There is a huge difference between Shah Rukh Khan in Byju’s ad today and the one we saw in Umeed in the late eighties. This difference lies not in his maturity as an actor or the polish he’s now brought to his persona, but in the tone of his skin.
If we cut from the eighties to today, we could be forgiven for thinking that his skin tone has undergone a metamorphosis and has turned a cherub pink today. It is almost as if years of advertising “Fair and Lovely” have taken their toll, and today, the man is the product he advertises. There is a bit of a personal history behind these observations. Moments after I was born, my grandmother, who was also in the delivery room, remarked, “thank Vahe Guru it’s a boy even though he’s dark”. The word she used was “kala”, but I’m still not sure whether she meant just dark or black.
This remains a predicament when I visit any private hospital in Delhi today. On the walls are images of smiling doctors, stethoscopes around their necks, benevolent nurses, reassuring happy patients — with skin tones ranging from white to pink. But if we look at the actual doctors and patients around, their skin colours are as different from the ones on the walls as are their states of mind. It is almost as if fact and fiction lie alongside.
Another anecdote springs to mind. Almost 40 years ago, I lived in a small barsati in one of the South Delhi colonies. A Nigerian couple moved next door. The husband came and asked me if I could ask the woman who worked in the neighbourhood as a house cleaning woman to do a bit of work at their house. I did, and also told her that since they were diplomats, they could probably afford to pay a bit extra. Her response was immediate.
She refused. “I will not work for these Habshis” she said, “they’ll eat me up”. Habshi is a peculiar word in the lexicon of some languages in the country and is used for a dark-skinned person. I know that there is some sort of cannibalistic ritual associated with certain tribal cultures, but how did it get associated with a dark-skinned African person is beyond me. Yet this perception seems to be widespread — certainly in North India. It is not a coincidence that our cricketers have sniggered at dark skinned players — including at the hapless Andrew Symonds in “monkeygate”, and now, we learn, at Darren Sammy and others.
A well-known Bollywood cinematographer once told me that the entire lighting for a film had one central purpose – to ensure the main actor’s skin tones are light. Everything else revolved around that. This rule was then, and is still, further followed in the film processing laboratories. This is obviously easier for a light skinned actor than for say, Nandita Das. Hence fair skinned actors are at a greater premium than dark skinned ones. Not too many women from Kerala make it to Bollywood, but from the South, it is the fair skinned Tamil Brahmins or women from Coorg who are in great demand.
It is in this context that Hindustan Lever’s decision to remove “fair” from “Fair and Lovely” needs to be seen. The process of pigmentation change has not been discouraged — just given a different name. It is almost as if to say that while corporate India is willing to go along with “Black Lives Matter”, it actually believes that they really don’t.
The writer is a Delhi based filmmaker
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