The Elephant In Yash Chopra’s Casting Office

The Indian film industry influences the beliefs and direction of its society in a way no other film industry affects its people. Sure there are thongs of fans awaiting celebrities at every red carpet event in the US but the relationship between Indian cinema goers and indian actors is closer to worship than mere fandom. When a popular south Indian movie star by the name of Rajinikanth came on the scene 40 years ago with his over the top stunts that defied all the laws of physics, catchphrases and unique style of comedy, people were enthralled. He has since made 150 films, all of which run for months in theatres. And his effect on people is as powerful and manic as it was forty years ago, as he continues to sell out theatres today. In fact hundeds of temples have been made for the purpose of worshipping Rajinikanth, for he is literally seen as a God. With this sort of intense and loyal public, it is safe to say Bollywood runs india.
And with that, the travesty that is the socio-political climate of Indian Cinema is as ongoing and far-reaching an issue as the rest of India’s social issues (castes, dowry, etc) that it are impossible to narrow down into a concise thesis statement. However I will still try. There are some cancerous, deepseated and completely untouched problems in Bollywood; 1) the internalized racism and widespread misoginy of Indians resulting in the importing of actresses from foreign countries to play brownface and 2) the rampant nepotism of actors, directors and producers who prevent any unknown talented actors from working their way into the untouchable monarchy that is Bollywood. And the mother of all of these issues is that no one in the industry seems to recognize that there even is a problem. The latter is a much scarier thought.
To be fair, the internalized racism thing was a problem in the 90s way before the introduction of Katrina Kaif and her seemingly never-ending list of clones (Zareen Khan, Nargis Fakhri, you know the type). The notion that lighter skintones are more desirable for women have existed for centuries in India and probably got even worse with the reign of the British Raj. In 1994, the famous deleted opening scene of Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge starts with Kajol’s mother lamenting about her daughter’s dusky skin because she fears for her marriage prospects as a result. And the nuptual rituals of rubbing turmeric and milk all over the bride prior to her wedding day to brighten her skintone go back to the Mughal era. Perhaps it was inevitable that the familiar indian heroine archetype has always remained the same since its advent in the 40s: fairskinned to the point of being mistaken for a caucasian woman, black hair, full lips and an innate desire to exist solely for the purpose of moving the hero’s plotline forward. While there is nothing wrong with a fair-skinned indian woman (a very small percentage of indians are naturally fair skinned), there is something unusual about the complete lack of actresses with dark complexions in Bollywood; a disgusting racist trend that has persisted since the inception of the film industry. Even more, there is some blatant misogyny to go along with the aforementioned phenomenon; they almost never apply to men. For instance in the last ten or so years that Bollywood has been recruiting and training foreign white women to pretend to be Indian, they have never ONCE brought in foreign men. And although every single Bollywood lead woman has been very fair-skinned, only some male leads have been fair-skinned, while the rest have other skintones prevalent in India. The message reads loud and clear: White women are better at portraying indian women than indian women, AND indian men are perfect the way they are. Summed up even further; Indian women are not good enough.
So not only do you have manic pixie dream girls that dont look or behave anything like the average Indian woman, but you have men (hrithik roshan types barred) who more or less look like your average Indian man. (and sometimes not even very handsome; ajay devgan, sunil shetty , SANJAY DUTT FOR GODS SAKES. Give me one indian lead actress that is equal in unattractiveness to Sanjay Dutt and I’ll gladly revoke my argument.) So now you have the fleet of uncharacteristically fair-skinned actresses, in recent times not even Indian (genetically or nationality-wise), who cannot speak the native language, whose characters rarely pass the bechdel test, and still, the list of problems continues. These “actresses” are rarely even really actresses by merit. The majority of these girls, who by the way are exclusively filling lead heroine roles so they start at the top while indian film graduates start of as extras, are models. Models who have no prior acting experience and I repeat, literally do not speak Hindi while working in an industry that makes Hindi language films. Moreover, tens of thousands of dollars are spent on their acting lessons, hindi lessons and on making them look Indian. (I seriously doubt Katrina Kaif was born with jet black hair or that indian accent despite growing up in London). Even more money is spent on hiring voice actresses to dub their lines when the Hindi inevitably comes out botched. This part is what really makes my blood boil because this is literally asking real Indian women with real talent to hide behind the screen and act while white women in brownface are who the audience sees and who get all the credit. Here’s a suggestion. How about hiring literally the tens of thousands of actors churned out by India’s film schools each year who have become actors based on merit and not family name or the color of their skin. it seems like such a basic lesson everyone learned in kindergarten. And indians individually are not archaic in their approach to race issues, at least everyone who is educated knows never to judge or promote anyone based solely on the color of their skin. So why as a society do we continue to fund billion dollar skin lightening industries such as Fair And Lovely and watch movies we barely relate to acted out by women who arent even from our country?

One would think seemingly revolutionary and intelligent actor/directors such as Aamir Khan would pick up on this phenomenon and include a diverse cast in his movies. After all he is extremely selective about the scripts he chooses, doing only one movie every 4 or so years. The movies he does get involved with always seem to have a very obvious moralistic message, so he is not one to shy away from teaching the country a lesson when it needs one. Khan even has his own talkshow called “Satyamev Jayate” that exists to highlight our beautiful culture while honoring those who have faced social adversity and come out the other end. And when he does get involved in politics, cinema related or otherwise, Khan always seems to come out on the “woke” side of things, defending issues with a thought process that seems like it would be in line with stomping out India’s rampant internalized racism and misoginy. However in every one of these movies, the same whitewashed archetype of actors and actresses is used and no progress is made. In his most recent groundbreaking moralistic film PK, the ultimate message of the movie was to treat all people fairly and equally regardless of their religion. So why and how on earth could this message not cross over to race and the color of one’s skin? It seems like a natural transition; treat everyone the same regardless of religion, race, SKIN COLOR. However in many of his films, he is the main character around which the story revolves, and the heroine is another plot device (Kareena Kapoor, Anushka Sharma, Katrina Kaif, etc) who looks nothing like the average indian woman and whose character only exists to serve Aamir Khan’s.
The worst part of all of these issues is they are not at all recognized in India and there is no dialogue happening among the population. Rather, all of the bollywood news outlets and journalists focus on very superficial issues limited to either the promotion of a film or tabloid-worthy details of the actors’ lives. When it does get serious at all, the only topic the indian media and members of bollywood talk about is the craft of acting. Keep in mind, the people talking about this sacred, meticulous “craft of acting” are either products of nepotism who never audition for anything or white foreign models who can’t speak Hindi. It is ridiculous to watch Karan Johar and established female journalists like Anupama Chopra talk at length about the process of acting in such a high minded and technical manner and apply none of those skills to the real issues: the rights and representation of india and indians through cinema. It is an utter waste for indian media to not use their platform to ask the leaders of bollywood these crucial questions. The solution to this problem begins by shifting the paradigm of indian media and creating a space where talking about these issues is not viewed as a ratings-killer but is something that gets the indian audience even more engaged with Bollywood. In fact, the solution is the Indian audience. We vote with our movie tickets and our views and we should not give either of those away to films that do not represent our stories or our people. All we have is our unique reaction to our Heroes and Heroines. And in Bollywood, that’s all you need to make a change.

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