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Brownface in Bollywood: Hues of Racism Amidst Glitter and Glamour

“Bollywood” is an industry distinguished for its glamorous casts, dramatic action scenes, glittery costumes, energetic dance choreographies and its romantic soothing music. The artistic amalgamation of aesthetics keeping the audience hooked with its appeal is now being accused of being seemingly offensive for practising “brownface.”

The discourse of the “fair-skin” obsession of Bollywood is not contemporary. However, the progressive profession is now being pointed out for not casting actors because of their darker complexion and pocketing appreciation to fellow actors with lighter skin playing the dark-skinned characters purposely darkening their skin by makeup. The dark-skinned actors are not even given the chance to be acknowledged for the suitable role. 

Neeraj Ghaywan, an award-winning film director expressed his views by saying “It’s actual racism, let’s not mince our words”.

WHY BROWN/BLACK FACE IS OFFENSIVE?

Brownface refers to the practice of wearing make-up to imitate the appearance of a non-white person, typically as part of a performance. This practice is generally regarded as offensive.

Back in the 19th century, white American performers used to darken their skin using makeup in order to portray blacks and other minorities characters, this went as far as using stereotypical racist slurs and always making the role of the person with dark skin offensive or evil. This happened when the non-white professional actors were not allowed to participate in the acting and were unemployed.

In England, during the Elizabeth era, where white people used to play the role in Shakespearean plays by darkening their skin whereas the actual Black people were still unemployed and were underestimated.

Practising brownface was seen even in modern films of both Hollywood and Bollywood,  doesn’t matter if it’s Robert Downey Jr. appearing several shades darker in 2008’s film “Tropic Thunder” or Akshay Kumar playing the extremely offensive role of an African-American man for a comic scene in 2009’s film “Kambakkht Ishq’ by darkening his skin and wearing dreadlocks.

India is also not much unfamiliar with its obsession with fairer skin and how people with fairer skin are considered superior to the ones with darker skin somehow. Now seeing a lighter skin individual temporarily darkening their skin to portray a brown-skinned person is offensive and racist. There are a lot of brown-skinned actors who can play those roles well but do not get cast by the casting directors.

This issue became more noticeable after the “Black lives matter” movement started, people across the globe started sharing the experiences they had because of their skin tone which made people more aware of how practising brownface is extremely offensive and racist.

WHY AND HOW BROWNFACE HAS BECAME A STIGMA THAT HAS TAKEN OVER BOLLYWOOD?

Bollywood’s list of leading actors and actresses are full of light-skinned individuals and have practised brownface on screen a number of times. Bollywood has adopted brownface in a lot of films by temporarily darkening the skin of performers, especially when they are portraying characters from disadvantaged backgrounds or with evil intentions.

For example, the 2019 film “Bala” portrays the story of a woman who suffered discrimination because of her darker skin tone. The role of the woman was played by actress Bhumi Pednekar, who had her skin darkened using makeup and the move was seemingly bashed by some Indian media outlets, the general public, commentators, and a few actors on social media. Amar Kaushik, the director of the film said that he “thought about casting a dark-skinned actor” but “felt Bhumi was superb for this character”, according to a media report. 

“Bala” is not the only movie that was criticized for brownface, another example can be Hritik Roshan in his 2019 film “Super 30”. The film was criticized for darkening the skin of the actor who played the role of a teacher from the Indian state Bihar, which was described as one of the poorest states in India.

If we look at another example of practising brownface in Bollywood there is Ranveer Singh in 2019’s “Gully Boy” playing the role of the rapper Divine for which his skin tone was a few shades darker than his actual skin. Likewise, Alia Bhatt also played the role of a girl from a disadvantaged background who is exceedingly involved in drugs in her 2016’s film “Udta Punjab”.

WHAT ARE THE VIEWPOINTS OF PEOPLE INVOLVED IN THE BOLLYWOOD INDUSTRY?

Nandita Das, an actress, and spokeswoman of the “Dark is beautiful” movement, said the campaign has encouraged victims of colourism to share their stories, exposing the extent of India’s obsession with fairness”, “we have a long way to go,” said Das.

Director Ghanywan said, “When it comes to practising brown face in movies, they don’t even think there’s a problem, that’s the biggest problem”.

 Actors including Bipasha Bashu, Freido Pinto, Nawazudddin Siddiqui came forward and have shared their experiences of racism they faced in Bollywood.  

 Movies in which brownface was/is practised did well on the box office,  profiting in crores but the issues were nowhere pointed out when the movies were released. It is no secret that the general public is now seemingly aware of these types of issues. Awareness can help solve such issues or  can make headway towards change but as Nandita Das said “We have a long way to go.”

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