How is racism in some Bollywood media portrayals problematic?
For several years, black and brown people have faced racial discrimination worldwide due to which they were given very few opportunities in the past. Even today, we see such practices continue to happen around us. Several movements have taken place in the past few years to eradicate racism, and "Black Lives Matter (BLM)" is one of the most recent movements for racial equality. Interestingly, there are still masses in today's world who hate people from different races for no logical reason. In contrast, people of fair color are given more opportunities because fair colored people are thought to be better than others. However, the world is now going through a significant shift, and efforts are being made to eradicate racism from the world with the help of media portrayals because majority of the people follow what media shows. Nevertheless, still, much work needs to be done in this regard. Racism through media portrayals had played a significant role in the depreciation of the mental health of people. Moreover, the 2015 meta-analysis found that racism was associated with poorer mental health.1 Racism is an extensive topic to talk about, and there are many aspects to this discussion. This is why, in this essay, the main focus will be on the racism in Bollywood media portrayals and how it is problematic. Undoubtedly Bollywood media portrayals have provided us with great content on several occasions, along with great moral lessons at the end of the movies. However, there is a dark side to some of these Bollywood media portrayals, too, i.e., racism. Although several Bollywood media portrayals have provided people with a lot of quality content, however, the acts of racism in some of the Bollywood media portrayals are problematic which in turn, adversely affect the self-esteem of people belonging to different colors and races, decrease the opportunities of coming on the big screen for dark-skinned people, and discomfort the people of a different color by providing the role of darker people to the fair people of the industry.
People are born with different skin colors because of genetics and skin pigment, i.e., melanin.2 It has nothing to do with their talent; however, the acts of racism in Bollywood media portrayals tend to lower the self-esteem of people who watch those movies and serials. If we look at the movies and the song lyrics, they are extremely problematic. For example, in the song named "Chittiyaan Kalaiyaan,"3 the singer/ composer implies that the white wrists are the epitome of beauty. Here, the composer of the song implicitly mentions that black wrists are inferior by focusing on "Chittiyaan Kalaiyaan". The way racism is promoted through this song is in front of the public. This song might have made those people feel inferior who do not have white wrists or a fair complexion. Such songs should not be promoted on international levels. This colorism approach should be stopped, and everyone should be appreciated for their existence irrespective of their color. A study was conducted in the U.S. in which it was proved that high levels of discrimination and stress were related to decreased self-esteem among people.4 Moreover, it negatively influences the self-esteem and mental health of women especially.5 These studies mention the effects of discrimination and racism, and some of the Bollywood media products openly portray racism. They do not realize how their movie/ song will affect the public consuming that specific media product. According to an estimate, majority of the Indian population is brown. So, it can be noted that the self-esteem of half of the population gets at stake after watching such racist media portrayals. People are now more concerned about their artificial beauty, majorly because of the media portrayals. According to Fashionista.com, India's cosmetic sector is expected to exceed to about $20 billion in 2025.6 It is also mentioned in the article that most women indulge in makeup. In this era, people who do not read books and blindly follow media portrayals are becoming victims of it and are trying to become beautiful and fairer by artificial means. By following this direction, some people also end up getting several skin diseases, further decreasing their self-esteem. In the race of getting these white wrists or white faces, many Indian girls struggle to get married just because they do not have a fair skin tone. The primary cause for this problem is racist portrayals in media, which decrease the self-esteem of the people. According to fairobserver.com, those women who "fail" to make their skin tone lighter "struggle" to find suitable men to marry as advertisements for arranged marriages still ask for fair-skinned women.7 Moreover, the article mentions, it is a common practice to get comments about fairness in India. Let us take some more examples of some racist Bollywood media portrayals; in "Hasina Gori Gori",8 "Kala Chashma",9 "Ye Kaali Kaali Ankhein, Gore Gore Gal",10 and several other Bollywood songs, an obsession with white color can be observed. In "Hasina Gori Gori," they are implicitly mentioning that only white-skinned girls are beautiful. Similarly, in "Kala Chashma", the composer mentions that "black shades look beautiful on your beautiful face", and the actress has a white face in the song. In "Ye Kaali Kaali Ankhein, Gore Gore Gal", the composer focuses on white cheeks and black eyes. There are lots of other songs which are promoting racism in Bollywood. For example, in "Beyonce Sharma Jae Gi",11 the composer has made fun of Beyonce, a black American singer, who has fought racism for years, and this shows the real face of some Bollywood media portrayals to the world. In the reading "Heroes and Villains, and stereotyping as a signifying practice," the author writes that the loyalty of white and other colored people for the same country cannot be the same.29 This also prevalent in the Bollywood industry somehow. This is how racism is problematic in some Bollywood media portrayals, adversely affecting the self-esteem of people, especially girls. Moreover, people are obsessed with the white color more than ever, and people with less fair skin color find it challenging to get married. They turn toward artificial ways to get a fair skin tone and usually end up getting skin problems. Hence, the racism approach should be stopped or at least moved away from mainstream media, and the public should be educated on a larger scale so that no one suffers merely based on color.
Moreover, the opportunities for people with less fair skin complexion in some Bollywood media products have reduced, resulting in unemployment and a lack of confidence in people. There are many instances in Bollywood when producers and directors casted foreign co-workers instead of the local people and decreased their opportunities. It is now a common practice that in many Bollywood movies, the backup dancers are relatively white. Most of them are not even Indians and are hired by giving them more money. In this way, many talented Indian artists are left behind. According to quora.com, 12 a person answered the question, "Why do many Bollywood songs have white women as back row dancers?" as follows: white girls are hired because they are far more exotic and beautiful because of their fair complexion and rarity.13 The person even shared two pictures, one of a brown lady and the other of a white lady, comparing both for their beauty. For example, in the songs "Mauja hi Mauja",14 "Chammak Challo",15 "Desi Girl,"16 and several other songs, it can be noticed that there are white co-dancers in the background instead of the Indian ones. According to newdelhitimes.com, a Bollywood filmmaker quoted, "A white-skinned model makes for a very glamorous image in our films."17 Isn't it a racist quote in itself? The Indian people themselves are defaming their own people and decreasing the opportunities for them. In the same article, a junior artist mentioned, "When we go for auditions, we are treated like outcasts while the foreign girls are always treated nicely. Why? Because we still have not gotten over our fascination."18 By reading this statement, one can quickly realize the hypocrisy of a nation's media industry when a person is treated as an outcast in their own country and their own industry. Let us talk about the song "Desi Girl", in this song, Priyanka Chopra was the lead actress who herself is an Indian but her back row dancers were foreign girls instead of Indian girls. Apparently, they were planning to talk about the desi girl but did not even hire some desi girls as the back row dancers. According to newdelhitimes.com, it was a very embarrassing moment when India's most significant entertainment industry treated its own people as "third world citizens" while giving opportunities to foreign girls.19 In this way, some Bollywood media portrayals are decreasing opportunities for the local people, at the same time, are creating opportunities for the foreign people and showing their hypocrite face to the world. It can be observed that in almost every Bollywood song and movie today, foreign people are acting along with the Indian actors. However, there was also a time when foreigners were only hired when a foreign role needed to be played by a white person or of a related ethnicity. However, since the last decade, the trend has changed. In songs, there are fewer Indian actors and more foreign co-actors. This is all due to the racist approach by some of the Bollywood media directors because they want to please the public by showing them white faces. Looking at this, foreign or white girls come to India on a tourist visa and get the roles quickly while the opportunities for the Indian talent decrease at the same time.20 Since the opportunities for Indian people decrease this way, people tend to finish their lives. According to indiatoday.in, more than 90,000 young adults committed suicide in 2019 in India.21 Out of these, most of these adults could have received the opportunity to work as a co-actor or a co-dancer in a movie or a song. However, due to the thirst for fame and more money, directors hired foreign people for the same roles, which decreased opportunities for the local people of less fair color, and resultantly most of these people took their lives. Hence, this is another reason how racism in some of the Bollywood media portrayals is problematic. The solution for this problem aligns with the solution proposed for the previous problem, i.e. educating the public, creating more opportunities for the raw talent, and letting the world know about the approaches to end racism. By doing this suicide rate can also be decreased, hence making a successful and thriving industry.
Furthermore, in some of the Bollywood media portrayals, brown or black people are hired in subordinate roles, or even people of fair color are portrayed as brown, which is meant to discomfort them. This practice has been a part of the U.S. film culture since the 19th century when the white performers would darken their faces with makeup to portray black people, and it was a time when the black people were barred from the industry. Similar practices were observed in the UK.22 Some of the Bollywood media portrayals have also followed the footsteps of the U.S. and U.K. For example, a movie named "Bala" was released in 2019, in which Bhumi Pednekar played the role of the lead actress. In real life, the actress has a pretty fair complexion. However, in the movie, she was represented as a brown woman who suffered discrimination based on her skin tone. Why is such content being shown to the public where there is discrimination based on skin color. Indian movie writers know that majority of the public follows what is being shown on the big screen. Still, they portray such disturbing content, which can be discomforting for the people. In addition to this, people took it to Twitter and criticized the movie's cast by mentioning that "there are many other actresses with naturally dark skin tone who could play the same role. Moreover, people in Bollywood still do not understand that artificially brown color is offensive."23 Another person tweeted, and it is much related to this topic. The person mentioned that "Bollywood is trying to cast a fair skin woman to represent a darker one, and the makeup is bad too."24 It is very accurate that naturally dark-toned people are wonderful, and this role of Bhumi could have been played by a darker actress who has not created a sense of discomfort among the dark-toned people. It is high time for most of the Bollywood media portrayals to work on this issue and understand how discomforting it is for brown people. Moreover, the movie could have portrayed Bhumi Pednekar in her actual skin tone and raised an issue other than skin color or could have hired a dark toned actress to play the same role. Let us take another example. In the movie "Chandni Chowk to China," Deepika Padukone's eyes were tapped so that she could look like a Chinese woman. According to mumbaimirror.indiatimes.com, Deepika said: "My doctors said if I stick those tapes on my eyes for 12 hours a day, the shape of my eyes would change forever."25 The actress was also in discomfort, but the producers, instead of hiring a Chinese actress, stuck to an Indian one and again gave the message of racism to the world. This could also have created a sense of discomfort among the people of Chinese origin living in India or maybe in the world. Let us discuss another example. In the movie "All the best: Fun begins", Bipasha Basu was given a darker role to act as princess of Lushoto, a town in Tanzania. This part of the movie also caused discomfort to the people of Tanzania; the producers could have hired some from the same ethnicity to play the role of the princess, which could have been less offensive. There are many more instances in Bollywood media history when people were given roles of opposite ethnicity and caused discomfort to the people of that ethnicity. From Foucault and Hall's work on representation, Bollywood authorities are presenting unreal beauty standards through power using societal organizations which benefits their businesses.30 Michael Foucault's work of representation31 can also be applied here, and discourse, power, and knowledge can be used to better the industry. For example, through discourse, some of the racist Bollywood media portrayals, which are problematic, can be resolved. Better messages could be conveyed to the public via movies instead of providing discomfort to them by focusing on the racist elements. Many Bollywood media producers need to work on representation based on their power. So instead of promoting racism by discomforting people who do not have a fair skin complexion, they can send a message of love to the world. Through their power, they represent everyone equally irrespective of their race, hence helping them stay away from discomfort. Lastly, Foucault's work of representation32 through knowledge can also help eradicate the racism from the media industry by giving the industry a hold of knowledgeable people so that they can work better to represent themselves. Hence, this point also proves how racism in Bollywood media portrayals is problematic and needs to be fixed so that discomfort among people can be finished.
However, people in favor of such problematic and racist Bollywood media portrayals argue that these portrayals at least provide them with joyful or interesting content. For example, the movie "Super 30", which starred Hrithik Roshan as the lead actor, presented him as a brown-faced guy. According to IMDb, the movie received a rating of 8.0/10.0.26 Moreover, 95% of Google users liked the movie. This means that out of the 23,000 people who voted for this movie, almost 18,500 people liked the movie. A lot of other problematic songs received excellent ratings. The plot of the movie is excellent too. At the same time, if one looks at the comments of the problematic Bollywood songs or movies on You tube, most of the people will be found praising the actress or the performance because they do not see the problem. In addition to this, people also claim that whatever is going on in the background, the movies are contributing to the economy of the country. According to IMDb, the same movie (Super 30) made $24,701,637 gross worldwide.27 Similarly, a lot of other problematic movies make vast amounts of money. No doubt that these movies make much money which contributes to the economy of the nation. Moreover, some people claim that brown people are hired for more publicity of the media product, which in turn increases the sales of the product and such people seem to have no problem with racist elements of some of the Bollywood media portrayals. One of the significant examples is "Fair and Lovely." This is why most people do not have any problem with racist media portrayals. According to the proponent, alternatives must be used in order to counter some of these racist media portrayals. One alternative is that there must be the inclusion of brown or darker people of color in the media portrayals as normal human beings or even as main actors. This is the same style, which is adopted by several Hollywood media products, e.g., "The pursuit of happiness," "MIB," "Bad Boys," "I Am Legend, " and several others. These movies have a black actor named Will Smith, and media houses have no issues with hiring people other than white in order to make the movie or media product a success. Most interestingly, these Hollywood movies trend on top charts and websites. So, in order to make a movie an ultimate success, no fair person of color is required who will take the movie to the top line. The thing which is required is a tremendous and exciting storyline and talented actors. Moreover, Bollywood can decrease labor costs by hiring local people instead of foreigners. In this way, more opportunities will be created for the people to work as backup dancers or actors. Along with this, when the labor costs will be decreased, the profits could be increased, proving the point of opposition wrong. When these changes take place in Bollywood media, the marks of the post-colonialism era will be faded, and people will be praised as they are. Most importantly, the following statement by a sociologist, Sanjay Srivastava, about the hiring of fair people in movies will be negated: "It predates colonialism and is certainly linked to caste."28 So, the only way for the Bollywood media industry to boost is to remove racist elements from it and create equal opportunities for everyone solely based on talent and irrespective of race and color.
Hence, it has been argued that how racism in some of the Bollywood media portrayals is problematic, and it needs to be stopped because people of dark skin are going through low self-esteem issues with mental health problems. Moreover, racism in some Bollywood media portrayals has reduced the opportunities for the country's own people by recruiting foreign co-actors because of their fair skin tones and rarity, and this is also a representation of how racism is problematic and needs to be fixed. Furthermore, people with darker skin colors feel a sense of discomfort when fair-colored actors are hired for dark skinned characters, which again portrays how racism in some Bollywood media portrayals is problematic. However, the opposition claims that at least these media portrayals provide them with joyful and exciting content. The opposition also claims that these Bollywood media portrayals also contribute to the economy of the nation, which helps the industry to boost. However, the opposition fails to justify its claims because there are a lot of alternatives available which can help people of darker color or different ethnicity to work in the industry. These alternatives will also solve the problems of low self-esteem and mental health, more opportunities will be created for them, and no one will feel discomforted by the acts of racism. As a result, based on the arguments and facts presented, one can readily infer that racism in various Bollywood media depictions is harmful and must be addressed as soon as possible.
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1- Paradies Y, Ben J, Denson N, Elias A, Priest N, Pieterse A, et al. (2015) Racism as a Determinant of Health: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. PLoS ONE 10(9): e0138511. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0138511
2- Sturm, R. A. (2006). "A golden age of human pigmentation genetics". Trends in Genetics. 22 (9): 464–469. doi:10.1016/j.tig.2006.06.010
4- Subadra Panchanadeswaran & Beverly Araujo Dawson PhD (2011) How Discrimination and Stress Affects Self-Esteem Among Dominican Immigrant Women: An Exploratory Study, Social Work in Public Health, 26:1, 60-77, DOI: 10.1080/10911350903341069
5- Subadra Panchanadeswaran & Beverly Araujo Dawson PhD (2011) How Discrimination and Stress Affects Self-Esteem Among Dominican Immigrant Women: An Exploratory Study, Social Work in Public Health, 26:1, 60-77, DOI: 10.1080/10911350903341069
29- Heroes or Villains; and stereotyping as a signifying practice (course reading)
30- Hall, Stuart, ed. Representation: Cultural representations and signifying practices. Thousand oaks, CA: SAGE, 1997 (course reading)