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Bollywood and Brown: An unlikely couple

By Anwesha Padhi

It was 2007. I opened the new crayon set I received as a birthday gift. As my fingers scrolled across the dainty cylindrical figures, a particular shade turned me static- a beige crayon labelled "skin". I raised my arm and stared into mine. It's brown. A 10- year old me sat there contemplating for the next few hours. Is skin "supposed" to be beige? If yes, what's wrong with me?

13 years later, Ishaan Khattar breaks into a melody to praise his on-screen love interest, Ananya Pandey, and despite being well-versed in melanin, skin complexions, tanning, colourism, all hell breaks loose within. Beyonse sharma jaegi (now renamed, to dodge further controversy, apparently?) is unapologetically inappropriate but extremely reflective.

For those who are not aware, the lyrics of the song from the new Bollywood film, Khaali Peeli, go as "tujhe dekh ke goriye, Beyonse sharma jaegi". Assuming that the lyricist kept in mind megastar Beyonce's beauty while making the very obvious comparison, it still evokes the age-old discussion around discrimination on the basis of skin colour.

Being a country where more than two-thirds of the population are of darker complexion, the stereotypical preference to the fairer sub-group is absurd yet prevalent. The discontinuity of beauty standards with higher awareness has visibly reduced the issue of colourism, but not resolved it completely.

Talking about Bollywood, the dearth of dark-skinned actors is quite significant. Most filmmakers have systematically used brown as the shade of the underprivileged, poor and struggling class. Case in point being Hrithik Roshan in Agneepath and Super 30, Alia Bhatt in Udta Punjab, et cetera.

While the industry tried to validate its support to the renewed concept of beauty in Ayushmann Khurana starrer Bala, with the protagonist's best friend questioning the stigma related to skin colour, it drew extensive criticism for having given the role to an actually fair-skinned Bhumi Pednekar in a brownface.

Despite the change, a lot of people still associate psychological trauma to physical appearances. Even the ones who have accepted the newfound standards are still to adapt.

Given the impact of cinema on popular opinion, the celluloid could be used to tackle the stigma attached to skin complexion. This can be done through indiscriminate and inclusive casting, and disposing of typicality related to different characters. The need to normalise all shades of skin colour keeps growing, and Bollywood can catalyse the process in more than one way.

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