In the second of his articles discussing anti-Blackness in South Asian communities, Dhruva Balram investigates Blackface and anti-Blackness in Bollywood, how these narratives drive attitudes in wider culture, and the move for change.
Growing up in India, alongside rice and daal, Bollywood is a part of your every day diet. The worlds largest entertainment industry is embedded into culture, shaping opinions and permeating conversations. Due to decades of anti-Blackness in society, negative portrayals of darker-skinned people, especially Black individuals, is prevalent.
Generational caste and class prejudice compounded by colonialism has created a mindset where whiteness equates to success and prosperity. Throughout its history, Bollywood has created a single story narrative of Blackness, of darker-skinned people in South Asian culture.
With its immense influential power, Bollywood and mass media in South Asia have maintained the idea that having fairer skin is better. This is entrenched in the minds of hundreds of millions who consume South Asian cinema on a daily basis. The notion of conforming to Eurocentric beauty standards has found a home in South Asian mass media, including Bollywood, where they are reinforced through various types of consumable media in a myriad of ways.
“After being told she was “too ethnic” to be cast in a role, Chopra responded by speaking out. When personally attacked, Chopra cries wolf, but is happy to ignore the larger, more pervasive racism that has gripped minority, especially Black, communities”
Pop culture influences the way we compare ourselves to others. Bollywood’s massive influence has created a society where self-hatred due to colourism in South Asia is common, and conversely, how a society views its own people is reflected in how its biggest entertainment industry reflects them. Bollywood’s continual ignorance of the various shades of beauty in favour of whiteness epitomises how South Asians promote anti-Blackness. Fairness and skin-whitening on camera is already harmful, supporting the stereotype that whiteness equates happiness. Bollywood also works in anti-Blackness through the narrow lens of caricatures and stereotypes. Its history is rife with racist views towards Black people.
Global superstar Priyanka Chopra has built a career off colourism. In the 2008 movie Fashion, she plays a small town girl and aspiring model who, after making it to Mumbai and Bollywood, gets attracted to debauchery and decadence. Her negative spiral hits a “rock bottom” when she wakes up one morning next to a Black man. This is imagined to be her character’s lowest point despite her drug abuse, alcoholism and previous nefarious acts. Fashion went on to win multiple awards. For Bollywood, as an aspiring model, the worst thing you can do is position yourself sexually next to a Black person. Your skin has to be fair, so does your partner, it seems. For Chopra’s character, sleeping with a Black man was deplorable.
When confronted about the #OscarsSoWhite movement, Chopra disregarded all minority women by stating, “casting by race is a very primitive idea.” She has also said that she does not like the phrase “woman of colour” as she does not identify with the term – she labels herself as nothing other than human. Yet, she, like every other minority actor, has faced Hollywood’s racism. After being told she was “too ethnic” to be cast in a role, Chopra responded by speaking out. When personally attacked, Chopra cries wolf, but is happy to ignore the larger, more pervasive racism that has gripped minority, especially Black, communities.
Scene from Intaqam
The issue has a long history, and not only is there overt anti-Blackness, but also the problem of blackface. Karuppu Panam, a movie from 1964, was commercially successful and possessed a huge song-and-dance hit, Aadavarellam Aadavaralam. Forty seconds in to the clip, you can see that the back-up dancers and actors are depicted in blackface. It’s the song Aa Jane Jaan from the 1969 movie Intaqam, though, that I find truly disturbing. Sung by Indian icon and legendary vocalist Lata Mangeshkar, it was performed by famous Burmese-Indian actress, Helen, in the movie.
Considered to be one of her greatest ever displays, she prances around a cage sporting a blonde wig and blue contacts in front of an African man, depicted as a savage. He beats his chest and the bars of the cage in passionate lust. Whipped by other men in Blackface when he gets too rowdy, they had zero African people in these roles. Instead, it’s an Indian man wearing blackface in that cage. The clip is despicable. I found it painstakingly difficult to get through the entire video. Yet, I was raised on this. So were countless others with Aa Jane Jaan a pillar in the Indian Bollywood canon. In its context, the film, made at a time when Western media also portrayed Black and Brown face, was a reflection of its time. What’s disturbing is that these ideas and views had not changed decades later.
The 1982 movie Vidhaata contains the song Udi Baba sung by the iconic Asha Bhosle; it’s a track still played at weddings, remixed and sampled by Indian producers and very much a mainstay in the culture. Yet, the back-up dancers and fake Superman seem to be donning blackface for no apparent reason. This is without question minstrelsy: Black people are portrayed in a light where they are mocked or seen as lesser than for our entertainment. In a 1983 film, Souten, the actor Shreeram Lagoo, who is considered fair-skinned portrays a lowly assistant. He dons Blackface in this role.
But these instances are not consigned to history. Moving forward in time, the 2000 film Hadh Kardi Apne features an Indian couple wearing blackface. In what is supposed to be a hilarious misunderstanding, the husband finds his wife (both in blackface) in bed with another man. Blackface rears its ugly head again in the 2009 movie All The Best: The Fun Begins. The villain, an Indian man in blackface, alongside his henchmen (most of whom appear to actually be Black), has the main character held hostage when Bipasha Basu, playing a Tanzanian princess in blackface, appears to save the day.
A Scene from Kambaqqt Ishq
Kambaqqt Ishq, another 2009 film, has one of the main characters undergoing a random security search at the airport. Detained and led by a white security guard, his mood appears relaxed until a Black security officer walks into the room. He’s instantly filled with fear before being thrown around and undergoing a cavity search. This is supposed to be funny but epitomises the offensive minstrelsy still being portrayed.
The weeds of white supremacy are still entangled firmly in Bollywood. Blackface and racist caricatures still exist. Minstrelsy is very much a part of how many South Asian people view Black individuals. And when Punjabi icons like Diljit Dosanjh, whose Twitter followings alone are in the millions, help further this vile image, it’s detrimental to how society treats its very people. Dosanjh launched his career through the 2012 movie Jatt and Juliet. In it, he breaks up with a woman after imaging their future children in blackface when he finds out she is moving to Africa to be part of a charity program.
“Blackface and minstrelsy didn’t weave their way into Bollywood via a Western influence. Rather, through generational entrenched casteist beliefs coupled with classist attitudes towards skin colour, we have had sustained anti-Blackness in our society long before American cinema”
Popular dance songs throughout Bollywood’s history have also helped cement anti-Blackness within society. The immensely popular song Chitiyaan Kalaiyaan which was on the charts for months literally translates to “I have white wrists and they are yours now.” The video also features an all-white cast with dark skinned men on the periphery, playing the drums.
Blackface and minstrelsy didn’t weave their way into Bollywood via a Western influence. Rather, through generational entrenched casteist beliefs coupled with classist attitudes towards skin colour, we have had sustained anti-Blackness in our society long before American cinema. Bollywood’s use of blackface and narrow-minded caricatures of Black people is a reflection of how we see darker-skinned people within society as beneath us.
Mass media in South Asia is all to quick to depict actors in blackface while pushing darker-skinned people to the margins, to show them as evil, as the lowest form of humanity. They live on the marginalised edge of South Asian media; only to be included as stereotypes and cliches.
These racist caricatures of Blackness help demonise Black people further. Despite outcries against it, most celebrities within Bollywood refuse to do anything about it. Slowly, Bollywood celebrities are shifting opinions. Nandita Das is championing the cause, so is Vishakha Singh, Abhay Deol and Rupinder Nagra. They’re calling out their colleagues, the industry as whole but the mindset of anti-Blackness, ingrained so deeply within the cultural psyche, will be the most difficult attitude to change.
Actors like Nandita Das are attempting to change mindsets by championing organisations like Dark is Beautiful. But, as she told The Guardian, she’s had to deal with directors attempting to lighten up her skin: “They always say to me: ‘Don’t worry, we will lighten you, we’re really good at it,’ as a reassurance. It’s perpetuating a stereotype that only fair-skinned women can be educated and successful.”
Whiteness, in a world still recovering from the effects of colonialism, has created the myth amongst South Asians that it equals wealth, advancement and prosperity. A colonial hangover mixed in with a caste system which dates back thousands of years allows us to see Black people as lesser than, as pawns to exploit on our own way to success. It’s a conditioned belief inherent in us like knowing how much haldi to put in a daal. It’s a long road to unlearning conditioned anti-Blackness within our community’s cultural success, but unless we fix the way we view it, we will forever be at the mercy of white supremacy.
Dhruva Balram is an Indian-Canadian freelance journalist exploring interests in pop culture, music, communities, societal issues, and South Asian identity, Dhruva is currently based in London, UK.Follow @dhruvabalram