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Brownface is a practice that emerged when some filmmakers wondered why they couldn’t just light their white actresses to play certain Indian characters (usually roles that required pivotal dancing skills). The practice was lampooned in the popular Hollywood short film, “A Chorus of Disapproval.” When Bollywood actors paint themselves brown for roles that are supposed to be South Asian, or when they black up their faces to play Africans, they perpetuate troubling stereotypes. This essay analyzes the reasons why brownface is so common in Bollywood, discussing the way it reflects Indian society’s attitudes toward race and color. It also considers how India might change in the future — that relationships between people of different colors might be more positive, and that such changes could lead to fewer instances of brownface in Indian cinema.
The dark skin tone is associated with lower socio-economic class and thus it is somehow seen as uncouth or barbaric. While there are exceptions in the film industries of other countries, brown-face is a widely accepted practice in India. Therefore, it’s amazing that we Indians have been proponents of the very same western standards that promote white skin over dark on our own people. The practice of fair skin is considered the most desirable trait to have is prevalent in India. It is very common to find skin-lightening products for sale in India. Many products are marketed on the basis that they will magically provide lighter skin, something which is desperately sought after.
The ubiquity of brown faces in Bollywood might be new, but the practice is consistent with a long historical trend wherein white actors black up when playing roles historically occupied by Indians. (The term “brownface” is used to describe indigenous people of color.) This is purely a cosmetic effort that requires white actors to look like non-white actors without requiring society to change its view of what non-white looks like. Indians have a fetish for fair skin. The kind of code words used to describe actresses like “suntanned”, “dark-skinned”, “dusky” and so on underline this preoccupation with fairness. The use of brownface, and yellowface, in Hindi films have been a contentious issue for decades. Despite the Indian cinema industry’s expressed admiration for fair skin, Bollywood continues to insist on casting actors with dark skin in less important roles or as antagonists.
No industry in India has been a great proponent of using brownface than Bollywood. You’ll find actors from not just the South but even North India donning make-up to act as south Indians. And that isn’t just for acting, it is often a reality in real life too. The other part of this is watching films where only affluent south Indian women are shown as being beautiful. This overrides the fact that beauty is diverse and everyone has their own definition of beauty. Representation is extremely important in society and cinema. The way women are displayed affects how they see themselves, and their self-confidence.