By Aathira Konikkara and Shama Nimkar
Prejudice against colour, like most other biases in Indian society, is so subtle that is barely noticed. It is, instead, accepted as the norm.
So, every time the teenager next door dabs on a bit of the omnipresent tube of fairness cream, ‘Fair and Lovely’ laughs all the way to the bank, quite literally. And every instance when aspirants, of job or marital bliss, are rejected for being on the darker end of the shade card, this skin-deep superficiality ends up creating a much deeper inferiority complex. One that lasts a lifetime.
Roast or racism?
Today, this long-festering issue of colourism is in the news thanks to actor Tannishtha Chatterjee. Recently, shewalked out of Colors Channel’s Comedy Nights Bachao. The show is built around the Western concept of “roast” where the guest of honour is made the butt of supposedly good-natured jokes. But Ms Chatterjee did not find it funny to be teased for her dark skin tone. On her Facebook page, she posted: “The only thing they could roast about a dark-skinned actress was, of course, her dark skin.”
The jokes she objected to included the following: “Aap ko jamun bahut pasand hoga zaroor… kitna jamun khaya aapne bachpan se?…”
Though the channel as well as the show host, Krushna Abhishek, apologised later, the fact that the jokes were considered normal in the first place is perhaps indicative of a deeply ingrained mindset. As Chatterjee herself stressed in her FB post, the issue was not about her alone. “Propagating this idea and continuing with this mindset is what is hugely problematic, specially because it is a popular show on a national channel,” she wrote.
Her post went viral. But not everyone sided with the internationally lauded actor. Many of those who commented on the issue (including fellow actors) dismissed it as a publicity stunt. Some advised her to laugh it off as a joke.
More than skin deep
Skin colour has myriad connotations in India. Every day, a slew of advertisements equate fairness with success in life and love. No wonder then that India is one of the biggest markets for fairness creams, lotions and serums. Most of these products are touted by people hailed in the country as icons or role models, including cricketer Virat Kohli, and actors Anushka Sharma (Nivea), Deepika Padukone (Garnier), Shah Rukh Khan (Fair& Handsome) and Sonam Kapoor (L’Oreal).
But the issue here is not about the craze for fairness. Or Chatterjee’s inability to see the humour in jokes about her dark skin. There are harsher truths here with deeper roots, pointed out Bangalore University Sociology Professor, Samata Deshmane. For instance, caste and colour discrimination/oppression go hand in hand, she told NsoJ. The two have always been inextricably linked, Deshmane said. The academic, who holds multiple degrees (including two Doctorates and two Masters), and has won widespread recognition for her work, has herself been subjected to discrimination. “Both for my (dark skin) colour and my (Dalit) caste”, she said. “A person should be recognised for his/her talent and achievements. The achievements should not be recognised as those of a Dalit,” she stressed. For that matter, nor should a person’s talent have any connection with his or her skin tone, she added.
Her fellow academic, Dr. Siddagangamma, Head of the Department for Development Studies at Kannada University at Hampi, agreed. “If an actor is being bullied then she must use her talent to lash back at her bullies. Colour is insignificant next to talent and knowledge. Black is a beautiful colour like all the other colours. Embrace your colour and be proud of it,” Dr Siddagangamma pointed out.
Embrace your colour
Encouragingly enough, this message is slowly and steadily being heard. There is today a growing counter-movement against the fair skin craze. The most prominent among these is the campaign “Dark is Beautiful” (DISB) started in 2009 by Kavitha Emmanuel, founder of Chennai-based NGO “Women of Worth”. DISB uses poetry, drama and short stories to talk against colourism. What’s more, acclaimed actor and theatre person Nandita Das is the “face” of DISB. Das is somebody who has always been a vocal critic of the preference for light skin in the film industry.
So, did Das connect with the uncomfortable issues Chatterjee raised recently? In an emailed response to NSoJ, Das stated that she, for one, has all her life, faced seemingly well-intentioned advice from those who perceived her dark skin to be a shortcoming. “As a child, some far off relative would ask me not to go out in the sun lest I became darker, or when I walked into a store that had cosmetics, salespersons would come to me with the best anti-tan or fairness cream, or I would be told by the make-up man that I need not worry as he was an expert in making people look fair,” she said.
And has the DISB campaign, in her opinion, made a difference to others? Das believes it has. “I have been getting tons of emails where (mostly) women, have shared their stories of discrimination and feel validated by this campaign. I didn’t realise the magnitude of the damage the prejudice and the combined impact of products and imageries were having on young minds,” she added.
Apart from NGO-fronted causes like DISB, today, advertisement campaigns too are slowly changing to reflect a more progressive mindset. A recent Tanishq jewellry advertisement is an example. The ‘Tanishq Wedding Film’ featured a dark-skinned model as a young mother opting for remarriage–two social issues dealt with at one stroke!