Colorism in Bollywood

By: Manasi Nawathe

Since the beginnings of Bollywood, iconic songs have touted the beauty of heroines and highlighted their attractive features. While this is normal for a love song, especially an over-the-top Bollywood love ballad, the “beauty” of these characters is in some way connected to the heroine’s whiteness. In Hindi, the term “gori” translates to “fair-skinned,” and has historically been a coveted compliment from family members, suitors, friends, and even strangers.

In early September, Zee Music released the song, “Beyonce Sharma Jayegi,” starring two young, fair-skinned actors. The importance of their complexions comes into play when considering the lyrics of the song–”tujhe dekh ke goriya, Beyonce sharma jayegi”, which translates to “after seeing you, fair woman, even Beyonce would feel embarrassed.” 

Besides disparaging Queen B herself, the lyrics are a form of colorism and make the statement that darker skinned women should feel inferior to fair-skinned women. As expected, the release of this song caused millions of South Asians around the world to denounce Bollywood’s tone-deaf perpetuation of Euro-centric beauty standards. 

The director has tried to defend the release by claiming that the lyrics were “never intended racially.” The harsh reality is that very few racist comments and actions are intentional, but rather a reinforcement of the status-quo. It is also notable that the director did not address the issue of colorism, emphasizing the lack of acknowledgement to this form of prejudice that is so common amongst South Asians. 

Colorism in Bollywood goes beyond song lyrics and movie titles and is perpetuated through overwhelmingly hiring fair-skinned actors, portraying marginalized characters from disadvantaged backgrounds as dark-skinned, and endorsing fairness creams. 

Sometimes, directors prefer to employ “brownface,” an offensive practice that involves fair-skinned actors portraying dark-skinned characters by applying dark makeup, rather than hiring dark-skinned actors. This prejudice against such actors, and by extension, against all dark-skinned people, highlights the ugly realities of the movie industry and its emphasis on profits and appeal over morality and representation. 

Many Bollywood fans choose to look past the colorism, and claim that critics of Bollywood are taking things too seriously. They say that songs and movies are meant to be light-hearted, and that any prejudice should be overlooked in favor of good entertainment. Unfortunately, fans that turn to Bollywood to escape real-world issues are met with damaging stereotypes, as the movies reflect the general attitudes towards darker-skinned people. 

As an industry, Bollywood has immense influence, and the conscious decision to perpetuate stereotypes instead of dismantling them showcases the industry’s priorities and unwillingness to make real change. 

To those that have faced colorism in their daily lives, Bollywood’s reinforcement of fairness as a beauty standard has been frustrating, to say the least. How can people be comfortable with the beauty of their dark skin when their on-screen heroes reject dark-skinned love interests, endorse skin-lightening treatments, and promote the idea that dark skin is inferior? 

I have personally felt the pressure from my family members and adults in my South Asian community to stay out of the sun in the summertime, use a turmeric and yogurt skin-lightening mask, wear lighter foundation shades, and even filter my photos to appear fairer. Especially in middle school, when I already felt vulnerable about looking “too ethnic,” being slammed with unrealistic expectations from the South Asian community made me feel like I needed to succumb to the notion that fairness was equated with beauty. 

As I grew up and became more engaged with South Asian activists who were fighting back against colorism in our community, and seeing the “Dark is Beautiful” campaign take root, I was more empowered to feel comfortable in my skin. 

Bollywood has a long way to go in terms of owning up to the prejudice that plagues the industry, but the recent outcry against the “Beyonce Sharma Jayegi” song is an indication that young South Asians are moving towards dismantling colorism and prejudice in their daily lives, and that soon, Bollywood will be forced to follow in those steps to remain relevant and respectable. 

In the meantime, it is up to the young generation to educate our communities about the harm that perpetuating fairness standards does and eliminate colorism in our circles.

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