Featured Illustration: Hanifa Abdul Hameed
One night, I was at a mutual friend’s party when I overheard two brown guys having a conversation about a girl one of them had just begun dating.
“Hey so, I heard you were dating a Southie girl?”
“Nah, no way. Northies for life.”
As a South Indian myself, I felt so angered and unsettled hearing this stranger’s disgust at his friend even assuming he would date a girl from South India. Part of me urged my body to take those three short steps up to him and enlighten him on the problematic nature of his comment. The other part, the one I ended up following, walked away.
After all, this wasn’t the first time I had heard this type of comment.
To this day, it still astounds me that there are people from the very country I’m from who respond with a sour look and say “the type” of Indian I am is something I should not openly embrace. Rather, it’s something that isolates me from “the rest of India”.
Just one of the culprits responsible for exacerbating this rigid dichotomy? Bollywood.
For many young South Asian girls, growing up watching Bollywood films, idolizing the star-studded actors in them, and practising each and every move to their iconic dances is almost like a rite of passage. And yet, rife with colourism and discriminatory plotlines and stereotypes, I didn’t want any part of this industry.
Relatives and some friends of mine would say this stance I have on Bollywood is far “too strong”, telling me I was overlooking the industry’s positive portrayal of a vibrant, energetic, and overly-romantic India. Some have told me it’s simply wrong of me to think so negatively about a core part of Indian culture and to just “get over it” and “enjoy the music”. But in those situations of men discussing their so-called “preferences” for Indian women, followed by the all-too-familiar experiences of aunties telling their daughters to stay out of the sun otherwise no one will think they’re beautiful, I have been reminded that I was always the inferior Indian, that North Indians were always going to be more beautiful, more successful and better than me in every way.
It was Bollywood that continued to perpetuate this into my mind, into society.
Now in my early twenties, I feel ashamed to watch films from an industry that pushes the idea that Indians with fairer skin who come from a high caste are superior. It almost seems like a no-brainer to me: Why would I support an industry that tells me I should not only hate the colour of my skin, but feel ashamed that I come from the South and don’t speak Hindi?
India contains more than 12 percent of the world’s population with exceptionally large cultural variability. We have 22 official languages and over 700 unofficial ones. Annually, more than 1,800 movies are produced in India, of which only an average of 300 come from Bollywood. With all these incredibly vibrant and wide-ranging differences, one would think India’s film industry would celebrate and encourage this. Yet, in my own experiences of visiting India and growing up in Australia, it felt like the opposite. It felt like I was forced to accept a substandard film industry as representative of the entire country.
Bollywood films have made it incredibly easy for Indians to classify other Indians based on their facial features, clothing styles, music, dance, food, and much more. Through the lens of Bollywood, North Indians are presented as everything an Indian should desire to be — superior, with their fair skin, tall height, and strongly-built physique. It’s a different story for South Indians and darker-skinned Indians in general who are given the more unfavourable, background roles in Bollywood films.
Just take a look at the current landscape of Bollywood. It’s 2021 and yet, the industry’s promotion of colourism and endorsement of skin-lightening products hasn’t taken a backseat. In late 2020, the now-released film, Khaali Peeli made international headlines for all the wrong reasons. The outcry came directly from the lyrics of a song in the film, “Tujhe dekh ke goriya, Beyonce sharma jayegi” which translates to, “When you dance, watching you, oh fair-skinned girl, Beyonce will be ashamed.” The normalisation of words like, ‘gori’, ‘goriya’, and ‘gora’ largely account for the problem. In a 2009 published paper, ‘Looking for Love in All the White Places’, authors Sonora Jha and Mara Adelman discuss how the words ‘lovely’ and ‘beautiful’ are routinely synonymous with being fair-skinned. While the Hindi word ‘gori’ alludes to a light-skinned woman, it also denotes that she is pretty. In this context, it’s not difficult to see there is an annihilation of both beauty and femininity for darker-skinned women. Consequently, these lyrics sparked outrage on social media, bringing the topic of colourism in Bollywood to the surface once again.
When asked if anyone on the set of Khaali Peeli felt the lyrics were problematic, actor and singer of those very lines, Ishaan Khatter, said they were taken out of context. “I can vouch for the fact that none of these people came with an intention of underlining colourist or racist sentiments. I don’t think any of them have a racist bone in their body. But the way that it was intended is, it’s an entertaining and fun film.” Whether these lyrics were taken out of context or not, it does not excuse Bollywood’s deeply-rooted obsession with fair skin. The industry’s leading actresses are all pale-skinned North Indian women, but there is barely any representation of not just South Indian, but darker-skinned women altogether.
Malayalam filmmaker, Vijith Nambiar, made a statement that Bollywood is not an ideal and healthy place for South Indian actors, musicians, and technicians to work in. “Instead of going there and getting humiliated, it’s better for them to be in their own industry as they already have a strong base there. They have already proved their talents there. So it’s not a good idea to go elsewhere and change them because things are extreme over there.” This idea that North and South India should be completely divided by their entertainment industries further exacerbates the narrative that the two cannot collaborate or simply, coexist.
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. “The glorification of fair skin has been present in our films for a very long time and reflects the bias of our society,” says 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, love, and acceptability. It becomes about making women feel inadequate. It’s hypocritical to protest and say Black lives matter, yet discriminate against people with dark skin and endorse fairness products in our own country.”
For years, I have witnessed Bollywood shamelessly uphold false standards and beliefs of what it means to “be” and “look” like an Indian. On multiple occasions, I have been told I’m “lucky” to be lighter-skinned for a South Indian girl, and that I should be “grateful” people mistake me for being North Indian. Each time I heard these backhanded, hurtful compliments, I continued to blame Bollywood. I blamed the industry for perpetuating these toxic beauty myths, for romanticising discrimination of dark-skinned Indians, for continuing to support actors and actresses that endorse skin-lightening products, for being the sole reason why I believed I wasn’t truly “Indian” enough.
While it’s taken me a few years, I’ve accepted the fact that I don’t actually have to enjoy or support Bollywood for these reasons. I’m South Indian, I don’t speak Hindi, and I don’t consider myself “Northie looking” because my skin isn’t “that dark”. Bollywood doesn’t reflect the entirety of India. It doesn’t even come close.
The uncomfortable truth, for many, is that it’s a racist industry. Colonialism, regional divisions, and the Indian caste system are the root causes of colourism in this nation. Even in a now post-colonial India, it’s deeply upsetting to see Bollywood stuck in time, failing to put a stop to and speak out against regressive stereotypes and discrimination against people with darker skin — people that live in the very country they make these films for.