Image:
@samantharuthprabhuoffl via Instagram

The problematic saga of brown face, colourism and casteism In Bollywood and Indian TV shows

By:
Roshni Rakshit (IG: @roshni_rakshit)

 It is very rare for the second season of a successful show to exceed its predecessor’s reputation and become a phenomenon within itself, but the second season of Amazon Prime’s The Family Man has done just that. 

A tight, gripping story set against the backdrop of the Sri Lankan Civil War and its rebels, The Family Man season 2 has received praises from audiences and critics alike for its stellar cast and remarkable performances from actors like Manoj Bajpayee, Sharib Hashmi and Samantha Ruth Prabhu. 

However, despite being an excellent watch, and getting a lot right in terms of representation, the show makes the fatal mistake of brown face portrayal and has faced severe criticism because of it.

In the series, Samantha Ruth Prabhu, a well-known actor in the Telugu and Tamil film industries, portrays the role of a Sri Lankan Tamil rebel, Raji. The actor’s skin complexion has been darkened to “get her into her character,” with her skin tone being significantly fairer in real life. 

When the directors Raj and DK were questioned about this, they said:

“The name itself -- brown face -- is hard to hear, even for us, it’s harsh to hear. Black face, we’ve grown up reading about it, seeing it. I get it when race is involved, and you get a white person to play a Black person, or a brown person to play… It’s a different point when you get a Tamil actress to play a Tamil (character). The idea is to get somebody fit for the role. The colour of skin is usually used in the context of beauty. That context is not in our series. She’s a warrior, that’s it. And how do they look? They are weather-beaten, they have sun-tanned faces, they don’t have time to look in the mirror, they don’t have time to go to the spa. The idea is that she’s a girl who’s been living that life, and that’s it. It is the right get-up for that character.” 

But there are multiple problems with this. 

First off, Black face, Brown face, have traumatic histories of their own and they are all problematic. Black face goes back to the 19th century, when white performers would paint their faces black with polish and cork to perform for a white crowd. It was done as an attempt to please the white audience and establish a sense of superiority, while looking down upon and distorting the features, looks, language, dance, deportment and character of African Americans. 

When a person belonging to one race paints their face to represent or portray another race, they are essentially wearing that face as a costume, and Hollywood in the past has faced severe criticism because of it. 

Raj and DK claim they don’t see a problem because they say a Tamil actor’s face was painted dark to portray a Tamil character and the issue of race was erased by doing so. However, the issue of colourism and the history of discrimination against dark-skinned individuals in the South Asian community still remains a problem, and hence Samantha’s skin darkening to fit the character is a matter of concern. 

The South Asian community is particularly extremely prejudiced and discriminatory towards individuals having a dark skin complexion. They are shunned for their skin colour and the South Asian conception of beauty only considers fair skin colour as beautiful. 

The wide market in India for fairness creams that claim to lighten up one’s skin tone is a testament to that. India’s attitude towards fair skin predates colonialism and is heavily related to caste, whereby fair skin is a sign of belonging to the upper caste, and dark skin is symbolic of the lower caste that is looked down upon. 

The effect of British colonialism added to the problem, because white skin was seen as superior. In her article about brown face in Bollywood, writer Monica Sarkar states: “The 'closer' you were to a white progenitor, the higher up in the hierarchy of race.” There is an intense history of brutality that the system of casteism and colonialism had inflicted on India, and dark-skinned individuals have historically been on the receiving end of it. 

The character of Raji is shown to be a brave, strong soldier. If the “beauty” of the character wasn’t so important (and it wasn’t), and it was absolutely necessary for the character to be of dark skin colour, why wasn’t a dark skin actor cast to play the character? Why was Samantha Ruth Prabhu, an actor who is fair skinned and considered the epitome of attractiveness in the regional film industries, hired for the role? The answer to that question lies in the South Asian perspective of beauty, where beauty always equals fair skin. 

Despite the directors claiming that it wasn’t about beauty, ultimately, it was about beauty, or rather the South Asian perception of it. 

If we add the angle of South Indian representation in Bollywood and Hindi TV shows, the matter gets even worse. Despite the diversity, South India is always shown as one unit, and heavy stereotypes are placed on South Indian characters in Hindi films and TV shows such as speaking in a distinctive accent, not properly knowing Hindi, limiting their cuisine to Idli, Sambar and Dosa, and of course, portraying all of them as dark-skinned. 

The makers of the Family Man have done an excellent job in not stereotyping South India in their show, and have tackled the representation extremely well. What was the point then, in showing a Sri Lankan Tamil girl as dark-skinned, being  played by an actor with a fair skin tone? This is particularly shocking as both the creators of the show hail from Southern India. 

Various debates from the opposite side have emerged supporting the show and its creators against the Brown face backlash, but given the history of complexion based discrimination in India, painting an actor’s face brown and darker than her original skin tone is a huge problem that can’t be overlooked. Ranveer Singh in Gully Boy, Alia Bhatt in Udta Punjab, Hrithik Roshan in Super 30 and Bhumi Pednekar in Bala, have been cast in dark-skinned roles, and the film industry continues to see no problem with it. 

The short film “Closer”, directed by Anjali Nayar, featuring Seema Hari and music by Khanvict is a brilliantly poignant portrayal of the brutality of colourism and casteism that has plagued South Asian society for centuries and continues to do so. 

Even with some creatives in the diaspora trying to raise awareness about colourism and casteism, the South Asian community and it’s cinema clearly has a long way to go.


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Roshni is a self-proclaimed Comedy Queen who specializes in laughing at her own jokes. Her hobbies include making people smile, watching movies and analysing them, reading books, practicing yoga (occasionally), hogging on well-cooked biryani and scrolling through dog videos and memes on Instagram. Her love for writing stems from her love for art in general, which is fuelled by her background in theatre. Catch on her instagram at @roshni_rakshit daily, where she regularly shares her experience with movies and occasionally offends people with her political sense of humour.

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