The dark reality of Bollywood’s arbitrary portrayal of communities in India

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Last week, I went to visit a friend of mine in her affluent apartment building in my city, Mumbai, and was met with an experience that was an old friend to me. I was stopped by the watchman stationed outside the building elevators and rudely asked if I was a servant, even though I was wearing a pastel tank top and ripped jeans, whereas the norm for female help in India is the traditional sari or kurta. I was stopped because of my dark brown skin.

Although this was not the first time I had been asked the same question in the same tone, what continues to bother me about the experience is not my profession being mistaken, but the assumption that the color of my skin is enough to determine my socioeconomic background — the assumption that complexion and income level are inversely proportional to one another. This assumption stems partly from colonization, which sought to establish the superiority of light skin over darker complexions, but majorly from the 2,000-year-old caste system in India.

The Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology conducted a study in 2018, researching how skin color varies between 10 different sociocultural populations in the states of Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. The results indicated that social factors play a significant role in determining one’s complexion in India. It found that members of three agricultural castes had similar, darker skin color, while Brahmins, the highest caste of Hindus, had far lighter complexions. Logically, individuals with professions that involved being out in the sun for long hours were of a darker complexion than the upper-caste Brahmins who occupied positions in academia and priesthood. However, as arbitrary as the caste system in India is, the assumption that darker skin means a lower caste and, consequently, a poorer background remains stagnant in the minds of most Indians, even long after industry and modernization have revolutionized the country and the careers of its people. 

Media is a powerful enough tool to overcome false stereotypes and alter views of its audiences, but Bollywood continues to tend to the hackneyed idea that poorer people have darker skin, particularly in its problematic usage of “brown face.” As the number of movies that tell stories of the underbelly of India is increasing, so is the utilization of brown face. Even the best Indian directors, like Zoya Akhtar of this year’s incredibly successful “Gully Boy” — a stunningly produced, terrifically written movie loosely based on the rap culture of Dharavi, considered to be Asia’s largest slum — is guilty of this. “Gully Boy” is an important, beautiful story, but its blaring use of brown face yields to the popular idea that the protagonist Murad and all his friends must be darker-skinned because they are from a slum. 

I recall a conversation I had with a friend about a movie that was released only last week, “Super 30,” which again used brown face on its lead: a mathematician from a low-income background in the state of Bihar, India. She observed that the protagonist didn’t seem darker in the film, only dirtier. This thought caused me to draw parallels with an observation I made while watching “Article 15,” another critically acclaimed film that was released earlier this month. The film stars Sayani Gupta, one of the only dark-skinned actresses in Bollywood. Yet her role as a Dalit woman, a member of the lowest caste in India, involved making her skin even darker, to the point that she looked almost gray, capitulating to the mainstream view of what a Dalit should look like — unkempt, unwashed. It is the correlation of dark complexion to filth, even in an India of 2019, that is especially unsettling.

For films like “Article 15,” “Super 30” and “Gully Boy,” which aim to expose the struggles of the brutality and income equality endured by the massive population of lower-caste individuals in the country, it was vital to stray away from stereotypes associated with these communities. Indian literature has been transforming when it comes to views on caste and colorism, as has Indian journalism and art. Why is Indian cinema not doing the same?

Anoushka Agrawal covers culture and diversity. Contact her at [email protected].