Unfair! Does 'dark is beautiful' discriminate against the lighter-skinned?
If the idea is "beauty beyond colour", why does the campaign emphasise that "dark is beautiful"? This is a contradiction, and it happens when there is an overarching need to protest without any thought given to the subtext.
It propagates the beauty myth. But, what if dark is not beautiful? Will the acceptance be any less, if the purpose is to stand up against 'colourism'?
The face of the campaign is actress Nandita Das, an attractive woman. She can afford to say things like, "Don't add an adjective to make me feel different", when people refer to her as dusky.
This is most ridiculous. Adjectives are used to describe several aspects of a person, whether physical, or for emotive and intellectual qualities. Would she have a problem being referred to as an "intelligent actress", which seems to posit her against the unintelligent? Isn't she aware of the slanderous comments about bimbos, not to speak about dumb blondes?
Why does an adjective make her feel different when there are many women who don't analyse this?
Some of her other quotes from an interview to Mumbai Mirror are rather telling.
"Actresses who are wonderful at their work, but look unconventional, have struggled to make it. Men who are not conventionally good looking, had to try hard as well, but they still managed to be the hero in films. Do we want actors or lookers?"
She forgets the number of conventionally pretty women who are rejected every day in the film industry. The ones who make it have had to struggle, too. She is reducing the debate to Us vs. Them and in fact denigrating the achievements of those who are not dark, only to hold up a pennant for the "unfair" cause, a sad term considering it uses the benchmark of fair to find its feet.
Nandita quotes the example of Smita Patil, who apparently faced discrimination: "If you look at her more mainstream films and the independent art films, you will notice a difference in her skin colour."
Yes, but how many people remember her performance in 'Namak Halal' as opposed to those who recall her in 'Aakrosh', 'Manthan', 'Bhumika', 'Umbartha'?
In fact, let us take the example of 'Arth'. The more light-skinned Shabana Azmi played the wife of a man who strays into the arms of Smita. Director Mahesh Bhatt did not 'discolour' her, and his protagonist obviously found her attractive. She also happened to be vulnerable. Someone might say that a darker woman was used to highlight the jagged edges of the persona. In that case, most vamps in films have been fair. Wasn't Helen the perennial cabaret dancer? Was this colour discrimination?
The actress makes another blanket assertion:
"Whenever I have to play a middle-class or upper middle class woman, I am told: 'I know you don't like being white or fair but can you make your skin a little lighter? The rural, lower class women are dark but now that you playing an educated professional....' Do all educated people have to be fair complexioned?"
I am glad that this campaign has made her come out and give us the dope on the industry, where she was never mainstream — evidently out of choice. We do have the fairly recent example of Konkona Sen Sharma cast opposite Ranbir Kapoor in 'Wake Up Sid', and in the film both were unconventional in different ways. Nobody cared about or even noticed their colour.
Two songs from older Hindi films exemplify this attitude:
"Gore rang pe na itna gumaan kar, gora rang do din mein dhal jaayega" (Be not so arrogant about your fairness, for the colour shall fade soon) as against "Hum kaale hai tau kya hua dilwaale hai..." (I may be dark, but have a large heart). Which of these should be seen as conveying anything negative? In the first, the fair woman is assumed to be arrogant because of her colour and is told that this won't last. In the second, a man woos a woman by telling her that his heart is large, and presumably better than others, despite his colour.
Wooing people or consumers means prompting them about your qualities. It could imply using a flipside argument.
Nandita Das should ask herself why she is the face of the campaign, and not other educated women who work in either unconventional or non-visible professions. The reason seems quite obvious. The 'Dark is beautiful' movement is as much about stereotypes and eyeball-grabbing as what its proponents are fighting against.
You might say this is the only way to counter media-created images, mainly regarding the marketing of beauty products. Take them on at their own game with the slogan 'Stay Unfair, Stay Beautiful'.
Instead of dealing with biases, they have latched on to a prominent ad featuring Shahrukh Khan. They've initiated a petition against the manufacturers of 'Fair and Handsome' cream. Their problem with the ad is this:
“...the actor tosses a tube of fairness cream to a young fan. In the next scene, the boy’s skin grows whiter, his smile brightens and his hopes rise. The message: Fair skin is a prerequisite for success."
Had this ad been for an acne-reducing cream, what do you think the message would be? The same. Does anybody want to sign a petition to fight those discriminating against people with acne? I can only hope that Nandita Das' commitment to the cause would make her refuse a film with Shahrukh Khan because he is endorsing the cream.
If culturally there is an obsession with lighter colour, then it is not merely advertisements or cinema that are to blame. In India, at least, darker skinned people too are attracted to the fair and, even though not as common, there are some who find the dusky woman or the bronzed man alluring.
I am most certainly put off by this campaign. It does not mean that I ignore that fairness is a valued quality with a premium attached to it. But, how much pressure is there really? I see it most in ads or when people from the glamour industry complain. Therefore, it is a cosmetic demand.
The 'DisB' people ask:
"Why this colourism? India is a nation made up of people with different shades and colours of skin - from yellow to light brown and darker shades of brown. Why not celebrate every shade?"
What is there to celebrate? Remember the Benetton ad that 'celebrated' models from different races? It just wanted to corner every darned market. If you make a noise about it, be sure there will be products that will cater to "unfair" skin. This is just giving an opportunity to the manufacturers by creating and forcing another demand.
And when you argue for one, you unintentionally demote the other. There are several traits or types we like. Does being attracted to tall people amount to discrimination against the short? I don't see why we need to be politically correct, which is really patronising.
Then, we have the 'fat is beautiful' idea that could completely ignore the real issue about the damaging effect of obesity, just as the trendy thin could be the result of anorexia.
And let us not even bring in the race issue here. We are not brown at home. Outside, we discriminate just as much, and it also means being obsequious towards the white. From personal experience, I know a few from our part of the world who, for example, are curious about what they assume to be my lifestyle based on how I express myself. They do not use the same standard to judge a person, especially a woman, from the West. Her openness is seen as 'normal', mine an aberration.
Their viewfinder can see only black and white concepts. And these are not colours, but the numbness that saturates all shades even as they jubilate in their rainbow affectations.
© Farzana Versey