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The Never-Ending Saga of Colorism in Indian Cinema

Brownface is a racist practice of using make-up to change skin tone, appropriating people from a certain community, seen most recently in ‘The Family Man’

Tanushi Bhatnagar Jun 12, 2021

Samantha Akkineni stars in 'The Family Man' Season 2. Photo: Dani Charles/ Silverscreen Media Inc/https://silverscreen.in/CC BY-SA 3.0

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While global struggles to end stereotypes and appropriation are rife on social media, Indian cinema is more concerned with dismissing using Brownface as an excuse for artistic liberty. Behind the garb of skin-lightening product commercials, light-skinned Indian actors continue to darken their complexion for multiple roles. 

In its second season, the recent OTT hit show The Family Man stars Samantha Akkineni, a Tamilian actor, as the main antagonist. However, she is shown several shades darker than the actor’s natural skin tone. Not only did this spark fury among Twitter users, but it also revealed that Indian filmmakers employ Brownface extensively, often with the subtlety (not in the case of The Family Man, though) that one might just not notice it. When accused of Brownface in an interview by Film Companion, the creators of the show Raj and DK, dismissed the issue by saying, “This is the character of Raji; she looks a certain way, she walks a certain way, and she’s a killing machine, and that’s all there is to it.” However, Brownface is more than just being labeled as creative liberty for expression – it has a history of being highly offensive. 

What makes Brownface and Blackface problematic is the original intent of these mockeries. Dating back to the United States in the 19th century, Blackface was initially used by white actors to represent African Americans as lazy, cowardly and hyper-sexual by darkening their faces to look the part, mocking their accents and actions. Although Blackface is now a thing of the past, Brownface and Yellowface have continued to occur in western media to appropriate South and East Asian cultures and are inherently racist. 

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Closer to home, Indian cinema has a widespread racism and colorism problem – and it’s doing little to solve it. Brownfacing has been prevalent in Bollywood since the Fifties when the veteran actor Sunil Dutt played Birju, an angry and rebellious farmer, in the classic movie Mother India (1957) and appeared to be darker than his usual self. 

With The Family Man being the latest example, in the last decade, we saw Alia Bhatt in Udta Punjab (2016) play the role of a dark-skinned immigrant farmer. The actor-dancer Hritik Roshan has a long history of engaging in Brownface with characters like an economically backward slum dweller in Agneepath (2012), a Bihari mathematician and a teacher in Super 30 (2019) and an ancient figure from the Indus Valley Civilisation in Mohenjodaro (2016). His ridiculously unnatural complexion and accent in Super 30 appropriating the Bihari community received much flak from the audience. In the 2020 film Coolie No. 1, Varun Dhawan appeared subtly Brownfaced in promotional posters. In Bala (2019), Bhumi Padnekar made her face many shades darker to play the role of a dark-skinned character fed up with the social conventions of fairness and beauty – truly an irony. 

Bollywood’s obsession and fascination with light-skinned actors is no secret. Employing light-skinned actors to play dark-skinned characters is not just racist and colorist. It reinforces negative stereotypes because of the characters’ treatment in the film. Inherent presumptions attached to darker skin color perpetuate the negative connotation of belonging to a “backward” class or having a “disadvantage.” Another harm this brings is the discrimination faced by naturally dark-skinned actors in a country that perpetually fights social norms of commercial colorist agenda. Hiring light-skinned actors for dark-skinned roles deprives those of opportunities who deserve their due credit and are probably more appropriate for the role.

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Although this ancient practice will only go with time – and a good turn-around of dilapidated mindsets – the Indian film industry can do its part by giving more opportunities to dark-skinned actors alike and not stereotyping them. It is about time the Indian film industry does away with such practices, acknowledges its wrongdoings and actively tries to correct them instead of dismissing them.

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