Tannishtha Chatterjee’s scathing criticism of the television show Comedy Nights Bachao Tazza for subjecting her to a roast that focused on her skin colour sparked off several debates. Although the channel apologised to Chatterjee, the incident has initiated important conversations about the Indian predilection for fair skin, which plays out in numerous spheres, including popular cinema.

Representations of dark-skinned people in movies illustrate the manner in which colour bias attaches itself to several entrenched prejudices. While fair may be automatically associated with lovely, dark bears the burden of several social, cultural and religious beliefs.

Dark = Backward Our cinema labours under the myth that actors must be dark-skinned to authentically play poor or tribal people. Actors often wear dark make-up on the rare occasion that they play characters who hail from lower echelons of society.

Dharmendra darkened his skin to feature as the half-tribal half-brother of the fair-skinned and affluent Dilip in Izzat. He also wore brown make-up in Razia Sultan, in which he plays Yakut, an Abyssinian slave. Most recently, Alia Bhatt’s darkened skin and rough-hewn appearance as a poor farm labourer in Udta Punjab attracted criticism.

Dharmendra in ‘Izzat’.
Dharmendra in ‘Izzat’.

Dark = Villainous The symbolism and verbiage around black, such as blackhearted or “kaali kalooti”, reinforces a collective dislike for dark skin. Dark people handily turn up as villainous brutes or abhorrent oddities. Consider Meenamma’s kidnappers in Chennai Express or the sundry thugs in All The Best: Fun Begins. Sunil Dutt wore darkened make-up in Mother India to play the role of an undisciplined young man who grows to become a fearsome bandit.

Dark = Savage Indian cinema has successfully imported racist imagery, often painting Africans as savages. The popular dance number Aa Jaane Ja from Inteqaam is a glaring example of this depiction. Helen dons a blonde wig and sexually titillates a chained man wearing blackface, while he chafes bestially against his cage, unable to contain his desire.

In Fashion, Meghna (Priyanka Chopra) realises that she is on a collision course with herself after she sleeps with an African man, whom the audience is supposed to find repellant and bestial.

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‘Fashion’.

Dark = Divine Africans may be derided as poor and villainous brutes, but dark-skinned Hindu gods are universally admired, and their complexions are extolled in a number of film songs, such as Woh Kisna Hai from Kisna and Mann Mohana from Jodhaa Akbar. Unable to reconcile traditional assumptions with learned racist beliefs, poplar cinema vacillates dangerously between portraying dark-skinned people as demons or gods. This confusion also reflects in the depiction of dark-skinned women – they are either portrayed as hideous or sensuous.

Dark = Unattractive When a cinematic narrative demands that a woman look unappealing, she is often pictured with a darker complexion. Consider Narayan’s wife Lakshmi in Rai Jadhav’s critically acclaimed Marathi film Balgandharva. In a scene that means to amuse but winds up being cringe-worthy, Kambakkht Ishq features Viraj expecting to be investigated by a svelte, white woman. Much to his horror, he is searched by a plump dark woman instead.

Our penchant for fair skin overlaps most perniciously with sexism. The requirement of fair skin, like several other standards of beauty, applies much more rigorously to female characters and actors than male.

In Sivaji The Boss, the dubbed version of Shankar’s Tamil language Sivaji, the eponymous character played by Rajinikanth runs away with revulsion when he encounters two dark-skinned and plump women. He instead falls for the fair-skinned Tamizhselvi (Shriya Saran). On the other hand, when Sivaji goes to ridiculous lengths to lighten his skin, Tamizhselvi tells him that she prefers his dark skin. The episode plays out to the mythos that has built up around Rajinikanth’s complexion, but the filmmaker’s understanding of this mythos does not extend to the heroine.

‘Sivaji’.
‘Sivaji’.

Dark = Outsider Colour prejudice has bound itself with deeply ingrained ways of seeing and thinking, forcing people with dark skin to confront the idea that they will become outcasts in their own social milieu. Fair-skinned imports such as Katrina Kaif, Amy Jackson and Jacqueline Fernandez have slipped into our cinematic world without any objections being raised about their appearance. But several darker-skinned Indian actors such as Freida Pinto, Usha Jadhav and Manoj Bajpayee have complained that they have been denied roles or had to face baseless judgments due to their complexions.

As people begin to understand that dark-skinned actors are being treated unjustly, the cinematic world is making fumbling attempts at political correctness. Actors with darker complexions are described with euphemistic epithets such as “dusky”, “olive-skinned”, “coffee-coloured” or “caramel”.

We might not be able to accurately discern the origin of our colourism, but popular cinema provides a neat picture of its manifestations in everyday life. Our institutionalised biases ensure that dark skinned people are perceived as anomalies, both on and off the screen.