Unpacking The Problematic Politics Of 'Brownface' In Indian Media & Pop Culture

Casting light skinned actors to play duskier roles is a disturbing trend in Indian pop culture.
Casting light skinned actors to play duskier roles is a disturbing trend in Indian pop culture.L: Rolling Stone India, R: Scroll.in

I first came across the word ‘wheatish’ while listlessly browsing through matrimonial ads in a Sunday Times issue. It seemed to be a uniquely Indian English hand-me-down like ‘prepone’ or ‘foreign-returned’. The idea that someone could expect a person’s complexion to match the pale gold hue of a spikelet of wheat seemed rather parochial in nature. Recently, a study tying colourism in India to femininity and caste system discovered that the mention of skin tone is mostly prevalent in advertisements placed by prospective brides or their families compared to the grooms and whenever complexion is mentioned, being a lighter shade is preferred. 

From snide comments at family gatherings to skin lightening creams still selling out in our country, the trajectory of a South Asian woman to pursue impossible beauty standards is a painful albeit predictable one, and our popular media is not doing enough to dispel the common perception that ‘fair’ is equivalent to being ‘lovely’.

In April 2017, the All India Santhali Film Association (AISFA) organised Jharkhand’s first beauty pageant for indigenous or adivasi women, and this was intended to reclaim agency for those walking the ramp so they could see themselves as beautiful irrespective of the cultural prejudices that had for so long eclipsed their self-image.

A Santhali woman seen through the lens of our legendary auteur in the 1970 film Aranyer Din Ratri was a dark skinned, supple maiden with intoxicating eyes and a long, sharp nose. She was nothing at all like her real life counterpart even though Satyajit Ray took great pains to drive around the actor Simi Garewal through the forests of Palamu district, introducing her to the villagers, but the only thing that the director got right was the skin colour. A powdering of soot on the face and a flower in her bun transformed fair skinned Simi into a travesty of the city-bred, male gaze. “The place where we stayed had no electricity and the toilet had no flush!” Simi fondly recalls the behind-the-scenes in an interview. “But it was such fun and it’s such a treasure-trove of memories of those days that I have.”

When Samantha Akkineni was painted several shades darker for her role of a Tamil Liberation fighter in the Amazon Prime series Family Man 2 as recently as in 2021, the makers of the show defended their decision by saying the makeup was intended to give her a ‘weatherbeaten’ look, and there was indeed no other reason to make a fair-skinned Tamil woman play a dusky one. But such deflections have conveniently steered the discussion away from the barefaced hypocrisy underlying casting decisions in Indian film and OTT platforms to the begrudging acceptance that actors must undergo bodily transformations to fit into certain parts they play. After all, one may argue that it’s all a pretence anyway. If prosthetics and makeup can conceal the true features of an actor then why not have a white person playing an Indian freedom fighter like Ben Kingsley (although of partial Indian origin) in the 1982 film, Gandhi?

Zeenat Aman essaying the role of a domestic worker in Pyaas (1982) could have stayed true to her colour much like Dharmendra playing a double role as his own half brother, who is an adivasi man in Izzat (1968), except no one would have been able to tell the two half brothers apart had it not been for brownface. The banshee howl of this hurtful tradition has ricocheted down the green rooms of myriad film sets in Indian history — Sunil Dutt in Mother India (1957), Alia Bhatt in Udta Punjab (2016), Ranveer Singh in Gully Boy (2019), Hrithik Roshan in Super 30 (2019) to name a few — and in almost all these instances, there were associations of criminality or backwardness for why the characters were shown to be darker than the actors chosen to depict them. Conflating skin colour with a person’s affluence or how desirable they are along the rungs of the social ladder has been a common neural misfire in the Indian subconscious for way longer than colonialism or watching Parsi plays featuring fair skinned Iranian actors in the 1800s.

Originally, the Vedic demarcation of castes along Darwinian lines of who’s fittest for which job, tucked away Brahmins into the scholarly indoors while the Shudra daily wage workers were kept toiling away in fields and mines. It is not surprising then that in a primordially agricultural community, the luxury of keeping cool and having a table to write on became associated with those who didn’t tan and managed to preserve their colour, ameliorating further connotations of being upper class and educated.

The iconography of our Hindu myths is swirling with fair skinned warriors and gods wreaking havoc on the darker asuras and somehow this shadeism has survived in the thick of the 21st century with dusky women in Bollywood like Nandita Das and Tannishtha Chatterjee often typecast into roles where they are either blood thirsty vixens or exotic village belles. Nawazuddin Siddiqui has famously spoken of the rejection he faced for not being the idealised hero — tall, chiselled and fair skinned or at the very least, ‘wheatish’ — and his refusal to kow-tow to these unfair and prejudiced notions of fair-skinned people being upper class and more educated than those who look like him, has to be a wake up call for how deeply systemic this discrimination can be.

'White Tiger' is one of the few Hindi movies that refused to brown-face and instead had a diverse cast.
'White Tiger' is one of the few Hindi movies that refused to brown-face and instead had a diverse cast.Vulture

A Texas woman of Indian origin, Hetal Lakhani, came up with an online petition in 2021 against Shaadi.com, one of the trademark matrimonial websites, campaigning that it discards a feature allowing users to browse for partners by filtering for skin colour. Eventually, the website rescinded this feature, issuing a statement clarifying that it “does not discriminate”.

While Sima Taparia from Indian Matchmaking does not have any qualms about marrying off fair, tall and good looking people to each other owing to her innate sense of symmetry, the predilection for choosing what looks familiar to one's own genetics can actually eviscerate us all in the long run.

Our films and TV shows emulate our aspirations, closely guarded misconceptions and the attributes we find appealing in other people. The actors we want to see on screen inhabit the alter ego, the parallel universe where we are able to wash away our differences, blend together in one homogenous and pastel reality. To unlearn that dark means dirty or poor can be a Herculean effort indeed. We are working against centuries of self loathing, after all. But the least we can do is not whitewash the truth.