Glamour, glitz and artificially light skin: Bollywood stars in their own racism row – The Guardian

India’s film-makers accused of hypocrisy for supporting Black Lives Matter while keeping silent on bias for fair complexions

Priyanka Chopra at New York fashion week last year.
 Priyanka Chopra at New York fashion week last year. Photograph: Caitlin Ochs/Reuters

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.         

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.

Pallavi Sharda is bridging the gap between Bollywood and the west.
 Pallavi Sharda is bridging the gap between Bollywood and the west. Photograph: Pier Carthew

“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. 

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.

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  • Veda Nath Mohabir  On 06/29/2020 at 11:40 pm

    A few comments arising from this article will be made. I will deal with the article in two parts. The first is strictly about skin-whitening, to show that Indians are not to only ones practicing it. The second will be about the Caste System and the alleged attacks on Muslims.

    First, this is at least the 3rd article on India and skin-whitening I have seen on this blog. It isn’t surprising that the first place to criticize about skin-whitening is India, even though it is prevalent – almost a pandemic – around the world. India always gets the bad press. Ever saw anything positive about India?

    I will cite three GuyaneseOnline articles on the prevalence of skin-whitening.

    Guyanese, Dennis Nichols writes:
    “The problem is hugely-complex and global, stretching from Africa and India to the United States and The Caribbean. It has been called an epidemic by some sociologists. (Incidentally it was observed that among Australian aborigines, the solution to the dark skin dilemma is TO ‘BREED OUT THE COLOUR’ by deliberate and repeated intermarriage with Whites until all outward signs of Aboriginal ancestry disappear).

    “One of the places where skin bleaching seems to be growing wildly out of control is JAMAICA. According to the Jamaica Observer, many local women are turning to cheap, over-the-counter products, including knock-offs from West Africa, …A Jamaican dermatologist is quoted as saying that she knew of a woman who had STARTED TO BLEACH HER BABY….Some people, it added, even use a mixture of TOOTHPASTE AND CURRY POWDER to stain the skin with a yellowish tint.
    The same thing seems to be happening, albeit to a lesser extent, in other parts of the region, FROM GUYANA TO THE BAHAMAS.

    Additionally, a comment on this article by Rosaliene Bacchus as follows:
    My favorite African-American author Toni Morrison, winner of the 1993 Noble Prize in Literature, tackles this problem in her latest novel, GOD HELP THE CHILD. Here’s how she opens her story, written in the first person narrative.
    “It’s not my fault. So you can’t blame me. I didn’t do it and have no idea how it happened. It didn’t take more than an hour after they pulled her out from between my legs to realize something was wrong. Really wrong. She was so black she scared me. Midnight black, Sudanese black. I’m light-skinned, with good hair, what we call high yellow, and so is Lula Ann’s father. Ain’t nobody in my family anywhere near that color…”

    Below, I reproduce what I wrote on the similar issue Sep 6/17

    “Mention Skin Bleaching and Indians come to mind. Why? Because India/Indians are favourite targets by some groups – the ‘white’ media racism and Guyanese racist Blacks. I will just deal with the latter for now. Somehow, racism clouds the vision of the Ric Hinds & his ilk in Guyana. If he/they had read Yvonne Sam’s last April article on this site they would see IT IS NOT JUST AN INDIAN/INDO-GUYANESE PECULIARITY BUT AFRICANS BOTH IN THE CARIBBEAN AND AFRICA (AND USA AND UK) ARE HOOKED ON SKIN-WHITENING. Ms. SAM wrote:

    “Casting aside all semantics Jamaica is not the only country currently plagued by the bleaching or whitening itch, as similar situations play out daily before our very eyes right here in North America. The largest and most damaging racism occurs amongst ourselves, although we don’t address it, but we know it’s always there. , AS WE CONTINUE TO DEFINE EACH OTHER OR CAST NEGATIVE AND DENIGRATORY REMARKS BASED ON SKIN COLOR, SUCH AS —JET BLACK, SHADES OF MIDNIGHT, FAIR SKINNED, HIGH COLORED, DIRTY RED. ETC. ON REPEATED OCCASIONS WE ARE REMINDED EITHER DIRECTLY OR BY SUBTLE MEANS THAT LIGHT IS RIGHT. Family members have also been known to remind other family members that lighter girls are prettier than darker ones. In the past and even today it appears that these appallingly egregious opinions are still the norm, where SOME MOTHERS STILL TELL THEIR SONS TO MARRY ONLY LIGHT SKINNED WOMEN, SO AS NOT TO HAVE DARK BABIES”

    Then there is this article in The Journal of Pan African Studies, vol. 4, no. 4, June 2011, indicting Africans in Africa, et al.

    ” SKIN-LIGHTENING, OR BLEACHING, HAS REACHED EPIDEMIC LEVELS IN SCORES OF NATIONS AROUND THE GLOBE, AND ESPECIALLY IN MANY AFRICAN NATIONS INCLUDING GHANA, KENYA, TANZANIA, SENEGAL, MALI, SOUTH AFRICA, AND NIGERIA (Adebajo, 2002; Blay, 2009; Harada et al, 2001; Lewis et al, 2009; Mahe et al, 1993; Mahe, Ly & Gounongbe, 2004; Olumide et al, 2008). Although BOTH MEN AND WOMEN engage in skin-whitening practices of various sorts, women generally have higher rates of skin-whitening than men, and women also sometimes APPLY SKINWHITENING PRODUCTS TO THEIR CHILDREN (Counter & Buchanan, 2004; Fokuo, 2009). This paper will investigate why women bleach, and why men and women in Africa and the African Diaspora encourage women to bleach their skin.”


    • Linda  On 06/30/2020 at 10:16 am

      Long winded as usual and totally off topic. If I read the article correctly it was about racism within the Indian community where the darker skin Indians were criticizing their fair skinned counterparts for supporting BLM while they themselves practice racism against their own dark skinned Indians.

  • Veda Nath Mohabir  On 06/30/2020 at 8:24 am

    Cyril: why doesn’t my comment show when I was sent a missive to confirm my post?

  • Veda Nath Mohabir  On 06/30/2020 at 8:41 am

    The original was sent 11:40 pm last. I contains excerpts from three previous articles including Dennis Nichols’ and Ms Sam’s on skin-lightening featured on this blog, As a pre-notification, I will be sending it again, separately, immediately after this.

  • Ramesh  On 06/30/2020 at 9:15 am

    Censorship doesn’t work.

  • guyaneseonline  On 06/30/2020 at 9:43 am

    Notice to you and everyone else reading entries on this blog:

    I. I do NOT censor entries or change their content.
    2. WORDPRESS sometimes does not release entries. I am not sure what they use to flag entries.
    3. There are no emails blocked in relation to receiving comments.
    4. If your comment does not appear immediately… please be patient… I will release it when I go online. You do not have to repeat the entry or it may appear twice on the blog.
    4. I am not always online e. g last evening …so blocked entries were released earlier today.

    Hope this clarifies the subject.

    • Ramesh  On 06/30/2020 at 10:00 am

      Thanks for clarifying that, Mr Moderator. I’m relieved to hear that. Over the past several days, I have been commenting on the Guyana situation on other sites where comments go through without a problem.


  • Veda Nath Mohabir  On 06/30/2020 at 11:26 pm

    This will be lengthy, so anyone looking for a quick fix, look somewhere else.

    I am on record for criticizing skin-lightening in the Indian Bollywood context, including Priyanka Chopra, both for her promotion of the creams as well as for setting a bad image for Indian young women in some of her roles and lifestyle. In fact, recently when another actress, Kangana Ranaut, was critical of her and the skin whitening (SW) industry I gladly shared the article.

    That aside, I am more interested in exposing the bias and hypocrisy in unrelenting criticisms of Indians/India. (It is the very reason why I wrote my current book – A Mauling of Indians – to rebut Prof Clem Seecharan’s falsehoods of Indo-Guyanese history).

    Earlier I drew attention to the epidemic (pandemic in Africa, Caribbean and Black America, et al) on the use of SW products even though the media carefully skirts around these countries but pillories only India/Indians. Why this double standard? The most obvious is that they have to be careful about criticizing African countries and practices (as they also do with Islamic nations/women wearing burkas, etc) and not be deemed racists and intolerant of other cultures. These are considered sacred ‘victims’.
    So India/Indians, the soft target, gets all the bad raps.

    Why India gets bad press? In a word, Hinduism.

    Aside from being soft (with “unmanly”, “effeminate” men the British would say) Hinduism is seen as the whipping boy. The followers of the Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – see India as pagan and uncivilized. This criticism ignores/ignorant of these facts: India taught the world: how to count/calculate (otherwise no meaningful scientific achievement would have been possible); mathematics (calculus, etc); and gave them Sanskrit the mother of all West Asian/European/American mainstream languages, Yoga, Meditation (ask the Beatles) and Ayurvedic therapies (eg Tumeric). Furthermore, Hinduism doesn’t have a saviour such as Jesus and Muhammad to elevate them into Heaven/Paradise. Yet, little do these Abrahamic followers know that Christ is derived from Krishna (Christna) and A-braham from Hindu deities Brahma/Brahman; as is Abraham’s wife, Sarah/Sara from Sara-swati (Brahma’s consort/wife).

    Re. Attacks on Muslims in India

    Alia Waheed, the article’s author is Muslim. This is important to understand, why she attacks Bollywood and says that Chopra and other stars were also criticised for remaining silent on issues in India such as attacks on Muslims, et al. Looking only at Muslims issue, these are easy claims to make, but the historical facts belie their veracity.
    We need to know how this alien religion, Islam, ended up in a Hindu country (since ancient times) and what the followers did (in a nutshell).

    Alia Waheed is named after white-skinned rabid proselytizers of an invading religion which autocratically and genocidally ruled dark-skinned India for 800 years. Their prophet Muhammad in one of his Hadiths had told them they will be saved from Hellfire if they attacked India. So, they started attacking India immediately after he died. Over the last 350 of these years they first invited in and after being humbled by the rapacious British they colluded with the said more white-skinned colonial usurpers/masters to partition India into 3 parts in 1947 at independence – two parts to Muslims, one to Hindus and all other minorities. Why? Because they wanted a new solely Muslim country, PAKISTAN, meaning “LAND OF THE PURE”, HENCE A RACIST ISLAMIC STATE they opted for. In just 25 years, the two parts became two nations, as the ‘white skinned’ West Pakistanis unleashed genocide on dark-skinned East Pakistanis aka Bangladeshis (Muslims and Hindus).

    The Colonial British had always preferred Muslims. In the words of the Lieutenant Governor of Bengal, B. Fuller, (c. 1905) said of his metaphorical wives (Hindus and Muslims) his favourite was the Muslims! Being both Abrahamic followers and white-skinned likely affected the British choice of favourite.

    So, Alia Waheed, whether Indian or Pakistani, is just a privileged white-skinned Muslim, now English journalist slamming dark-skinned Indians (read Hindus) who are left out of the privileges because of their dark skins. Predictably, Waheed ignores the ‘highest paid actor in the world’, Shah Rukh KHAN, who also promotes skin-whitening for Indian men. You guessed it, because he is Muslim.

    These once hegemonic but “pure” Muslims who remained in India (160 million strong today in India, with the highest population growth rate – of course one reason is that Muslim men can have 4 wives) now conveniently adopt victimhood at the hands of the Hindus (and PM, Modi).

    In contrast, to highlight the big lie that Waheed and Muslims are spreading with help of the Abrahamic media, the dark-skinned West Pakistan-born journalist, Tarek Fatah, last year gave up his Pakistani citizenship and applied/received India’s citizenship. This dark-skinned fair-minded Muslim prefers to live in and be called Indian – India is his “motherland” he says. Ask yourself why would he head for India where he could be in danger of his life if there was any truth to the claims that Muslims are attacked by Hindus in India? (He also holds dual citizenship with Canada).
    Remember the 2008 Mumbai Muslim terrorist attack leaving 164 dead. They came all the way by boat from the “Pure” state, Pakistan, to wage jihad on Hindu India, as their forerunners were doing since the 7th C.

    While on this topic of Muslims in India it needs to be pointed out why COVID is burgeoning in India. This unfortunate reality started with a Muslim convention of 5000-7000 Muslim evangelizers, the Tablighi Jamaat, gathered from all over India and around the Muslim world were concentrated in a small area in mid-March 2020 in New Delhi. They ignored the public health cautions of social distancing because Allah was on their side. When they dispersed in India they took the virus all around India. So, after that initial seeding the virus is now spreading at a geometric rate in India – the Dar Al Harb = “House of War” in Islamic terminology.

    Next time I will talk about the Caste System, cited by Alia Waheed as the source of the ‘colourism’.


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