In Ayushmann Khurrana’s new movie Bala, a young man deals with the consequences of a receding hairline. The movie’s theme shares some similarities with the November 1 release Ujda Chaman (itself an official remake of the Kannada comedy Ondu Motteya Kathe). The trailer for Bala, which will be out on November 8, has another aspect that demands attention: in a movie pitched as a comedy, the character played by Bhumi Pednekar has artificially darkened skin.

Bala (2019).

Blackface and its cousin, brownface, simply refuse to exit the screen even though Hindi filmmakers claim to have become more sensitive to the manner in which they depict their characters. Bollywood continues to cast fair-skinned actors in lead roles, but occasionally makes exceptions when reaching for realism. Browned skin is used to depict working-class toil (Alia Bhatt in Udta Punjab, Ranveer Singh in Gully Boy) or small-town strivers (Hrithik Roshan in Super 30).

Blackface in Hindi films serves quite another function: a dark complexion often signifies coarseness and evil, while fair skin means good breeding and moral rectitude. A previous article on delineated the categories into which dark-skinned characters in Hindi films typically fall: backward, villainous, savage, divine, outsider, and, most often, unattractive.

Even the always-sensitive Satyajit Ray slipped up in Aranyer Din Ratri (1970) by casting Simi Garewal as a soot-faced tribal. Lesser mortals have gone further in drawing links between undesirability and dark skins. There is simply no room to claim that blackface is merely a cosmetic feature, as demonstrated by these five examples from Hindi films down the decades.

Meri Surat Teri Aankhen (1963)

A black-skinned boy with vampire fangs is born on a stormy night to fair-skinned Hindu parents. The father calls his son a monster and tells the doctor to give him away. The infant passes on to a Muslim couple who have been unable to bear children. Oh lord, strange are your ways, the Muslim man says, but he happily accepts the baby, who grows up to be Ashok Kumar with darkened skin, prosthetic teeth and a terrible wig.

Ashok Kumar in Meri Surat Teri Aanken (1963). Courtesy Gee Pee Films.

Kumar’s Pyare also happens to be a gifted musician with the velveteen voices of both Manna Dey and Mohammed Rafi. The film’s classical-themed music, by SD Burman, is its only strength. Treated as a freak, Pyare suffers deeply and ends up embracing the fate of so many black-faced characters: to sacrifice themselves for their fairer-skinned brethren. Nobody is to blame but fate, Pyare says in his final act of absolution.

Main Bhi Ladki Hoon (1964)

AC Tirulokchander’s remake of the Tamil movie Naanum Oru Penn, which in turn is based on the Bengali play Bodhu, Main Bhi Ladki Hoon reinforces colourism while claiming to tackle it. A darkened Meena Kumari plays the impoverished Rajni, who becomes the wife of the wealthy Ram (Dharmendra) through an act of trickery. Everybody is horrified – you showed us a girl who looks like the moon and this one turned out be an eclipse, a character says – but Ram is an artist and therefore sensitive, and agrees to the match.

Meena Kumari in Main Bhi Ladki Hoon (1964). Courtesy AVM Productions.

Ram’s father (SV Rangarao) recoils at the very sight of Rajni. She spends much of the movie trying to win him over, and has as an ally his faithful attendant, Ganga (Balraj Sahni). Ganga is dark-skinned too, and matches Rajni in her servility. Why are women like me not killed in infancy itself, she wails. The grotesquerie is enhanced by vivid close-ups of Meena Kumari’s visage, which is caked in what appears to be boot polish.

Naseeb Apna Apna (1986)

Another remake, this time of the Tamil movie Gopurangal Saivathillai. Naseeb Apna Apna combines two devices beloved of misogynistic drama: the ugly duckling-turned-swan, and the husband compelled towards bigamy by the state of his marriage. Kishan (Rishi Kapoor) is railroaded into marrying the dark-skinned and socially unskilled Chando (Tamil actress Radhika Sarathkumar in her first Hindi role). Chando behaves like a five-year girl and has her hair braided in a pigtail that tapers outwards, like a tail. When Kishan first sets his eyes on Chando, objects around him explode like bombs.

Kishan treats Chando like a radioactive substance, flees the marriage, and finds comfort in the arms of the fair-skinned Radha (Farah Naaz).

Radhika in Naseeb Apna Apna (1986). Courtesy BMB Productions.

Chando ends up working as Kishan’s maid. Radha, of course, is clueless, and decides to do something about Chando’s appearance. A visit to the beauty parlour and voila! Chando’s face glows as though Fair & Lovely has been injected into her bloodstream.

Razia Sultan (1983)

Blackface doesn’t work even when the character is based on a real person. Razia Sultan (1983) is the weakest and creakiest of the four films made by Kamal Amrohi. The baggy biopic of the woman who ruled the Delhi Sultanate in the early thirteenth century stars Hema Malini in the lead role and Dharmendra as Jamaluddin Yakut, the Ethiopian slave who became a general. His handsome features concealed by soot, Dharmendra gamely plods through a movie that should have been about a woman’s navigation of palace intrigue but ends up obsessing over Razia’s love life.

Dharmendra in Razia Sultan (1983). Courtesy Rajdhani Films.

History recognises Razia Sultan as one of the earliest Indian female rulers, but the movies have a tendency to examine her possibly fictional relationship with Yakut. Was it one-sided, with the ardour flowing entirely from his direction, as an earlier version of the story suggests? In Devendra Goel’s Razia Sultana (1961), Yakut (Kamran Khan) pines for Razia (Nirupa Roy) but knows that it is never to be. She frees him from bondage and gives him an exalted position in the court but alas, her heart lies with Altunia (Jairaj). Yakut gets out of the way by laying down his life for Altunia. Kamran Khan’s face is only mildly darkened, and doesn’t have the startling effect as Dharmendra’s visage over two decades later.

Kamran Khan in Razia Sultana (1961). Courtesy Movieindia.

Despite a haunting score by Khayyam, Amrohi’s heavily-delayed production was roundly rejected at the box office. Dharmendra “in a weak and disfigured light was anathema to the ticket-buying audience”, Rajiv Vijayakar writes in his biography Dharmendra Not Just a He-Man (Rupa Publications, 2018).

Dharmendra’s other experiments with masking his fairness include Ghazab (1982) and Izzat (1968). In both the films, Dharmendra plays double roles. The distinguishing factor between the two sets of characters: their complexions. No acting required.

Souten (1983)

Saawan Kumar Tak’s box-office hit is both a taming-of-the-shrew movie as well as an attempt to weave caste prejudice into a mainstream narrative. Souten stars Rajesh Khanna as Kishen, a good-hearted but ambitious man who marries the spoilt heiress Rukmani (Tina Munim). Kishen is free of caste prejudice, and readily hires the Dalit accountant Gopal. Played by the Marathi thespian Shreeram Lagoo with dark make-up that varies from scene to scene, Gopal remains loyal to Kishen and never forgets his place. Gopal’s subservience negates any feeling that Souten might have a wee bit of progressiveness to it.

Shreeram Lagoo in Souten (1983). Courtesy Mercury Productions.

Rukmani, of course, turns out to be a monster (Kishen’s enlightenment doesn’t extend to gender equality). Kishen gravitates towards Gopal’s daughter Radha (Padmini Kolhapure), who holds a candle for him. The movie isn’t bold enough to suggest that Kishen and Radha can get together, not after Gopal has declared that “I am a Harijan” and laments that nobody will play Holi with him. Radha conveniently dies with Kishen’s name on her lips. Her father has already poisoned himself. These Dalit lives matter only until the point that the screenplay needs them.