The Colorism Problem in Bollywood
Amongst the bejeweled silks and the impressive dance numbers scattered pleasantly throughout Bollywood movies, one of the simplest things that is missing is also one of the most noticeable: the implementation of deeper complexioned brown women. Colonialism, although dated back to thousands of years ago, has effects that continue to reign in South Asian communities to this very day. The idea that fairer skin is superior in terms of beauty is a concept that lives vigorously throughout South Asian minds and media, with a constant need to confine to the terms of Eurocentric beauty standards in order to feel a sense of societal and self acceptance. Although it started off with South Asian cultures brainwashed into seeing white as superior in all aspects, these narrow-minded ideals have found a home in South Asian media, where they continue to dwell and grow.
These movies are wildly popular in South Asia, because they are a reflection of the emotional complexities and intriguing events that make up a dramatized version of people’s lives and are bound together by the riveting beauty of South Asian cultures. Through their ability to effectively reach into the hearts and minds of viewers everywhere, they are able to use this influence to push a whitewashed agenda into cinematic successes.
Women in Bollywood are usually the ones to comply to these standards. How many times have you seen a high budget, successful Bollywood movie cast a dark skinned female lead, or one where she is darker than her male counterpart? To be light skinned is symbolic of feminine beauty: fair complexioned, small nosed, and bonus points for brown hair and eyes that are any color other than brown. Sound familiar? You’ve most likely seen these features on many successful Bollywood actresses. It is a four-step process to a higher success rate as a woman in this industry. Many of the actresses starring in newer films as love interests work alongside men darker than them, and older than them. While a man can hold onto his Bollywood career even through his fifties and a darker skin tone, a woman must prepare to find ways to stay in the game, lest she become an admired memory of a once successful star. This is not to deny the struggles that men face through societal pressures, but rather to draw attention to the double standards faced for decades by women in the industry. Double standards that have the power to end a woman’s career, or not allow it to begin in first place. For a woman in this industry, much of her success relies on her ability to be physically charming, especially in terms of confining to Eurocentric standards. Unless she exudes an ageless and Eurocentric facade which is encompassing all that it is to be a master of femininity and beauty, her cinematic success will have to take a seat in the back.
Seeing fair as the only synonym to beautiful is not the only problem. It pushes an anti-black sentiment. There is a reason that throughout many Asian cultures in general, darker skin is ignored while light skin is put on a pedestal and showered with love. Anti-blackness is etched deep into South Asian cultures. Although many South Asians are the same shade or merely a few shades lighter or darker than someone who is black, they will scrub that fact off their skins and delve into a world of film where they can be reminded that they can always lighten themselves until they are as close to beautiful as they can get, where they can resemble a white person as much as possible. While even many extras are typically light to medium skinned or white women, black people are hardly ever incorporated into these films. Black beauty is continuously ignored. Big noses, dark skin, dark eyes, dark hair. They are all painted into lighter shades in relentless efforts to resemble European features, for they are the epitome of beauty.
Bollywood actors have also been used to promote items that give into this message, through advertising for products such as Fair and Lovely. This is a popular skin lightening cream and by associating this product with Bollywood stars, it sends out the message that Bollywood does support the idea of fair skin being “lovely.” It further popularizes these products, which aim to spread this problematic message, creating a system of perpetual, unrealistic, whitewashed ideals and images of beauty, especially towards women. It’s an example of how various aspects of the entertainment industry are interconnected and work together to produce creative ways of spreading the same message of fair skin over dark skin.
The implication that white is the most attractive exhibits white supremacy, where white is seen as the most superior. It creates a system of white supremacy in which white skin is valued above all the rest, invalidating the beauty and even humanity of those who are darker skinned through constantly ignoring their existence or misrepresenting them. Through colonization and slavery, white people were able to hold their status of superiority and power over people of color. The blatant unwillingness to have dark skin is a manifestation of the internalized racism carried within South Asian cultures, stemming from a past brimming with white supremacy.
Through its immense influential power, Bollywood’s willingness to continue to support these ideals creates a society that basks in its ability to detach itself from its racial heritage and ignore the various shades of beauty that are a part of their identity. Self-hatred due to colorism has become a prominent issue, as industries with influential power go to no end to push this idea on to young girls until self-hatred becomes the norm. Insecurity continues to build up within them with each word spoken against their ethnic features; a product of their racial identity. The shade of their skin is a part of their identity, and something that they are born with that they should not aim to change. It is not healthy to be constantly told by influential figures that you are not good enough the way you are. This results in a society of young girls who are propelled towards self-hatred. Even with bleached skin and smiles plastered across their faces, the true yearning to be loved as they are will always remain.
For too long, Bollywood and other forms of South Asian media have chosen to forgo the appreciation of brown skin, rather erasing these people from their exclusive world and disassociating themselves with their racial identity. It is important to incorporate diversity of skin tones to show more representation and avoid an abundance of regional cultures that practice self-condemnation, especially amongst women. It shows the power that lies in various forms of beauty, and the strength of diversity. To be able to admire all women for the people they are and all the forms of beauty they can bring is to create an uplifting society. It will bring forth the power of diversity. It is to defeat a hateful past that forced South Asians to instill centuries of self-loathing and inferiority into their minds. Through more representation, we can pull out the weeds that are white supremacy. It will be a message that, even with our color, we are still beautiful. We are still human. We will not stop seizing our identities and loving ourselves shamelessly. We will liberate the definition of beauty in our cultures.