I’m a movie lover. Black-and-white comedies, action thrillers, and even historical documentaries excite me. During my summers in India, a hot sluggish weeknight is often the perfect excuse for my cousins to skip homework and take their American-born cousin to the air-conditioned movie theater downtown. Bollywood as well as “Tollywood” or Telugu movies are favorites of mine, not simply owing to my Indian heritage but because of certain aspects that distinguish them from most Western films. The blending of genres, broad appeal and catchy song-and-dance numbers all add to the high entertainment value and uniqueness of Indian film. However, one underlying part of the cinema industry in India is bothersome to me: the role of the heroine. Women in India are generally regarded with a level of respect, but the portrayal of women in Indian film or media is a scheme of exclusivity, frequently holding actresses to an unnatural standard of beauty and limiting those who do not fit the criteria.
Looking in the mirror, I see myself as a young girl with dark brown eyes, black hair and medium brown skin, the seemingly typical characteristics of any Indian girl my age. Long afternoon practices for spring track and field and hours spent in the outdoor swimming pool caused my skin to darken around my sophomore of high school from a light tan to a dark shade of brown. While in America, I completely overlooked this difference in skin tone. If anything, getting a good tan was a positive change, one that indicated I was receiving a healthy dose of sunshine. After all, many women strive to achieve similar tans by spending hundreds of dollars on artificial methods such as cosmetic products and tanning beds.
My trip to India (the summer before my junior year of high school) altered my perception of dark skin forever. When my family and I arrived at the Rajiv Gandhi International Airport in Hyderabad, my grandparents and relatives were all there to greet us after four years of being apart. My grandmother held me by my shoulders and scrutinized my face. Instead of commenting as she usually did about my height or how skinny I was, she said, “You got so dark!” Her face twisted to form a grimace as she nodded at my mother disapprovingly. My mother then proceeded to explain to her why I had become so dark as though she was pleading guilty to a crime before a judge in court. “We need to fix that,” my aunt remarked. By “that,” she meant my skin color; how she planned on “fixing” it, I was about to find out.
Since my cousins had school during the day while I was in India, I often watched television or, unsurprisingly, movies to keep myself busy. Ever since my grandmother pointed out my darker skin tone, I began to notice a peculiarity in Indian movies and television that I had never noticed before. In the past, I used to admire and ogle at the graceful moves and sweet smiles of Indian heroines. Their fiery characters and practiced confidence was a source of inspiration for me. When I began to notice that every single actress that played a leading role in my favorite Indian films was oddly pale-skinned, I suddenly felt disconnected. The heroines I saw on the big screen looked nothing like me or any other Indian girl I knew personally.
In the famous Hindi movie, Main Hoon Na, the hero, played by actor Shahrukh Khan, sings to the heroine, played by Sushmita Sen, and extolls her as a “gori gori,” which translates to “fair maiden” and is synonymous with referring to a woman as “gorgeous” or “beautiful.” Often, song lyrics refer to the heroine as being white as the moon, thereby praising the woman’s fairness. Indeed, the actresses who play the role of the heroine in Indian films often have skin more pale than that of regular Caucasian women. The quintessential Indian actress, Aishwarya Rai not only has light skin but also has brown hair and green-blue eyes, physical traits that are certainly not normally attributed to people of Indian origin. During song-and-dance numbers within a movie, a light-skinned heroine is often shown dancing up front and center while all the dancers in the background are of a darker skin tone, making the contrast even greater and sending a strong message of what is valued by the cinema industry.
For a long time, I was unable to grasp the reason behind the habitual dominance of light-skinned actresses in this modern age. It seemed as though aspects of colonialism or overarching concepts of the caste system were still lingering, yet to be fully expunged from Indian society. Nonetheless, the effects of this corporal distinction between light and dark, propagated by the media, are extensive. Nearly every Indian woman, not just those in my family, are trying to make themselves more “fair” by utilizing everything from Fair & Lovely creams to expensive and hazardous skin treatments. As ridiculous as it may seem, fairness is very important to the future and status of an Indian woman and even has an influence on whether or not she will eventually be able to marry someone of a particular social or economic class.
Indian families commonly use traditional beauty secrets for fairness that are passed down from generation to generation. To my own surprise, these simple home remedies, imparted to me by my grandmother, actually worked. Restoring the skin to its former lighter color requires weeks of treatment and plenty of diligence, but I learned that the transformation is in fact possible. Several techniques include forcefully scrubbing the body with a mixture of besan, or gram flour, lemon juice and yogurt, consuming abnormal amounts of pomegranate seeds and massaging the skin with oil. After being pressured to attempt some of these beauty routines, I found that my skin had indeed become lighter after a period of just one month. Still, fair skin is not particularly conducive or maintainable in a setting as hot and sweltering as the sunbathed streets of South India. A single afternoon playing cricket on the rooftop terrace led the melanin in my epidermis to kick in once more, immediately darkening my skin.
Although I do not deny the beauty of fair-skinned women, I am not fond of the obvious preference by Indian directors and the media to choose lighter skinned women, ignoring the fact that most of these women are not truly representative of the average brown-skinned Indian woman. Many actresses like the popular Katrina Kaif, who was born to an English mother and remains a British citizen, are not even fully Indian. As a result, Indian women are pressured to fit models that are fundamentally unattainable. In truth, the directors and producers who pick these actresses just cater to the tastes of the people and so the disfavor for darker skin can be categorized as a type of social stigma. Although I wish this color bias in film would go away, I realize that the prejudice is deeply rooted in Indian society and the power to change must come from a more open-minded and accepting younger generation that is unafraid to challenge the preconceived notions in place.
Thanks to the hard work of my grandmother and aunts, I was several shades lighter in skin color when my family and I returned home. For weeks, I continued to obsess over my skin color, trying to preserve my lighter skin tone. But while watching television here in America, I found no signs of this cultural bias towards fair skin. In its place, I saw commercials for tanning lotions advertised as healthy moisturizers that promote a “sun-kissed” look. Faced with mixed societal messages, I realized that I would never feel beautiful as long as I conformed to antiquated ideals of beauty under the gaze of society. In my frustration, I learned that feeling beautiful comes from embracing and appreciating the skin tone that nature has given me. It is a shame that most of the pressure on young girls to change something so fundamental to who they are, the color of their skin, comes from within their own families. We must empower young woman to dismiss these messages, as I did, and wear their skin with pride.