“I hated my brown skin."
The black lives matter movement has gained a larger platform in the media recently following the death of George Floyd on 25 May 2020.
Floyd, a black American man, was killed during an arrest by a white police officer who knelt on his neck for eight minutes as he lay handcuffed on the ground. The surrounding officers watched as this occurred.
After his killing, protests against police brutality towards black people not only spread rapidly across the United States, but the entire world.
Protests occurred across continents and social media platforms as people pushed for accountability for those who were involved in Floyd’s death.
They also protested for equality for black people in a world where whiteness is considered superior and synonymous with privilege.
Bollywood stars also turned to their social media accounts to protest racism and retweet the hashtag #blackouttuesday.
This was captioned alongside an image of a black square to symbolise their support for the black lives matter movement.
Film stars like Sonam Kapoor, Disha Patani and Priyanka Chopra amongst numerous others, have shown their support for the black lives matter movement.
Since this, however, their support has been labelled as hypocritical.
These Bollywood stars have previously promoted skin whitening products yet are now condemning racism.
Their past display of clear bias towards lighter skin contradicts their present support for racial equality.
Kangana Ranaut is one of few Bollywood stars who has publicly criticised such hypocrisy. Speaking to the BBC, Ranaut condemned Bollywood celebrities. She said:
“The Indian celebrities – they’ve all been endorsing all kinds of fairness products and today shamelessly they stand and say black lives matter, I mean how dare they?
“How come suddenly all black lives matter because racism is deep-rooted and when you have commercialised such events that is the lowest humanity can hit.”
Ranaut touches on the issue of commercialising movements such as black lives matter.
She condemns those who are participating in performative activism (such as posting on social media to appease fans), but are not being anti-racist outside of this.
Colourism in Bollywood has been prevalent since it was created. Fair-skinned actors are always hired over darker-skinned actors.
Any dark-skinned actors who were hired were most likely playing an evil or despised character.
Over the decades, Bollywood has held whiteness in high regard, showcasing lighter skin as a marker of success and attractiveness.
It influences what its audience and society consider to be beautiful – and perpetuates anti-black racism in households.
English student, Ayesha*, from the University of Nottingham states:
“Growing up, I rarely saw models or actresses that looked like me in beauty campaigns or films. I had internalised society’s perception of beauty which included European features and white skin.
“I hated my brown skin. The toxic skin lightening advertisements, promoted by my favourite actors, made me so badly want to be white. That’s why black lives matter is so important to me.”
Ayesha’s mention of European features shows how Eurocentric beauty standards in Bollywood affects and influences audiences.
Black lives matter is crucial to show young people, like Ayesha, that darker skin colours are equally as beautiful.
No one should be treated inferior because of it.
Bollywood’s endorsement of fairness products is not the sole thing they do to uphold colourism.
Lightening models’ skin on magazine covers and film billboards, exclusively hiring light-skinned actors and exhibiting both blackface and brownface in films reinforce anti-black sentiments.
Colourism is prejudice and discriminates against people with dark sines tones. It has been prevalent in many Bollywood films for decades.
Black Lives Matter but Not Always for Bollywood
The 1986 film Naseeb Apna Apna stars a light-skinned Rishi Kapoor who is married to Chandu, a brown-skinned woman played by Raadhika.
Kapoor is repulsed by her complexion so marries Radha, played by Farah Naaz.
He accepts Chandu back only when she returns from a parlour with her hair straightened and with significantly fairer skin.
The dehumanisation of Raadhika because of her skin colour draws parallels with the dehumanisation faced by the black community daily.
The anti-black beauty standard is not limited to the big screen. Sonia*, a self-described feminist based in India, says:
“Since I was a child, relatives have told me to stay out of the sun to avoid becoming too dark and that no one would want to marry me.
“It’s an outdated way of thinking and Bollywood hasn’t really helped unearth this anti-blackness.”
Naseeb Apna Apna (1986) was released 34 years ago, yet little has evolved since then. The popular 2019 film, Bala stars Bhumi Pednekar as a woman who suffers discrimination based on her skin tone.
Yet instead of casting an actress with naturally dark skin, Bollywood directors chose to hire Pednekar and darken her fair skin by several shades.
Still in 2019, ‘woke’ Bollywood continued to paint its actresses brown instead of casting people with darker skin.
It can send a message to young girls that you must be a light-skinned woman to play a dark-skinned character in Bollywood.
Does this contradict Bollywood’s support for black lives matter?
The promotional track for Bala (2019) is titled: “Na Gora Chitta, Phir Bhi Dil Main Tu”. This roughly translates to “You’re still in my heart even though you’re not white”.
This racist sentiment reinforces the belief that white equals beautiful – and subsequently suggests black is not.
The Bala (2019) trailer presents itself as a film that aspires to break stigmas around dark skin.
Many people found it difficult to see how they achieved the exact opposite by reinforcing these stigmas when hiring light-skinned Pednekar.
Despite widespread criticism, Bollywood refused to realise its mistake and anti-black lives matter projection.
Pednekar herself defended her brownface in an interview with IANS:
“That was the character. When people see the film they will understand that it is not making fun of colour.
“It is a film that is trying to break the basic bias or the obsession that people have with fair-skinned India.”
She goes on to say:
“I don’t think there is a right or a wrong. As an actor, I am doing my duty. I am an actor so that I can play different characters.”
In ignoring the fact that there is little room for actresses in Bollywood and even less room for dark-skinned actresses, Pednekar’s defence seems flawed and hollow in perspective to many.
The portrayal of dark skin in Bollywood cinema is similarly flawed in Udta Punjab (2016) where Alia Bhatt used brownface.
Ranveer Singh and Hrithik Roshan were also many shades darker than their usual skin tone in Gully Boy (2019) and Super 30 (2019) respectively.
People’s anger towards ‘hypocritical’ South Asian celebrities is not because they have chosen to support the Black Lives Matter movement.
Rather, it is the selective solidarity of Indian celebrities who endorse racist products and happily accept anti-black scripts. Only then to stand with the rest of the world in fighting systematic racism.
Priyanka Chopra Jonas also voiced her support for black lives matter and in doing so images began to circulate from her 2008 film Fashion.
In one scene, her character’s negative spiral further dwindles after waking up next to a black man.
It can be argued that she is unhappy that she slept with a stranger, the camera then returns to the man’s body, emphasising his skin colour.
Is this Bollywood showing audiences that black is negative?
Caste and Class Aggressions
Anti-blackness in Bollywood and Desi communities is linked to caste and class.
In pre-colonial times, those of higher castes were more likely to spend time indoors whilst poorer people worked outdoors.
Fair skin was therefore associated with the upper classes – a symbol of wealth and power.
European colonisation reinforced this idea and Eurocentric features became desirable.
Colourism has since become extremely influential within Bollywood with countless celebrities endorsing skin-whitening products themselves.
Capitalising on cultural perceptions of beauty and then claiming to stand in solidarity with Black communities across the world reads as hypocritical.
Caste and colourism issues on the screen have increased racism towards black people in real life. Aman* speaks of the time when she introduced her boyfriend of Kenyan heritage to her Indian family:
“They didn’t speak to me for years.”
“It’s only now, with the support of my siblings, that we are beginning to rebuild our relationship.”
The aspiration of whiteness and anti-black racism is a by-product of colonialism.
The criminalisation of dark-skinned people on screen is not the allyship that Bollywood stars project on their social media.
Many are urging Bollywood stars to practice true allyship, to go beyond posting on Instagram and to actively challenge racial decisions made in films.
Some stars have already begun this. Indian actor Abhay Deol condemned his peers for being hypocritical in the resurgence of the black lives matter movement.
Deol posed the question on Instagram: “Do you think Indian celebrities will stop endorsing fairness creams now?”
Similarly, Nandita Das called out skin colour bias in India while launching India’s Got Colour campaign in 2019.
Tired of being referred to as ‘dark’ or ‘dusky’ she speaks on Bollywood’s discrimination towards her:
“When there is a role of a rural woman, or a Dalit woman, or the role of a slum-dweller, then my skin colour is fine.
“But the minute I have to play an educated, upper-middle-class character, invariably someone comes up to me and says ‘I know you don’t like to lighten your skin, but you know this role is of an upper-middle-class educated person’.”
This shows that the bias against dark skin remains thriving. Intergenerational trauma, fuelled by cinema, continues to translate into anti-black lives matter.
If Bollywood is going to support Black Lives Matter then it must realise that brown-facing its actors is racist. When anti-racism is practised, then Bollywood’s allyship may appear less hypocritical.