Tracey Nguyen Mang is the founder and host of the Vietnamese Boat People podcast.

India and the Colorism Problem

I can’t speak or understand Hindi, much like many American children of Indian immigrants. I garble my way through popular Bollywood songs and I watch my movies with subtitles, but that doesn’t stop me from appreciating Indian cinema. Unfortunately, the more Indian movies I watch, the more I realize that the common theme tying Bollywood together isn’t dance numbers, charismatic heroes, or hate-turned-love relationships. It’s a refusal to cast dark-skinned leads.***Climate creates skin color, and India’s population is a perfect example. Those from the tropics of South India generally have darker skin, while those closer to the colder, Himalayan north have lighter skin. Evidence suggests that Ancient Indians did not discriminate based on color. Multiple deities in Vedic texts and the Hindu Mahabharata, such as the goddess Kali or the Mahabharata, such as the goddess Kali or the Mahabharata’s protagonist Draupadi, are described as dark and beautiful. This history changes, however, with invasion. Indian people, who had been invaded and ruled by the lighter-skinned Mughals, Portuguese, and finally the British, had consistently seen those of whiter skin in positions of power, and this is undoubtedly where the history of colorism in India begins. The first concrete examples of skin color-based prejudice in India are the British, who consistently offered those of lighter skin better jobs and treatment.

Neha Mishra, author of “India and Colorism: The Finer Nuances” says that the British imposition of color-based ideals “shaped the common man’s association of white colored skin with the ruling class, with power, with desirability, and also with beauty”. Now, decades after independence, the legacy of British occupation is alive and well. Residual westernized beauty ideals are so ingrained in Indian society that our advertisements, beauty products, and movies all scream “lighter is better”. In fact, it is almost impossible to find a mainstream, dark-skinned model or actress in India. Try.  You’ll quickly find that the South Indian actresses are there, they just don’t look like the majority of South Indian women. See, Bollywood’s most prominent female faces- Priyanka Chopra, Anushka Shetty, Deepika Padukone, Aishwarya Rai, Kareena Kapoor, and Alia Bhatt- represent many different regions of India, yet not one of these talented women possesses dark skin. Even Aishwarya Rai, who was born in the southwestern state of Karnataka, or Tamil and Telugu movie star Anushka Shetty, are much lighter than the general populations of their home states. It would be impossible to guess at their origins based on skin tone.

Now, I love Priyanka Chopra as much as the next Nick Jonas stan, but the more Bollywood chooses to cast actresses that share the same foundation range, the more it perpetuates colorism. The more it turns a blind eye to the parents forcing children to play indoors for fear they become tanner, the family members whispering about a dark-skinned daughter’s marriage prospects, and worst of all, the young girls bleaching their skin to look like the “fair” beauties they see on TV. Let me repeat that. Young girls are bleaching their skin. The problem is so prevalent that the skin-lightening cream market is projecting revenues of almost 704 million U.S. dollars by 2023. And colorism in Bollywood does not stop at casting. People of darker skin are also seeing themselves vilified on screen. In the popular “Baahubali 2: The Conclusion” a 2017 Anushka Shetty film, the hero and his brother defend their kingdom against invaders, but here’s the kicker: the invaders are a Southern tribe called “Kalakeya”, are they are dark. Very dark. They wear animal skins, have crude-looking armor, and are barbaric in nature. They are, of course, the enemy, and the lighter-skinned heroes defeat them. It is worth noting that “Kala” means “black” or “dark” in Hindi. Vilification of dark skinned characters isn’t restricted to Bollywood, though. This form of colorism is noticeable in advertising as well. Just five years ago in India, it was common to see ads in which young women won back their boyfriends or got the job after using skin-lightening products. Companies like Ponds, Johnson & Johnson, and Nivea have all aired such ads, and prominent Bollywood actors like Shah Rukh Khan, Deepika Padukone, and Priyanka Chopra have endorsed them. TakePart writer Melissa Rayworth summed up the issue: “Ads for skin-whitening creams are ubiquitous in India and many Asian countries, and many promote that same before-and-after storyline: “Make your skin fair, and you’ll be beautiful and successful, but stay as dark as you really are and you’ll get nowhere in life or love.”

Fortunately, in 2014, India implemented new advertising guidelines that ban the depiction of dark-skinned actors as less successful, attractive, or happy. While this is a huge step in the right direction, the Indian media has a long, long way to go, because subtle reinforcements of “lighter is better” are very evident. For example, “Fair and Lovely” beauty products, which have now expanded into “Fair and Handsome” products for men, are still estimated to command half the skin-lightening market, and while the company is a household name in India, it is the name itself that’s an issue! Fair and lovely? Are you kidding me? It’s 2019, and high time we recognize that fair, unfair, and everything in between is ALL lovely. And the tides are beginning to turn. Although casting directors and producers do not readily hire dark-skinned actresses yet, prominent members of the Indian media have begun to take action against the perpetuation of colorism. In 2013, Bollywood actress Kangana Ranaut turned down a $281,500 offer to endorse a “fairness cream” product, and filmmaker-actress Nandita Das has become a leading voice in Women of Worth’s ‘Dark is Beautiful’ campaign, which celebrates India’s “1.2 billion shades of beautiful.” So say it, believe it, and make sure all your dark-skinned friends know it: Dark deserves acceptance onscreen. Dark is not something to fix. Dark is natural, loveable, and powerful.

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