Written by: Paavni Rao
The Bollywood Industry holds talented and amazing actors who engage with their audience throughout India. However, the majority of the successful celebrities in the Indian film industry tend to be light-skinned. Dark-skinned actors do not get as many chances to show their talent in Bollywood solely because of the color of their skin. This is an illustration of colorism where one’s skin color determines the probability of success and failure. According to Merriam-Webster, colorism is “the prejudice or discrimination especially within a racial or ethnic group favoring people with lighter skin over those with darker skin.” The history of color prejudice in India starts with the caste system which was stratification of society based on work. The higher castes often were priests and teachers who worked from indoors. They often were light-skinned hence placing higher value on light skin color. The lower castes tended to be dark-skinned as they worked in the sun for multiple hours. To further the complexity of color hierarchy, when the British came to colonize India, they brought with them the notion of white superiority complex. This further privileged the light-skinned people over the dark complexioned folks. The British fueled this sentiment to further fracture the Indian society and consolidate their rule in India. Today, India is independent but colorism is part of Indian culture. It has disadvantaged large sections of society creating inequality and injustice.
Like I said before, the Bollywood industry is likely to favor and choose light-skinned actors and actresses over dark-skinned ONES. Most mainstream movies promote the idea of the hero being LIGHT-SKINNED saving the citizens whereas the villain tends to be DARK-SKINNED who creates chaos and destroys the population. An example that shows this is the ancient epic, Ramayana. Going back to the 5th century BCE, the hero, Rama, from Ayodhya fights and defeats Ravana, the villain from Sri Lanka. While good wins over evil, Rama is said to be light-skinned, yet Ravana is known to be dark-skinned. Today, movies like Bahubali, the three Dabangg movies and Article 15 all portray this sense of colorism in Bollywood.
Another form of colorism in Bollywood is when light-skinned actors purposely darken their face to play a role in a movie. Most of the time, that role consists of being part of a poor background, being from the ‘poorer’ parts of India such as Bihar, Kerala and Karnataka, or being called ‘dirty’ and ‘smelly.’ Films such as Gully Boy, Udta Punjab, Super 30 and Bala are examples where the hero/heroine of the film darkens their face to perfect that role.
Lastly, because of how much India revolves around pop culture and movies, many talented dark-skinned people do not get to show their talent or are seen as a perfect role to play as a villain that has a tendency of being ‘immature’ and ‘juvenile.’ However, I do see far more light-skinned celebrities like Shah Rukh Khan and Salman Khan being shown in movies and the media.
When it comes to corporate India, one company that reflects the color prejudice is Fair and Lovely. This multi-million dollar company received major backlash for their cream that could ‘lighten up your face.’ Many petitions were signed by Indian citizens protesting the product which compelled the company to rename Fair and Lovely to Glow and Lovely. Sadly many celebrities like Priyanka Chopra, Virat Kholi and Deepika Padukone endorse ‘lightening-skin’ brands and promote colorism in the Indian society.
Shaadi.com is a popular Indian company that helps find suitable partners for marriage. Recently Shaadi.com removed their filter of choosing what skin tone you would prefer to have when choosing a bride or a groom. This is a huge cultural shift in a country that values light-skin matrimonials to dark-skin.
Growing up in India, I frequently heard the phrase, “if you are out in the sun for too long, your skin will get dark!” I was encouraged to use bleaching face creams to become fair and more desirable. Hearing this when I was only 10 or 11 years of age, I did not think much about it. Fortunately, I grew up in a family where they did not pay much attention to the color of my skin but rather my character. However, many Indian girls my age feel disempowered and insecure when they think about the color of their skin and how it influences all the decisions they make. Most of the time, they do not have the support of their parents to reassure them that the color of their skin is beautiful. Today, I realize how layered colorism is in the Indian society and how deeply it impacts the lives of women and men who struggle to carve their identity despite the burden of colorism.