Why does Bollywood use the offensive practice of brownface in movies?

Why does Bollywood use the offensive practice of brownface in movies
Bhumi Pednekar (left) and her role in 'Bala' (right) Source: AFP.
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Daily US Times: Bollywood may be best known for its energetic dance routings, glitzy costumes and glamorous casts, but the industry also has a far less flattering reputation — for promoting the offensive practice of brownface.

Award-winning film director Neeraj Ghaywan said: “It’s actually racism. Let’s not mince our words.”

The concepts of blackface and brownface in the United States date back to the 19th century, when white performers would darken their faces with makeup, and use racist stereotypes to portray ethnic minority and black characters. White performers did this in a time when non-white professionals were barred from employment in the film industry.

A screengrab of actor Ranveer Singh from the trailer of the 2019 movie “Gully Boy.”

Ande in England, the practice even date back to the Elizabethan era, when directors traditionally cast white actors to play minority characters in Shakespearean plays.

Actor Ranveer Singh attends the photocall of the film “Gully Boy” at the Berlin International Film Festival on February 9, 2019. Source: Getty Images

Even into recent decades, the African general in “Othello” has long been played by a white actor with darkened skin, including Orson Welles in 1951 and Laurence Olivier in 1965.

It also happened in modern films. Robert Downey Jr. appeared several shades darker in 2012’s “Tropic Thunder,” to play a white Australian method actor who darkened his skin to play a black man in a Vietnam war film, and Dan Aykroyd wore blackface and dreadlocks in 1983’s “Trading Places”.

Adopting brownface in Bollywood films is commons — where temporarily darkening the skin of performers, especially when they are portraying characters from disadvantaged backgrounds.

As in the early days of Hollywood, critics of this practice say that Bollywood often prefers this approach to actually hiring performers who have naturally darker skin, thus perpetuating inequality and discrimination in the industry.

For example, 2019 film ‘Bala’ featured the story of a woman who faced discrimination on the basis of her skin tone.

Bhumi Pednekar (pictured above) played the role in the film, who had had her skin darkened in order to play the role. The move was slammed by some Indian commentators, media outlets, and on social media.

Some pointed out the irony of one of the film’s promotional posters tweeted by Pednekar, where her character was “surrounded by skin lightening products (and) is actually lightskinned and in brownface.”

According to Indian media reports, Pednekar defended the director’s decision to cast her in the movie, saying factors apart from physical appearance play a major role: “If a filmmaker has taken me, it is because I add some value to the film.”

The director of the film, Amar Kaushik, said that he “thought about casting a dark-skinned actor,” but “felt Bhumi was superb for this character.”

The popularity of films that use brownface, such as box office hits “Gully Boy,” and “Super 30” also released in 2019, suggest that Bollywood is yet to come under significant public pressure for a practice that many people consider offensive and racist.

‘Glamour behind the mask’

India’s attitude towards fairness is not new, rather it is an ancient concept. Sociologist Sanjay Srivastava, who works at the Institute of Economic Growth in Delhi, said: “It predates colonialism and is certainly linked to caste.”

“Hindu religious texts are full of what we would now recognize as racial stereotypes: lower caste figures as dark and ugly… To be dark is to be a manual laborer, working in the sun. Fair skin is also a mark of class.”

A screengrab of Bollywood star Hrithik Roshan in a trailer for the 2019 Bollywood movie “Super 30.”

He also said, the arrival of pale-skinned British colonial leaders in the 18th century also had a role to play.

He adds: “During the colonial era, race and racism functioned in the context of the so-called mixed-race populations, the Anglo-Indians. The ‘closer’ you were to a white progenitor, the higher up in the hierarchy of race.”

British rule is also blamed for further polarizing the castes.

Bollywood actor Hrithik Roshan attends Hindu religious celebrations in Mumbai on October 7, 2019. Credit: Source: AFP

On the other hand, fairness is considered and revered a sign of beauty and status.

“Bollywood, and Indian cinema generally, had two remarkable antecedents: religious iconography and Parsi theater,” said Vijay Mishra, a Professor of English Literature at Australia’s Murdoch University. Mr Mishra is also author of “Bollywood cinema: Temples of desire.”

He said: “For both, ‘whiteness’ was essential.” Hindu gods and goddesses are “remarkably white,” except for dark-skinned Krishna, Rama and Shiva, he said. In Parsi theater, “Parsis, through their Iranian ethnicity, are extremely fair.”

Parsi theater, influenced by colonial English theater, served as entertainment for the growing middle and working classes and was hugely popular before Hindi sound films were established in India in 1931.

India’s independence in 1947 paved the way for a new constitution that outlawed caste-based discrimination, but it is still prevalent in parts of India. Human Rights Watch noted in its 2019 World Report, that Dalits, formerly referred to as “untouchables,” “continued to be discriminated against in education and in jobs.”

Srivastava argued that colorism, discrimination based on the color of someone’s skin, is prevalent in Bollywood.

He said: “Colorism is not problematized at all, since a vast number of Bollywood cinema relies upon prejudice as a vehicle for entertainment.”