At the Oscars earlier this year, Priyanka Chopra created quite a sensation. In her white Zuhair Murad corset dress, she dazzled viewers in the West and the foreign press with her “international look”. Back home, the murmur of appreciation revolved around something else. “It was the first time, perhaps, she wore make-up closer to her skin tone,” points out a Bollywood make-up artist, who did not wish to be named.
While this artist hopes that Chopra’s act of owning her complexion — more tawny than fawn — has inspired other actors obsessed with fairness, it has done little to change the perception of the average Indian towards skin colour. Late last month, actor Tannishtha Chatterjee walked out of a television show after being referred to as kaali-kalooti repeatedly. “In India of 2016, I still have to be apologetic about my skin tone? What is this white-skin hangover? Where does all our pride as a nation go away when it comes to the acceptance that most of us have a darker skin tone,” wrote Chatterjee in a Facebook post after the incident.
But none of this is new, and certainly not in the film industry. The colour prejudice has long existed in Indian society and over the years, darker-skinned actors have learned to deal with it. Rekha, before she was acknowledged as a star, was subjected to constant humiliation about her skin tone, writes Yasser Usman in the recently-released biography, Rekha: The Untold Story. In a 1994 interview mentioned in the book, Rekha talked about the time she was cast opposite Navin Nischol in Sawan Bhadon (1969). “I was standing for an hour while someone body-painted me from head to toe. Because in those days, heroines were required to be fair. In the north they have this fairness hang-up. They painted all the junior artists white in all of D Ramanaidu films,” she said. It would seem that not much has changed; then and now, a dark-skinned actor’s best friend is their make-up artist.
Mehera Kolah, who has worked in Bollywood for well over a decade, says that until the 1990s, fairness was one of the requirements for being a lead actor. “A lot of the girls with darker skin tones would rely on make-up to cover up their skin tone. On screen, they all wore the pancake look,” she says.
Earlier, lack of products for the Indian skin tone was also an issue. “Quality products had to be imported and they were made for the West to suit white skin,” explains Kolah. Indian skin has a yellow undertone, as opposed to Caucasians whose skin have a pink one. The tide began to turn, just slightly, after a number of actresses came from the modelling world. “Slowly, the darker skin tone became more acceptable,” says Divya Chablani, a make-up artist who has worked with Alia Bhatt and Bipasha Basu.
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According to make-up artist Sandhya Shekhar, today, a number of new-age actors, from Chatterjee to Poorna Jagannathan, and even Lisa Haydon, embrace their skin tone. “But the obsession still exists for some,” she says. Shekhar recounts an incident where a young actor who made her debut last year kept asking her if she looked “dark”. “And she is already fair,” she says.
Elton Fernandez, who works with Sonam Kapoor, Alia Bhatt, Nimrat Kaur and Parineeti Chopra, among others, blames the industry for not standing up for the ethnicity of its people. “Of course, there is pressure on actors to appear fairer. Why else are most commercially successful actors fair? Why has Nandita Das only dominated indie cinema, or why does Bipasha Basu try to look fairer than she is?” quips Fernandez. He refuses to work with actors who want him to change their skin tone to make it lighter. “The feedback from their managers is that I made them look ‘dark’.”
Rumour has it that there are a number of Bollywood actresses who seem to have become lighter from their “dark-complexioned” days. The difference is noticeable in actors such as Shilpa Shetty and Kajol, who are often believed to have resorted to “skin-lightening” treatments over the years. But Kolah says that does not necessarily imply that the change is intentional. “Skin tone does change over years. And these actors have been away from public life for many years now. They don’t regularly shoot in harsh environments, under the sun or in strong lighting anymore. Skin care with quality products aids that, too,” she says.
Mehak Oberoi, who has been working with Kajol since the past year, seconds Kolah. “I don’t deny that actors resort to skin lightening treatments, such as melanin shots, but Kajol’s skin tone is already light. In fact, I have to give her a warmer skin tone so she doesn’t look washed out under the lights,” she says. Kolah adds that the same applies for actors such as Katrina Kaif and Kareena Kapoor. “Also, actors these days know that an olive or a bronze tone looks way sexier,” she says.
The lighting during a shoot, say make-up artists, can make or break an actor’s look. Shekhar says that, today, thanks to cutting- edge technology, the camera catches the minutest details, especially if the make-up is not done correctly. “As for fairness, you can, at best, play with a skin tone by two shades — go darker or lighter. And if it is done well, the lighting does the rest,” she says.
Some actors do use this technique to appear fairer on screen, says the first make-up artist we spoke to. “For these actors, you have to apply make-up on not just their face but entire body to even out the skin tone, which can be quite a tedious process,” she says.
The names that crop up are Kriti Sanon and Chopra. In fact, the latter appeared in a series of ads by a cosmetics brand for one of their “skin lightening” products. The commercials came under fire as feminists and activists criticised it for equating “fair” with “beautiful”. A campaign titled “Dark is Beautiful” was launched to generate awareness regarding the bias that exists so openly in the society; Nandita Das came out in its support, speaking about the racism that is rampant in the film industry. She spoke about how she was often described as “dusky yet beautiful” and her complexion decided the nature of roles she was offered.
But does the onus only fall on the women to have a lighter skin tone? Most make-up artists say that male actors are more insecure about their appearance. But rarely is complexion a matter of concern — it’s the hair that they obsess over. One artist points out that this is possibly because most of the A-list actors are already fair-skinned, with the exception of Shah Rukh Khan, whose complexion also seems to have undergone a significant change. And much like their female counterparts, the darker ones hardly cross over from parallel to commercial cinema as leads. In recent times, Manoj Bajpayee, Irrfan and Nawazuddin Siddiqui are the only examples.
Das also blames actors, both male and female, who endorse cosmetic products. “So many actors endorse fairness creams or products that help ‘lighten’ the skin. They may not be asking their make-up artists to make them look fair on screen, but they do propagate the idea that ‘fair is lovely’,” rues Das. She’s right — in the recent past, only Kangana Ranaut and Anushka Sharma have taken a stand against these products.
The bias, according to Fernandez, is further perpetuated by perceptions about light skin and eyes being equated with an “elfin” look, while sinister implies a shade darker. But who said the film industry was ever fair?