywood stardom as red carpet premieres, but a new generation of young actresses has been vocal about the industry’s obsession with fair skin.
Among those is Pallavi Charda, star of the ITV drama Beecham Place, who is one of a growing number of actresses bridging the gap between Bollywood and the west. “There’s no doubt there is bias against darker- skinned actors in Bollywood. I was often called ‘dusky’ for my tanned skin. I’ve been offered advertising contracts for skin-lightening products, but declined them.
“India has a fair-skin complex. It’s sad how this has been perpetuated through popular culture, with fair as good and dark as bad.”
According to a World Health Organization study, an estimated 61% of women in India use skin-lightening creams, and the industry is forecast to be worth $31.2bn globally by 2024.
While headlines have focused on British-Dutch company Unilever’s decision last week to change the name of its infamous ‘Fair and Lovely’ range (though it didn’t withdraw the product from sale), many skin-lightening products in India are manufactured by brands which are household names in the UK, including Garnier and L’Oreal. Women on low incomes are often forced to resort to cheap, domestically manufactured alternatives which can contain harmful ingredients such as mercury.
Films associate fairness with beauty, success and love and acceptability
Despite being one of India’s most celebrated actresses for her performances in films such as Deepa Mehta’s Fire, Nandita Das said she has faced discrimination in the industry. Her experience inspired her to get involved in the “India’s Got Colour” campaign, which encourages young women to embrace their natural skin tones. “The glorification of fair skin has been present in our films for a very long time and reflects the bias of our society,” said Das. “When I play a slum dweller or a Dalit (untouchable caste) woman, my skin is perfect, but directors tell me to make my skin lighter to play affluent upper-class roles.
“Films associate fairness with beauty, success and love and acceptability. It becomes about making women feel inadequate.
“It’s hypocritical to protest and say #blacklivesmatter, yet discriminate against people with dark skins and endorse fairness products in our own country,
“Now society is more vocal about these hypocrisies and many actors have been called out for it. The more we call out discrimination, the more we address the issue,” she said.