The mention of “Bollywood” does not exactly bring to mind social responsibility or political correctness. One need not look far back into the industry’s history to notice arguments of “but it’s just a movie” being made, giving our much revered film stars a free pass for their negligence. Just last month, we saw Shahid Kapoor as the arrogant and abusive doctor Kabir Singh, in a movie that seemed to be a three hour long celebration of toxic masculinity. For an industry that could let such glaring misogyny slip, there is a slim chance that more subtle problematic aspects would be discussed. Yet this one seems far too conspicuous - Bollywood’s brownface habit, most obviously manifested in the upcoming Hritik Roshan starrer “Super 30”.
For his character, Anand Kumar, Roshan has been made up to look many shades darker than himself as he makes a dismal attempt at a “Bihari” accent. This isn’t an uncommon practice. Alia Bhatt’s character in Udta Punjab and Ranveer Singh’s portrayal of Murad in Gully Boy both drew some amount of attention for brownfacing lighter skinned actors. Not only does this perpetuate a stereotypical understanding of how poorer Indians or even those belonging to lower castes should look like, but also brings to light a serious representation problem in Bollywood.
Let’s begin with the first issue. While one may tend to think that colouring the skin to appear darker can be excused for some kind of accuracy of portrayal, it is downright offensive in the Indian context as it encourages the idea that people belonging to the lower castes are dusky, dirty, and un-kept, whereas all the upper-caste people are light skinned and hygienic. It also further feeds the country’s obsession with lighter skin tones, which, our actors’ constant promotion of fairness creams isn’t helping.
Hollywood doesn’t fare much better. In fact, brownface is a variant of the American practice of “blackface” dating back to the 19th century, wherein non-black performers would mockingly portray a black person or enslaved Africans. While this humiliating enactment of blackface slowly faded out from America, Hollywood is routinely accused of brownface as well, choosing white actors to play the roles of Mexican, Middle Eastern, Indian, and other typically brown skinned races, while keeping the stereotypes associated with them, alive. This isn’t done only by using make up but also by imitating accents, traditional clothing and hairstyles.
While brownface in Bollywood is far subtler than the practice of blackface was, the repeated practice of this is dehumanizing, reduces certain groups of people to their skin colour, and has a lasting impact on how we view them.
The issue of lack of representation is equally worrying. If the concern is portraying characters as authentically as possible, there is no excuse for why, in a nation of 1.3 billion people, the filmmakers could not find a darker skinned, talented actor- or even one with a real Bihari accent to play the lead role in the movie. However, if the goal is to make a movie with Hritik Roshan no matter the role, understand that painting him brown is racist and a huge disfavor to the whole community that is being represented through him.
Most importantly, we as an audience seem to have come to terms with Bollywood’s socially irresponsible behavior, excusing it as “just entertainment” and scoffing at the wretched “feminazis” and “overly-sensitive” people for attempting to create an outrage every other week. Perhaps it is time we start holding our actors and filmmakers responsible for the content they create. Let’s be honest, asking to cast dark-skinned actors for dark-skinned characters or simply not feeding into humiliating stereotypes, isn’t the most radical request.