Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s tweet Monday night indicating biases in Bollywood, rightly received media attention and curiosity. “Thank U 4 making me realise dat I cannot b paired along wid d fair & handsome bcz I m dark & not good looking, but I never focus on that”, the critically acclaimed actor summarised on the microblogging platform, purportedly in response to a casting director. Headlines by recognised news outlets, big and small, followed and about half of them hailed Siddiqui’s tweet as criticism of a ‘racist’ remark in Bollywood.
I could not help but wonder at first why the colour bias which Siddiqui referred to was being dubbed as racism, when the latter term seems more fitting in discussions about discrimination faced by people of a markedly different racial origin from majority Indians, that is, North-Eastern Indians and Africans. Part of this speculation is because Siddiqui had been asked about ‘racism in Bollywood’ in another interview last year. But is it really racism that we are talking about?
We generally conflate racism and colourism. Even though the two can be related — the former almost always invokes the latter — and both denote discrimination, they are not the necessarily the same. As author Sarah Webb explains, people of different races may in fact have the same skin tone (For instance, north Indians, Mexicans and Italians) and people of the same race may have different skin tones (One needn’t look further than their surroundings for this). Both contexts can result in discriminations — albeit of different kinds.
Miss America 2013, Nina Davuluri is an enlightening example. A daughter of Indian immigrant parents, her crowing in the US resulted in a shameful backlash from a section of mostly white Americans who were thoroughly displeased that the Miss America title was being given to a South Asian. Simultaneously, many in the Indian media observed how Davuluri, a dusky beauty, could never have won the pageant, had she been competing in India, owing to bias against her complexion. Davuluri faced racism in the US, but had she been in India, she’d have probably faced colourism.
In Bollywood too, the elitism in looks strongly prevails among most of the actors, especially the stars, tend to be light skinned, save for a few outliers. Siddiqui has rightly questioned why ‘fair’ must be handsome. The privileging of light skin over dark is the ill of colourism — and Indian society is shot through and through with it. It is why a brand like ‘Fair & Lovely’ and its spin-offs have enjoyed trenchant success in the Indian market for decades. It is why most matrimonial ads are not complete without the word “fair” or “wheatish” — anything to distinguish their ward from “dark”.
In the same vein, colourism can mean that lighter skin tones are more desirable within the common ethnic/racial group, and in many countries like India, one of the strongest roots of this bias is in the racism experienced by the natives during the colonial period at the hands of Europeans. But there are other factors too — of caste and class.
People from the labour class, working outdoors, running odd jobs or cleaning — under the sun, in the dusty streets — are more likely to be tanned and hence that skin colour is perceived as a sign of class inferiority. As a corollary to that, castes that are not connected to manual labour outdoors are accorded higher status and prestige, according to social norms. “There is no established causal relationship or even correlation between skin color and caste. But … there is a strong perception that skin colour and caste are linked and as long as that perception lasts, it will matter a great deal,” says Radhika Parameswaran, researcher of colourism in India and Professor of media studies at Indiana University. “So there is a widespread and entrenched perception that lighter skin color equals higher caste”, she concludes in an interview.
Perhaps few actively think about colonialism, caste or class, but we implicitly accept that actors and celebrities of show biz are not supposed to look like the man or the woman on the street, but more ‘superior’. In a recent conversation with the Indian Express, Nawazuddin Siddiqui candidly shared that he was often told in his life that he was not ‘hero material’ because of his appearance. Actors like him, with powerhouse yet grounded performances, have been shaking things up within and outside the industry by redefining what ‘superior’ can mean.
To be sure, in part this is the manifestation of internalised racism that if one isn’t ‘white’, their aesthetic worth is determined by how close or far they are from being ‘white’. But if we look closely, in our post-colonial psyches, the elitism of light skin colour is more nuanced than just an old race complex.
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