2 Shades of the Dark Girlby | May 28, 2018
Disclaimer: I do not take credit for the ideas presented in this piece. This article combines research done by multiple people to support some of the observations I have made as a Hindi film fan. I will attach another document at the end of this piece should you wish to evaluate my sources or do further reading.
I want to discuss the influence of western cultural appropriation and how it affects dark skinned women in India. I would like to shed more light on how this western cultural appropriation, especially the eurocentric standards of beauty, has contrasted light skinned and dark skinned women in Hindi Cinema. This will help you, the reader, understand how film cosmopolitanism in Hindi cinema has contributed to a high degree of racism and colorism. Colorism and racism can be attributed to the colonial legacy that can be traced to the Aryans who took over India before the Portuguese and the British. All of India’s colonial masters were lighter compared to Indians, and this shifted the power dynamics. It is believed that colonial masters especially British colonial masters favored lighter skinned Indians. This trend has continued till today where lighter colored Indian women are generally more accepted and respected compared to their darker colored counterparts based on countless testimonies. Besides colonialism, film cosmopolitanism through borrowing from other industries like Hollywood has furthered negative narratives about dark skinned women through correlating dark skin to ugliness and masculinity. I wish to discuss how dark skinned women and fair skinned women are portrayed in movies and how society mirrors the trends presented in Bollywood and Hollywood movies. I will use multiple Hindi films like Mere Brother Ki Dulhan , Kuch Kuch Hota Hai , and Udta Punjab . I will also use Hollywood films like Dreamgirls  and Empire  to show the comparisons between Hollywood and Bollywood in the portrayals of fair skinned girls and dark skinned girls. I hope you enjoy reading this piece as much as I enjoyed writing it.
Colorism can be defined as “the preference for light skin and the devaluing of dark skin”. There are various theories that explain why colorism exists in a country that is predominantly inhabited by brown people and why it affects women more. The first theory blames the colorism in India on the British colonialism whereby the colonialists favored lighter skinned Indians over darker skinned Indians because lighter skinned people were naturally more civilized compared to the primitive dark skinned people. Similar to the first theory, is that of the Aryans( lighter skinned, stronger, more civilized clans from Central Asia) and how they occupied Northern India and defeated the darker skinned, primitive Dravidians of South India. The last theory that explains colorism and why it affects women more than men is that of the caste system. According to scholars Parameswaran and Cardoza, this caste system is a rigid power structure of division of labor that was established by the Aryans. The Brahmins who were at the top of this hierarchy were generally fairer skinned while the untouchables who were at the very bottom were mostly darker skinned. This reinforced the narrative of fairer skinned people being more powerful, more elite, and more successful. Also, even though the caste system was created as a way of labor distribution, admission into a caste is solely based on one’s birth. Therefore, as women reproduce they have the important task of maintaining the caste system, and they might have pressure to become lighter skinned because light skin is associated with an upper caste .
Not everyone agrees with those theories, but they are important in connecting beauty to fairness and desirability. The Bollywood scenes in the film I will discuss highlights how dark skin for women is portrayed as a liability in romantic relationships. In the 1998 critical and commercial blockbuster Kuch Kuch Hota Hai( Something.. Something Happens), Shahrukh Khan’s character Rahul has a college best friend called Anjali( played by Kajol). Anjali’s skin complexion is dark and she dresses and acts like boys. It isn’t until the beautiful, fair Tina( played by Rani Mukherjee) attends their college that Anjali starts to care about her own appearance. Anjali’s sudden awareness of her limited femininity is because she has started to fall in love with Rahul while Rahul is falling for the prettier girl-Tina. Even though, there are no verbal remarks about Anjali’s visibly darker skin compared to Tina, there is heavy polarization of their skin tones whenever they are in the same scene.
A scene in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai that demonstrates this polarization of skin tone is when Anjali wears a skirt and puts on makeup for the first time. Anjali’s face is visibly fairer after her makeover, and she even wears skin tight white leggings that give the illusion of fairer legs. When Anjali gets to the college, she comes up to Rahul and says the following: “ How do I look?” “Just like Tina, right?”( Kuch Kuch Hota Hai 1998). This scene establishes the fact that Anjali who is dark skinned feels that she should alter her appearance to become like Tina: fairer and more feminine in order to win Rahul’s attention. It should also be noted that Anjali is more vocal about her opinions while Tina is a bit docile. What Kuch Kuch Hota Hai does is associating fair skin with beauty and desirability and therefore a requirement for women to attain heterosexual love and marriages. Kuch Kuch Hota Hai shows that darker skinned women will never win the male protagonists’ attention as long as there is a fairer lady, because of a combination of factors embodied by fair ladies like seriousness and feminine charm that dark skinned ladies lack.
Furthermore, Bollywood actors continue to endorse fairness creams with narratives that further correlate heterosexual love and marriages to fairness and beauty . For example in the “Ponds White Beauty” advertisement that the famous Bollywood actress Priyanka Chopra did, actor Saif Ali Khan leaves her and falls in love with a much fairer actress-Neha Dhupia.” Priyanka Chopra is very sad and she decides to use the “Ponds White Beauty” cream. After a few fights with his girlfriend, Saif Ali Khan meets with Priyanka Chopra and is floored by her beauty. At the end of the advertisement, Saif Ali Khan gets back together with Priyanka Chopra who is much fairer. This advertisement is very explicit in perpetuating eurocentric standards of beauty as well as the idea that women are supposed to be beautiful in order to find potential partners. This constant depiction of dark skinned girls as rebound or second options for male protagonists in Bollywood has percolated into the society. As researcher Mishra’s evidence in the research she conducted in various parts of India shows, 74% of the males they interviewed wanted to date a lighter skinned girl. This is because the participants of her survey believed beauty went hand in hand with fairness( Mishra 2015, pg-742 ). Moreover, some families married off their darker skinned daughters quickly, because they considered the girls lucky if someone even liked them in the first place. I also talked to a few of my guy friends and the majority of them seemed to think girls with light skin were automatically prettier than girls with dark skin. To quote one of them: “umwana w’inzobe arabikora.” This shows that colorism is not a phenomenon in only India, but that there is a degree of colorism in most communities of color.
Similar to Bollywood, Hollywood movies like “Dreamgirls” show a man called Curtis (portrayed by Jamie Foxx) leaving his darker skinned lover Effie (portrayed by Jennifer Hudson) for a lighter skinned woman called Deena(portrayed by Beyonce). Jennifer Hudson’s character is based on the stereotypical black woman role of a “sapphire figure” who is“overbearing and undesirable to men”. On the other hand, Beyonce’s character is a poised, lighter skinned woman whose docility is considered the “ideal femininity”. This constant narration of dark black women in Hollywood as “ loud, ratchet, and unfeminine”, has percolated in the African American society as well as it is shown by the documentary “Dark Girls.In this documentary, black men use words such as “nasty and unfeminine” to describe black women . For all the above evidence, I argue that the portrayal of dark skinned women in Hindi cinema as second to lighter skinned women has been influenced by western cultural appropriation and beauty standards to an extent. Consequently, the Indian society has embraced the western definition of beauty thus leaving dark skinned Indian women vulnerable.
Another way that darker skinned women are portrayed in Bollywood is by showing how backward, impure, and unsuccessful they are. On the contrary, lighter skinned women in Bollywood are empowered, modern, and pure . I will use the following examples to show how this portrayal of lighter skinned females has become prevalent. In the 2011 film Mere Brother Ki Dulhan(My Brother’s Bride), Dimple( played by Katrina Kaif) is a girl who is considered “western and rebellious.” She is a rock singer, has several tattoos, and has many friends who are boys. For this reason, one of her guy friends tries to sleep with her because of her flirtatious nature. When Dimple is sad, the main character Kush( played by Imran Khan) comforts her by saying that: “Most girls here aren’t open, carefree, friendly like you”(Mere Brother Ki Dulhan, 2011). Kush proceeds to correlate her unconventional character to her purity by saying: “You are so pure that you do not see the filth around you”(Mere Brother Ki Dulhan, 2011). While Kush’s words do not directly connect fairness to purity, historically Bollywood movies have typecast darker skinned people as impure while fair skinned people are associated with purity. Roles that are mostly essayed by fairer skinned women in Bollywood not only distinguish them from the majority of dark skinned women, but they also perpetuate the notion that “fair skin equals power and money”. Dimple is a very wealthy girl who has spent a lot of time in London. I content that it is this wealth that makes Dimple different. I am arguing that it is this wealth that gives her experiences and a lot of choices thus making her elite and cosmopolitan. On the contrary, darker skinned girls are mostly cast in stereotypical roles that further lower their status in the society. If the stereotypical roles are strong ones that can boost an actress’s career, then the roles are often given to fairer skinned actresses.
A good example is that of Udta Punjab (Lit Punjab 2016). There are two main female characters in this film: Kareena Kapoor( who is very fair) essays the role of Preet Sahni a doctor and activist against drug use. Alia Bhatt who is also very fair essays the role of Bauria, an immigrant worker from the state of Bihar. However, in this film Alia Bhatt’s skin is darkened and it can be compared to “blackface”. This practice is common in Hollywood whereby white actors have been cast in roles of people who are not ethnically white. Examples include Katharine Hepburn playing the role of a chinese woman in Dragon Seed. Udta Punjab also shows the darker skinned Bauria as an unsuccessful hockey player who tries to sell drugs and is caught by drug lords who rape her constantly. In the end, Bauria becomes a drug addict and she eventually avenges her lost youth. You can see how these female characters are contrasted not only by their destinies and success, but also by their skin color.
Granted, there have been a few films with darker skinned actresses played roles of successful and pure characters. Actress Bipasha Basu who is darker skinned plays the role of a successful supermodel in Bachna Ae Haseeno 2008(Watch Out Ladies). However, there aren’t enough darker skinned women playing roles of empowered, liberal, pure women in Bollywood. In fact, dark skinned actress Nandita Das who advocates for the “Dark is Beautiful” campaign, has publicly spoken about how film producers requested her to lighten her skin in preparation for upper caste, high class roles. Nandita Das also shared that she was mostly given lower caste and working class roles because of her skin color. I am arguing that casting dark skinned women in subordinate roles and fair women in empowered roles is a result of cultural imperialism from the Hollywood industry. Casting Alia Bhatt in black face can be compared to how Hollywood has casted lighter skinned black women for powerful characters designed for dark skinned black women. For example, there has been a lot of controversy regarding casting Alexandra Shipp for the role of Storm in the X- Men Franchise. This is because the character of Storm in the comics is supposed to be of native Kenyan heritage. Instead, darker skinned women have been reduced to playing stereotypical roles like loud women who sold drugs- Cookie in the Fox TV show “Empire.”. Thankfully, this is changing slowly in Hollywood where Black Panther’s girl cast is exclusively black girls with kinky hair. Moreover, these girls are not stereotypes of black women: they are spies, royal soldiers, and engineers. Hopefully, this change in Hollywood will be seen in Bollywood and there will be proportional representation of fair and darker skinned heroines who are not typecast.
It would be unfair to generalize and say that fair Bollywood actresses haven’t also been subject to a certain level of typecasting. Famous fair skinned item number girls are Malaika Arora Khan and Katrina Kaif. In most of their item numbers they dance sensually in revealing clothes to a large group of men. According to Rita Brara; the word “item” is used to describe chilli hot and savory foods that are mostly served in urban restaurants, but not at home. Similarly, beautiful girls who are dressed in revealing clothes are items and not “wife material.”. This shows that fair skinned girls have also been subject to being typecast as objects of male sexual gratification, but not love interests that heroes typically marry. This can be exemplified in a film like Lagaan where the main character Bhuvan flirts with Elizabeth(British girl) occasionally, but ends up marrying the traditional, darker skinned, Indian girl Gauri. Another example worth mentioning is hiring white background dancers in item numbers that require a lot of sensuality; this is evident in songs like Mauja Hi Mauja in Jab We Met( When We Met) whereby white background dancers have very few clothes on, while ethnically Indian Kareena Kapoor is fully dressed .
Bollywood further complicates matters by casting almost exclusively fair skinned girls in errotic films. The most popular mainstream errotic films include Ragini MMS2 which has the fair skinned Sunny leone, and Hate Story 3 which has the fair skinned Zarine Khan. While this evidence complicates my arguments, I still maintain that Bollywood has perpetuated the idea of fair beauty as the ideal beauty and this lowers the self esteem of darker skinned girls in India. I still maintain that Bollywood being largely patriarchal like Hollywood, has led to the typecasting of both fair skinned and darker skinned actresses in mainstream Hindi cinema. That said, I am hopeful that the changes in casting and the representation of all forms of femininity and beauty in Hollywood will also bring about change in Bollywood. I am hopeful that there will be more girls like Lupita Nyong’o in cinema that represent a different kind of beauty: a dark beauty. I believe that it is then, that communities of color, including mine, will start appreciating all forms of feminine beauty.
- Mishra. Neha. 2015.“India and Colorism: The Finer Nuances.” Washington University Global Studies Law Review, 14(4): 731-748. https://openscholarship.wustl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1553&context=law_globalstudies
- Parameswaran.Radhika and Cardoza. Kavitha. 2009. “Melanin on the margins: Advertising and the Cultural politics of Fair/Light/White beauty in India.”Journalism and communication monographs, 11(3): 225-257. https://theshadeofbeauty.files.wordpress.com/2012/11/melanin-on-the-margins.pdf.
- Brara. Rita. 2010.“The Item Number: Cinesexuality in Bollywood and Social Life.” Economic and Political Weekly, 45(23): 68-69. https://www.jstor.org/stable/27807108?seq=2#page_scan_tab_contents
- Sims. Cynthia and Hirudayaraj.Malar.2015. “The Impact of Colorism on the Career Aspirations and Career Opportunities of Women in India.” Sage Journals ,18(1): 1-2. http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1523422315616339
- Dhillon. Komar. 2015. “Brown Skin,White Dreams: Pigmentocracy in India” Dissertation submitted to the faculty of the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. Blackburg, Virginia: 111-119. https://vtechworks.lib.vt.edu/bitstream/handle/10919/73702/Dhillon_KK_D_2015.pdf?sequence=1
- Robinson. Tanajza. 2011. “Examining the Roles of African-American Academy Award Winning Actresses Between The Years of 2000-2010.” The Pennsylvania State University: 89-92. http://forms.gradsch.psu.edu/diversity/mcnair/mcnair_jrnl2011/files/Robinson_McCray.pdf
- Anand. Saumya. “6 Ridiculous Ways Bollywood Continues To Glorify Fair Skin.”Youth Ki Awaaz, February 9,2017. https://www.youthkiawaaz.com/2017/02/bollywood-fair-skin-obsession/
- Brinkhurst-Cuff. Charlie. “Watch dark-skinned Girls react to discrimination in their own community.” Dazed, December 17,2017. http://www.dazeddigital.com/film-tv/article/38280/1/watch-dark-skinned-black-women-flourishing-despite-colourism
- Williams. Stereo. “Alexandra Shipp, colorism and casting the perfect storm.” Rollingout, February 5,2015. https://rollingout.com/2015/02/05/alexandra-shipp-colorism-casting-perfect-storm/
- Higgins. Jonathan. “Why Hollywood’s Portrayal of Black Women is Problematic.” The Root, November 24,16. https://www.theroot.com/why-hollywood-s-portrayal-of-black-women-is-problematic-1790857877
- Reynolds. Louisa. “Dark Is Beautiful: Nandita Das Speaks Against Racism In The Media.” International Women’s Media + Foundation, November 24,2014. https://www.iwmf.org/blog/2014/11/20/dark-is-beautiful-nandita-das-speaks-out-against-racism-in-the-media/.
- Kuch Kuch Hota Hai [Something…Something Happens]. 1998. Director: Karan Johar. Music:Jatin-Lalit. Dharma Productions, Mumbai.
- Mere Brother Ki Dulhan [My Brother’s Bride]. 2011. Director: Ali Abbas Zafar. Music: Sohail Sen. Yash Raj Films, Mumbai.
- Udta Punjab [Lit Punjab]. 2016. Director: Abhishek Chaubey. Music: Amit Trivedi. Balaji Motion Pictures and Phantom Films, Mumbai.
- DreamGirls. 2006. Director: Bill Condon. Music: Stephen Trask. DreamWorks Pictures and Paramount Pictures, California.
- Dark Girls. Directors: Bill Duke and D. Channsin Berry. Bill Duke and D. Channsin Berry, California.
- Lagaan [Taxation]. 2001. Director: Ashutosh Gowariker. Music:A.R Rahman. Aamir Khan Productions, Mumbai.
- Black Panther. 2017. Director: Ryan Coogler. Music: Ludwig Goransson. Marvel Studios, California.
- Empire. Since 2015. Creators: Lee Daniels and Danny Strong. Music:Fil Eisler, Rodney Jerkins, Ester Dean, and Jim + Beanz. 20th Century Fox Television, California.
- Bachna Ae Haseeno [ Watch Out, Ladies]. 2008. Director: Siddharth Anand. Music:Vishar- Shekhar. Yash Raj Films, Mumbai.
- Pritam and Sandesh Shandliya, Mauja Hi Mauja, Shree Ashtavinayak Cine Vision Ltd 2007, compact disc.