Internal Racism within Indian Culture: From Bollywood to UW

“Racism is prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one's own race is superior”

Last Saturday, on November 9, I went to go watch a new Bollywood movie that had just released called Bala. The comedy is about a 25 year old man who is dealing with premature balding, but there is a deeper and more profound critique throughout the film of skin-lightening beauty products, and the discrimination of Indian women with dark skin. The film did a lovely job addressing the hypocrisy of internal racism within India, even calling out entertainment for casting only fair actors and actresses to play lead roles.

I thought this was a breakthrough—I thought the movie was meh but the message was powerful. That was until I went home and found out that the actress they had casted to play one of the main characters - a divorce lawyer who advocated for self love and the demolition of beauty standards—was in brownface

That’s right. This actress, Bhumi Pednekar, who in real life perfectly fits the Bollywood stereotype of fairness, was bathed in dark foundation to play a darker skinned character. To this day I am still fuming.

And I’m not the only one; Twitter users spoke up, calling out the hypocrisy of the film and scolding the Bollywood industry for their exclusive casting of fair-skinned actors and actresses with full awareness of how diverse India really is.

“So bollywood is trying to make a statement about India's obsession with fair skin by casting a fair skin woman to play a darker one?” - Ekta Chauhan @ekta2993

“If only there were any actors in this country with darker skin...if only #BrownFace #Bala” - Karnika @KarnikaKohli

This isn’t the first time the film industry has done this. There is an exclusivity in casting, and it is constantly critiqued by members of the Indian community but never changed. Filmmakers have the audacity to continue changing fair cast members to look darker, rather than expanding their reach and casting actual dark-skinned Indian actors. 

This is the 21st Century; it is not okay to play the diversity “brown” card and then turn around and discriminate against the darker-skinned members of one’s own community.

So what does this have to do with UW?

I was talking to a friend about this issue, and what followed was a profound conversation about the internal racism in the Indian community, even here at University. North Indian culture is considered highly mainstream, because of the domination in film and entertainment. It’s changed an entire generation, and the continued casting of fair-skinned cast members fuels a feeling of misrepresentation within the Indian community. Many things diverting from this “mainstream” culture are considered somewhat “less”, both in India and abroad. Both myself and my friend are South Indian, and we realized we’ve endured this very subtle treatment since our childhood. While here, it isn’t necessarily on the basis of skin color, we have been treated like less for the languages we speak, the films we watch, even the traditions we celebrate at home.

Unfortunately, that hasn’t changed much for either of us since coming to the University of Washington. I asked other students in the Indian community of the Greater Seattle Area if they observed any similar judgements, and here’s what people had to say:

  • “So many times I’ve been hit with that ‘You don’t speak Hindi? How can you be Indian and not speak Hindi?’ as if there aren’t over a hundred other native Indian languages for me to grow up with. People will start speaking Hindi with each other in front of me, with full knowledge that I speak Telugu, and give no care to the fact that I can’t understand what they are saying. They think it makes them cool.”

  • “I’m South Indian, and I understand that Bollywood songs and films are more popular. But to have members of my community blatantly and openly insult Telugu and Tamil films and music is painful to sit through. I feel like most of us don’t speak up about it because there’s no point, but these are beloved parts of my childhood that I hold very dear”

  • “I’m Christian, but that doesn’t make me less Indian. I feel like members of the South Asian community hear my first name and their perception of me changes completely. I still have a deep love for the language, the clothes, the food, and the music - I just follow a different faith than India is normally associated with”

  • “There’s this boy in my grade, and he’s dark-skinned so he constantly gets picked on by other Indian kids for being ‘black’. Anything ranging from ‘dude we can’t see you in the picture’ to even giving him a ‘black’ name. It’s sad to see that colorism still remains so pervasive, especially among younger generations.”

One would think political awareness, growing up in the US, and interacting with a diverse range of people is enough to change things for our generation. I hope that bringing attention to the problem is enough to change the culture, because while there is rarely malice in someone’s heart during one of the interactions above, there are still amends to be made.