Bollywood’s Unfair and Ugly Obsession with Dark Skin Color

[Kajol and Shah Rukh Khan in Baazigar]

by Rema Chandran

This post was originally published on and is republished here with permission.

As a child, “Baazigar’s” catchy “Yeh kaali kaali aankhen” stood out for two very distinct reasons—the first was Anu Malik’s innate ability to impersonate a banshee with a sore throat. The second reason was the lyricist’s total disregard for the heroine’s features. It’s quite clear to see that Kajol isn’t the fairest lady in Bollywood (who gives a damn, she’s bloody hilarious).

She certainly doesn’t have “dark dark eyes,” but the lyricist decides to write what he believes will work for the mass market. After all, “yeh kaale, kaale gaal,” meaning “these black, black cheeks, wouldn’t be quite so catchy now, would it?

But that was what, 23 years ago? We live in modern times now. Times where guys swoon over girls and sing songs about their “dusky” tones. Wait, what? “Saanwali si ek ladki” from the mushy three-way rom-com “Mujhse Dosti Karoge” is a song sung to Rani Mukerji’s character. I guess it acts as a way for the audience to see that the dude is not referring to the “fairer” Kareena Kapoor. But personally, if you were going to distinguish between these two ladies, I wouldn’t go with their skin tones. How about height?? Just not skin, please. It’s not cool.

But don’t fear. If it’s not distinguishing the fairer damsels from their wheatish sisters, lyrics, and even screen dialogue, have been, and still are, written in a way that makes those who have a darker complexion feel better about themselves.

“Hey, at least your heart is pure white, even if your face isn’t.”

I mean, who can forget the legendary Mehmood Sahib in that Gumnaam song. A song you couldn’t help but chuckle at and jig along to at the time, but does now make you wonder, is it being fair?

And of course, color doesn’t just affect the ladies. Men are also prone to tonal mockery. Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan were initially shunned for being darker than the average Khanna and Kapoor. I guess we know who’s having the last laugh now.

Fair and Lovely

But I guess it all comes down to this. Why do we even have to talk about and distinguish an actor, or any person for that matter, by their colour? What’s wrong with being dark? Why are all the movie villains always dark? Why, when describing the darker guys and gals, does every magazine article, online publication, and TV channel seem incessant on using the word “dusky” before introducing them, like adding some kind of prefix to their name? The “dusky” seductress Bipasha. “Dusky damsel” Deepika. “Dusky” Priyanka Chopra. Why don’t we try leaving “dusky” out and let’s see what happens? Well, nothing happens. The word adds no meaning to the sentence.

This isn’t to say that Bollywood hasn’t become better at “accepting” and even integrating darker shades of beauty into their fraternity, without it being some kind of token quota system. But I’m sure even the dusky seductress herself, Bipasha Basu, has somehow become fairer throughout the years. And maybe (and this just a theory, don’t sue me), it’s all the Fair and Lovely endorsements she and some others have been prone to doing throughout the years. Even Mr ‘he who had the last laugh’, Shah Rukh Khan, was surely laughing when he became the face of Emami Fair and Handsome. I’m not sure if that’s ironic, a win for all dark folk out there or Shah Rukh just being a complete and utter moron. I’m going to go with the last one – and coming from his undisputed number one fan, that’s huge.

As a girl of ‘dusky’ tones myself, I guess it’s very easy for me to get on my soapbox and proclaim that Bollywood is racist against its own race. And I’ll gladly take that box and stack a couple more on top of it. Parts of my adolescent life saw me trying all kinds of tricks to become as fair as the dazzling whites I saw on the big screen. From whitening creams to attempting to swallow a gold earring, I tried it all. And yes, of course, I failed. But my skin only became an issue whenever I visited India or was surrounded by family friends, who would comment on how much I resembled my late grandma, followed by, “but a dark version, of course.” Of course.

I would have hoped and prayed that an institution like the Hindi film industry would be able to set an example and help shape archaic mentalities for the better but I guess they’re only mimicking what society pushes out. And this doesn’t just reside with your skin colour. Let’s take weight – 2015’s indie hit “Dum Laga Ke Haisha” did set an example but isn’t it sad that it needed to be made in the first place? In making such films and writing such lyrics, are we reflecting what our society still thinks, how we still behave towards human beings?

It’s no secret that there is an underlying colour chart hierarchy in India and the subcontinent (and let’s be honest, this isn’t prevalent just in India). If you’re dark, this must mean that you’ve been out in the sun for too long with the rest of the sour mangoes, or more likely, you’re a pauper fresh from the streets. But at least, you can say:

Hum kaale hain to kyaa hua, dilwaale hain.

Rema Chandran headshotLondon girl, Rema Chandran is a marketer by trade, with a love for cricket, bad-ass Bollywood, all sitcoms and samosa chaat. When she’s not talking brands and how to leverage growth opportunities, she’s busy writing. Her topics will vary: whatever gets her at the time excitable/sad/angry, you’ll probably find it here. Oh and one last thing: call her what you want, but don’t ever call her a coconut, we hear it doesn’t go down too well.


By Brown Girl Magazine

Brown Girl Magazine was created by and for South Asian womxn who believe in the power of storytelling as a … Read more ›

‘The Romantics’: Revisiting the Legacy and Grandeur of Yash Chopra With Filmmaker Smriti Mundhra

The Romantics

If you are a South Asian, born in the ’80s or the early ’90s, chances are your ideas of love and romance are heavily influenced by Hindi films — that first gaze, the secret love notes, that accidental meeting somewhere in Europe, over-the-top gestures and dancing around trees. While reality may have been far from what was promised on reel, you still can’t stop pining over a hopeless romantic, with chocolate boy looks, chasing you across the earth and many universes; in the life here and the ones after. Somewhere deep down, you still dream of that possibility despite your husband sitting and sipping his morning coffee right next to you. And much of the credit for weaving this dreamland, that we can’t resist happily sliding into, goes to the legendary Yash Chopra. Award-winning filmmaker Smriti Mundhra’s docu-series, “The Romantics,” that released on Netflix on February 14, chronicles Chopra’s prolific career; offering an illuminating look into the highs and lows of his journey, his unblemished vision for Hindi cinema and sheer love for filmmaking. 

I wanted to look at Indian cinema through the lens of it being a major contributor to the global cinema canon and Yash Chopra seemed like the perfect lens to explore that because of the longevity of his career and the fact that he had worked across so many different genres. His films, for so many of us, defined what Hindi cinema is.

— Smriti Mundhra

As “The Romantics” unveils, in a mere episode — a challenging feat in itself — Chopra did experiment with multiple genres as a budding filmmaker, initially under the shadows of his elder brother B.R. Chopra. From the religiously sensitive “Dharamputra” and the trendsetting “Waqt” to the action-packed and iconic “Deewaar.” It wasn’t until later on in his career that he set a precedent for a Hindi film having a wholly romantic narrative; though “Waqt” did offer the perfect glimpse into what would go on to become Chopra’s cinematic imprint. And then came “Chandni” which ushered in a new era for Hindi cinema; defying the formulaic approach to box office success and making love stories the golden goose.

In the words of more than 30 famous faces, a host of archival videos and interviews, and personal anecdotes, audiences get an extensive insight into the life and career of Yash Chopra and the evolution of his vision through the business acumen and genius of his polar opposite son and a famous recluse, Aditya Chopra. “The Romantics” is not a fancy portrait of a legendary filmmaker but an exploration of what goes into making a successful film family and a path-breaking production house. As viewers, we not only get a peek into the making of a fantasy creator but also learn of the many failures, hurdles and uncertainties that the business of filmmaking comes packaged in, the impact of socio-political shifts on the kind of content being produced and demanded, and just how much control we have as an audience over the fate of the film and the filmmaker.

For both the uninitiated and fanatics, there are some interesting revelations like Shah Rukh Khan’s lifelong desire to become an action hero as opposed to a romantic one and the creative conflict between Aditya Chopra and his father Yash Chopra on the sets of “Dilwale Dulhania Le Jaayenge” — a project that, surprisingly, did not seem too promising to the latter. Mundhra penetrates deep into the family’s history and industry relationships evoking some really candid conversations; almost as if these celebs were eagerly waiting for their moment to speak. With one appraising interview after the other, it’s a panegyric that does border on being a tad tedious but there is enough depth and fodder in there to keep one hooked. Kudos to Mundhra for managing to achieve cohesion despite there being more than enough material to chew on. In the process of bringing this project to life, Mundhra also ends up achieving a number of milestones: one that the series features the last of actor Rishi Kapoor’s interviews and two, it brings Aditya Chopra, who, it appears, can talk a blue streak contrary to popular belief, to the front of the camera after almost two decades. The moment when he puts the nepotism debate to rest by referring to his brother’s catastrophic attempt at acting is quite the show-stealer.


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A post shared by Smriti Mundhra (@smritimundhra)

At some point during the four-episode series, you might question if it’s fair to credit the Yash Raj family for being the only real changemakers of the Hindi film industry and for picking up the baton to get Hindi cinema the global recognition that it has. But then there is no denying the Chopra clan’s body of work, their ability to understand what pleases the crowd and their commitment towards growth and progress amidst changing times and technology — Yash Raj Studios is in fact the only privately held and one of the biggest, state-of-the-art film studios in India. Chopra’s career and legacy are in no way under-lit that Mundhra can claim to throw new light on with “The Romantics.” But what she really has on offer here are sheer nostalgia, some fascinating discoveries and an ode to a cinephile and his art with a bit of fan service.

In an interview with Brown Girl Magazine, Mundhra discusses why it was so important for Chopra to be the subject of her docu-series, her own learnings during the series’ research and creative process and her accomplishment of getting Aditya Chopra to talk, and that too, at length.

By Nida Hasan

Editor by profession, writer by passion, and a mother 24/7, Nida is a member of Brown Girl Lifestyle's editing team … Read more ›