IN DELHI, Anu Thomas (name changed), a mother of three children, was horrified when her five-year-old daughter, Meenal, came home from school one day and asked her, "When I grow up, will I have to be a maid?" Meenal's largely upmarket north Indian classmates had told her that day that someone who was her colour must be a streetchild and would grow up to work in someone's house. Thomas knew that there was no one in these children's lives who was dark, who was Meenal's colour and held a position of power. Neither were there figures in popular culture that her curly-haired daughter resembled or could look up to. If you imagined a globalising India would bring Meenal a greater range of rolemodels, you are wrong. Globalisation has only amplified many of the old biases in India, such as the one that values fair skin. It has also created an army of clones.
In our electronic cocoons, increasingly, we each seek and understand reality through the media and not through our windows. Under these conditions, if all our exposure is to People Like Us, our ability to accept difference shrinks, our discomfort with those even marginally different from us increases. As it stands, in our world, those who can join the army of clones feel smug. Those who cannot, feel anxious.
This was easy enough to see in January in a Lucknow mall. While other stores in the mall stand near-deserted, in one clothing store the racks are teetering with the press of journalists, their skins grey from late nights and poor nutrition. In the centre of this mob are a dozen beautiful, young Amazons — the girls shortlisted for the Lucknow round of Miss India 2009. They are all dressed in white t-shirts and jeans. Only a couple are from Lucknow, the others are from nearby Meerut and Kanpur. Shard-sharp laughter and strangely automaton lines in careful English and rattling Hindi can be heard: "I want to rock the world! I am a perfect package of beauty and brains." A journalist asks a stunningly pretty girl what her weaknesses are. She responds with a gesture sweeping up and down her body, "Look at me, can you see any flaws?" It is a remarkable, peacock display of confidence.
The beauty contest is a rare occasion when these girls are allowed, encouraged even, to talk about their bodies to (often hostile) strangers. While they wait for their interviews, their sidelong glances assess each other as competitors in a corporate deal might, with smiles and sharp pleasantries. A couple of hours later, the contest is over. Three girls are picked out of the dozen for the next level of the competition.
One of them is a 19-year-old from Lucknow. Manisha (name changed) is one of the tallest in the group, easily the fairest, her lipstick scarlet on her white face. She bears a striking resemblance to Kareena Kapoor. Later, in her mother's perfectly appointed living room — replete with Jamini Roy prints, — she tells us it is this resemblance that people constantly remarked on which started her on the idea of beauty contests. She shows us pictures of herself, a few years younger and a bit rounder.
Manisha's mother is a surprise. A senior civil servant, she urges us, "Write in your magazine that girls should think of things other than looks. They should think of their careers, of developing their minds." While the affection between mother and daughter seems genuine and deep, Manisha comes off looking bad in comparison to her articulate, intelligent mother. Manisha, that evening, understandably could think of nothing except her first beauty contest. But she also seemed genuinely unable to stop thinking that her skin colour had conferred a special destiny upon her, that she was made for greater things. The opposite of what Meenal felt.
Beauty queens are encouraged to think of themselves as role models so it was easy to ask Manisha what she would do when she was one. What would she advise people who were short or dark? Very seriously she replied, "Not everyone can be beautiful but they should try." Manisha clearly equated short and dark with ugliness. We waited to see if she will qualify this line of thought. She didn't.
Watching Manisha and her fellow contestants one would imagine this is a nation of identically tall, pale women with pin-straight hair. All but one had been startlingly fair. The lone exception, a girl a half-shade darker, had been visibly unhappy, no journalist kneeling at her feet, no camera flashing in her face. She felt herself outside the magic circle, outside where existed the dark, short and hence, ordinary.
Our eyes are naturally tugged towards the beautiful and the grotesque. No political correctness can change that. Trouble is, the media is now training us to look at more and more people as grotesque, fewer as beautiful. This is one of the dangers of the clone wars.
Dr Partho Majumdar, Human Genetics Department, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata says that India has over 100 distinct genetic groups — one of the widest gene pools in the world. From Arunachal Pradesh to Lakshadweep to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands to Himachal Pradesh, Indians look extremely different from each other, our lives are extremely different from each other. But if you were a Martian trying to understand India through popular media you would not see this abundance, and you certainly would not believe Dr Majumdar. A Martian would assume from advertisements that Indians are a nation of tall, fair, Hindu, affluent people who live in cities. A Martian would assume that most Indians are only a hair's breadth away in appearance from white people.
In a political climate that is increasingly intolerant of difference, a world where our selves are shaped by the image, the shiny surfaces of popular culture are important, and not just for the Martian. It is the shiny surface that is creating our understanding of who an Indian is. And it is on the shiny surface that you see the image of the Indian being homogenised. Santosh Desai, media commentator, says, "I think we are seeing two trends. One, a narrowing of the range of appearances towards a templated look. And two, a seemingly opposite trend where all those who look different are set up as deliberately funny or strange. These 'funny' faces are advertising's stock of 'real' people. In effect, this reinforces the template."
Last year America's stated desire for diversity saw its biggest challenge. Would it elect a biracial president? In late 2008, when Barack Obama was in the middle of his campaign, an apocryphal story began to do the rounds. A volunteer canvassing for Obama in western Pennsylvania asks a housewife which candidate she intends to vote for. She yells to her husband to find out. From the interior of the house, he calls back, "We're voting for the nigger!" The housewife turns to the canvasser and calmly repeats her husband's statement. Liberal raconteurs told this story as a hair-raising but amusing one. Obviously, blatant bigots were voting for Obama. But for liberals themselves, Obama's colour and race were unavoidably front and centre.
In India, religious and linguistic identity deeply defines political life. The idea of pretending blindness to identity is absurd. However, Indian popular culture does not reflect our wide differences and is increasingly forcing us to present a uniform formulaic face to the world. And to ourselves. Here are some basic rules to understand who the cloned Indian of popular culture is.
All Indians are north Indian unless proven otherwise
Filmmaker Navdeep Singh once said: "The problem for Bollywood is this. Who is its natural audience? Who speaks Hindi? Nobody does. When I had two minutes of Hindi as it's spoken anywhere in Rajasthan in Manorama Six Feet Under, people complained that it's a dialect they couldn't understand. So we have movies about nowhere for people from nowhere."
While 'place' is arriving at a glacial pace to Bollywood scripts, Desai points out that Hindi cinema's default centre of the world has always lain in fair north India, and old Hindi films were always populated by people called Vicky Arora or Rahul Malhotra.
Of the 28 states and seven union territories of India, the people we see in popular culture are broadly from the Hindi-speaking states. South Indians in advertising land — that fictional universe that dominates our imagination and designs our emotions — speak Brahmin Tamil, bear lavish sandalwood paste marks and speak exclusively in a comic manner. In a country where it is a tired cliché that everyone south of the Vindhyas is Madrasi, large swathes are simply invisible. When did anyone see a character in popular culture from the Andamans or from Lakshadweep? Actor Nandita Das says, "I have met so many Oriyas who don't tell anyone that they are Oriya because they are tired of explaining what that is. They just pretend to be Bengali until I catch some inflection or accent. When I tell them I am from Orissa, they relax. But lots of people don't know about the state, don't know what we speak, what we eat."
Prahlad Kakkar, ad filmmaker, says, "In advertising the standard Indian male is tall, hulking, north Indian and laddoo-faced. There is a strongly conditioned response to that type of appearance as an ideal. So even exceptionally handsome men of another type, such as Danny Dengzongpa or Kelly Dorjee will either have shortlived careers or careers as villains. The Aryan model: the chikna gora (smooth and fair) is the only thing that is considered aspirational. Cricket is maybe the one area from which young men who look different still make it into advertising. Look at MS Dhoni for instance."
Jaideep Sahni's script for Chak De! India was an unprecedented act of courage in Bollywood. His gallant young female hockey players came from states across the country. His hero, a shockingly subdued Shah Rukh, only took to the soapbox to emphasise the need to bury regional squabbles for the sake of the nation.. In movie halls across the country audiences applauded the scene in which the men who harassed Mary and Molly (the players from Manipur and Mizoram) were beaten up by the whole team. But this was Chak De! India's only narrative for Mary and Molly, their eventual acceptance as 'not foreign' by the rest of the team. As for Soi Moi and Rani, the players from Jharkhand, their lines were limited to saying, 'Ho', 'Yes, yes' and 'Happy Diwali' because 'they were from a jungle school'. Love, pride, rivalry, parental expectations — all these possible motivations do not exist for these four characters. It would be interesting to reimagine a Chak De! India where the bulk of the narrative action is not held by girls from Punjab, Haryana, Chandigarh and Maharashtra.
Twenty-four-year-old Sushila Lakra is a real-life hockey player from Ranchi distrct who plays fullback for India. She says she is still waiting to find her people's faces on celluloid screens in India. "We tribal players fail to fit into contemporary ideas of glamour," she says. After a moment, she snaps: "And I don't want to make my skin fair to be considered glamorous and counted as a mainstream Indian." Her teammate Sarita Lakra says her childhood years were spent wondering how the movies could always be about happy and beautiful people. Sarita says, "They made me feel little and nonexistent. They still make me feel little."
All Indians are Hindu unless proven otherwise
Hindi cinema has always had a bit of a tough time with its hearty representation of minorities. Christians are pious, calling out to the Lord as they drink themselves steadily into a stupor, while wearing strange frocks. Parsis, until very recently, always drove large vintage cars, and always appeared in time to save the hitchhiking heroine. But from the time it was part of the nation-building project to its current navel-gazing stage, Hindi cinema's great wrestling match has been with the portrayal of the good/bad Muslim. Few movies have escaped falling into this steely trap, despite hugely influential stars in Bollywood being Muslim.
In advertising, these epic struggles are avoided by neatly avoiding Muslim characters. It is unimaginable that the character who is refreshed by a cup of coffee, buys a new car, insurance or diamond jewellery is anyone other than Rahul Malhotra. He cannot be Rafique, for instance. And this is taken for granted. Subaltern historian MSS Pandian points wryly to the hole you can fall in while trying to portray minorities. "When the government tried to do those national integration ads, it created new problems. How do you show a Muslim? The ads dressed the Muslim man in a fez. But Muslims in India have never worn a fez."
Policing — official, moral and otherwise — depends largely on what looks 'normal'. Nithin Manayath, a college lecturer in Bengaluru, talks of being accosted on the street by the police every time security is tightened. His straggly beard and long, narrow kurta has made him suspect in recent times. Last year, human rights activists and liberal circles were outraged when Muslim boys arrested as suspects for a series of blasts were paraded by the police with the kuffiyeh — Arab headgear — over their faces.
All Indians are fair, except when they don't try
In the last few months, a photoshopped image of Barack Obama in a parodied Fair and Lovely ad became a popular internet meme. The milky white Obama was disorienting. While colour discrimination has been periodically debated in Indian media, the debates are getting quieter. "What about Bipasha? What about Konkona?" comes the quick response if one asks where the dark actors are. Actor Nandita Das says that 30 movies down the line, people still clumsily attempt to compliment her by saying, "I told my niece that she can also do movies. Doesn't matter that she is dark." Das says she has rarely been discussed in an article without a phrase addressing her colour.
Dusky is the word of choice, because dark would be pejorative. (It is similar to the American fashion business calling women curvy when they want to say fat. To have a sense of who has been called curvy lately, look up Jessica Alba.) Das is one of the few women in Bollywood who can actually be called dark. For the most part, any heroine darker than a hospital bed is called dusky. In recent times, Chitrangda Singh, Mugdha Godse, Deepika Padukone, Sonali Kulkarni have all been called dusky by the media, in gushing self-congratulatory appreciation of the sultry beauties 'breaking conventions.' A comparison to Smita Patil is also inevitable in most cases. If these pale girls are set up as the dark outsiders, where does it leave a young Indian girl whose inky black skin is a real and vital part of her, not a disease to be cured? She has no chance in the movies.
Baradwaj Rangan, film critic for the New Indian Express, points out, "Actors like Seema Biswas are always on the fringes simply because of their colouring. I am not saying that when I go to see a big Karan Johar film I want to see ordinary looking people. Bring on the beautiful people! But in movies where there is no such requirement, can't we have ordinary people? That Prachi Desai who plays Farhan Akthar's wife in Rock On!! — it is assumed that someone who looks like her would live in a penthouse. All fair people are rich and all dark people are only servants." Desai brings up Saat Phere, the hit television show whose protagonist Saloni's fatal flaw is that she is dark. "The idea that there is a story because she is dark is very strange in a country full of dark people," he points out.
Ask Prahlad Kakkar a quiz question: If there are two young men of equally good looks and one is dark, the other fair, which would be picked for an ad? "The fair one for sure," he says frankly. "I often fight with clients if I think one is a better performer, but clients are very open about not wanting to take what is seen as a risk."
Filmmaker Paromita Vohra says it is common to hear loud discussions in the television and film world where the kaali is rejected as not heroine material. But she points to a strange twist to the colour prejudice, where dark can be acceptable if coded 'exotic'. "Suddenly dark-skinned is being discussed as ethnic chic. So you hear about a dark, pretty girl as having a Mexican or Latin American look. Not that she is Telugu and looks Telugu."
The fact is that in the wide spectrum of shades Indians are made in, only a tiny segment appears in popular culture as Indian. The arrival of the dark person always signals someone oppressed or villainish. The fact that the fair and green-eyed Aditya Pancholi is playing Ravan in the new Ramayan by Mani Ratnam is food for much thought. You could be comforted that, for a change, Ravan is not being played by someone dark. Or you could worry that with even the space for evil ceded to the fair, we may not see dark people on screen at all.
Rangan talks of how the obsession with fairness is played out even in contemporary Tamil cinema. "Tamil cinema sells a particular dream where someone like Ravi Krishna in 7G Rainbow Colony or Dhanush in Kadhal Kondein can have the fair, tall, thin and toned heroine." Ravi Krishna and Dhanush are heroes who made their debuts as the unimpressive, socially awkward loser. They are dark, ravaged, hungry-looking young men. It is assumed that the male viewer would identify completely with them and applaud when they aspire for fair, strapping north Indian trophies.
Rajiv Menon's film Kandukonden Kandukonden, a Tamil adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, starred Aishwarya Rai and Tabu. Ironically, the very first dialogue in the film is an exasperated off-screen voice cursing all Hindi film heroines who come to work in Tamil cinema. In 2009, even that fragment of exasperation is gone. South Indian cinema now strongly associates gloss, glamour and high production values with the acquisition of fair north Indian heroines for their casts.
Outside of cinema, the fairness obsession leads to some misadventures. Journalist P Sainath has some biting stories about urban scribes venturing into the hinterland. "Television journalists drive into a village and see a dark, shirtless man and assume he is the quote from the poor they are looking for. If you drive into the centre of a village, you are likely to encounter the upper castes, not the dalits consigned to the periphery of the village. But just because the man is dark, they miss the fact that he is the Thakur."
Where there is an anxiety, there is money to be made. Or is it the other way round? In Jharkhand, among Adivasi communities, the desire for fairness is wide-spread, feeding India's huge (Rs 950 crore) fairness creams market. This market has been growing at 15 to 20 percent per year. A major earner for FMCG companies, fairness creams are always looking for new segments. Men and older women are the newest baits, who have got their own 'speciali sed' fairness cream in the last few years.
All Indians live in cities and are rich
The world of Indians in popular culture is highly aspirational. From the breakfast counters of advertising land's imagined kitchens to the models walking down streets with French loaves sticking attractively out of shopping bags, much of Indian advertising is hungry for a global romance.
In the last decade, this has meant that the poor and the rural have been completely sidelined in popular culture. Airbrushed by a class allergic to remembering we are still a poor nation. Nandita Das says, "People constantly ask me, why do you always play village women? As if all rural characters are the same. Nine out of 10 Hindi movies are set in south Mumbai, and we are supposed to find a world of difference there, but a story set in rural Rajasthan is the same as one in rural Andhra Pradesh."
It is true over the last decade, the poor have only appeared before us in extremely troubling ways. As street people banging on car windows made of special glass, as women in haats (local markets) longing for the soft hands of the woman customer who uses hand-cream, the outsiders who makes us value our strange pleasures more through their envious gaze.
One of the most troubling ads in recent times was a State Bank of India (SBI) debit card campaign run in 2006. The print and television ads were both shot in documentary style. The television ad had a series of black and white sequences where a man is shown doing backbreaking, manual labour. Beautifully shot, it makes you wince first in sympathy and then gasp, when in the final shot the text explains this is Bholu — the pickpocket now forced into hard labour because people have stopped carrying cash. The utter crassness of the ad created by Mudra was only matched by the complaint that led to the ad being pulled off air. The Advertising Standards Council of India held up a complaint "that the ad by implication tends to incite people to commit crime by conveying that the advantage of being a pickpocket far outweighs the hardships of physical work."
Indians look exactly like Caucasians
Many of our products and music videos today are given an instant 'international' look with ads featuring models from South Africa and East Europe. Over the last decade, in fact, our celebrities are being slowly transmuted into white people. Our own models and actors are being coloured, moulded, depilated and smoothed into the closest simulacrum of white people that can be created. Hence Dhoom 2, Tashan and the phenomena called Katrina Kaif. It is a mutation that other countries with complicated colonial histories have also participated in.
To see the extremely troubling direction in which India can go, one needs only to look at Brazil. According to cultural historians such as Mary del Priore, co-author of The History of Private Life in Brazil, Brazil has 'upgraded to international standards of beauty' in the last three decades. The bottom-heavy, guitar-shaped figure that was widely admired in its culture has been abandoned in favour of supermodel Gisele Bundchen, a tall, slender blonde whose racial heritage is shared by less than 10 per cent of her nation. Today, anorexia deaths and the world's highest consumption of diet pills coexist in Brazil with the 8 percent of its 185 million people who are malnutritioned. After the US, home to 5,000 registered cosmetic surgeons, Brazil comes in second, with around 4,000. Plastic surgery, coloured contact lenses, hair extensions and dye are common practice, proudly flaunted as status symbols. "In Brazil, nobody wants to be black because the mass media equates black with poor and stupid," Cristina Rodrigues, a black cultural activist, told a magazine. The same magazine reports that the chief of an Indian tribe in the Amazon is also reported to have had plastic surgery because, "I was finding myself ugly and I wanted to be good-looking again."
Turning once more to America, earlier this year, Chris Rock, the standup comedian with the sharpest, most unfettered commentary on race, was in the news for his documentary Good Hair. In this film Rock investigated the politics behind the African-American's desire for soft, straight hair. Rock wanted to know why his daughter hated her hair. Why do African-American women support a $9 billion dollar industry which promises to change their hair? The timing for Rock's documentary was perfect. A minor debate was already on about Michelle Obama, America's newest fashion icon. What if she had had braids or weaves, a more obviously black look than the smooth coif she currently possessed?
Writers such as Bell Hooks wrote decades ago about the world of black women in which the straightening of hair was an intimate ritual. Rock tells the obvious fact that black Americans desire a cultural standard of beauty that is more European than African. For us, a country just as gripped with anxiety and self-hatred, is it amusing that Rock's investigation led him to India? Every year tonnes of Indian hair makes its way to America, where black women use it to make extensions to their own hair. The Tirupati temple is reported to earn between $2 and $4 million a year from the proceeds of the 25,000 heads that are shaved every day and the 450 tons of hair sold each year.
Across the world, hair is one of the first (and easiest) characteristics that is being corrected to meet a global aesthetic. It is a rule of thumb for young women wanting to go to Bollywood that they must straighten their hair. Television journalism is another and rather unexpected site for the hair iron.
Other changes are more subtle. Says Santosh Desai, "There is no space for the round-faced hero any more. No Rajesh Khanna or Arvind Swami. We are now even looking at the male body as a site of the erotic. The male torso in Bollywood was like a grassy lawn, animals could have grazed on a body like Anil Kapoor's. Now the male body has hardened, been depilated. Post-Hrithik the gaze at the male body is almost like the one directed at the female body," says he. Desai also compares the experience of Indian models with those of South East Asian models in ads. "They are Caucasianised during filming. There is a certain pallor that comes with colour correction, almost erasing the features to look more Caucasian."
What explains India's abject need to look Caucasian? Desai says, "Underconfidence is a simple explanation for a complex reality. I would say we are becoming more confident but there is an impatience to be seen as peers of the First World. We want it all corrected now. We want to drink wine and not be reminded of the poor. We are constantly evaluating ourselves through the eyes of the West. Why else would we want to win the Oscars? What do 100 retired Ameircans know about our cinematic conventions? When the 26/11 attacks happened, why were people constantly asking about the damage to Brand India?"
The panic desire for sameness breeds bigotry. And while some aspects of India's diversity debate have come up occasionally in the last few decades, these debates are increasingly muted. Often, bigotry is now passed off as pragmatism. Vohra expresses great concern about this. "I think under the guise of pragmatism what is being promoted is unkindness and huge narrow- mindedness. With this, your ability to have empathy, to comprehend a set of experiences very different from yours reduces. It makes you regressive and politically stupid. At the other end, if you are not represented in mass media, if in your entire life no one who ever looks like you is seen on television, it could generate extreme anger."
Thomas and her daughter Meenal's predicament is, in a sense, something particular to north India, where fairness and caste and class have a kind of simple equation. If Meenal were growing up in other parts of India, her experiences might have been different. As Shashi Tharoor once pointed out in The Great Indian Novel, in south Indian families, siblings can look so wildly different from each other in colouring and features, it is impossible to imagine they came from the same womb.
In the absence of a readymade role model, Thomas hoped that Meenal's school would help with her crisis. "Little children ask Meenal, why are you so dark and your brothers so fair? That's okay because they are just voicing prejudices which can be addressed. I wanted the school to start talking to the children, explaining that people and families come in all shapes and colours. But they have refused saying the children are too young for such conversations. But why should the children be protected from this as if Meenal's skin colour is some dirty family secret?"
Meera Pillai, an education policy expert, talks of why India needs diversity education. "Let me compare this to the context of disability. It is idiotic to talk about inclusive education for a child with disabilities when the school system is not ready for such a child. Diversity education is something the government has to back with resources. I don't think the situation in America is perfect and I'm sure a lot of people voted for Obama because of their complete disillusionment with Bush. But the old America would not have got Obama at all! For a few decades, multicultural education has been in full swing in America. At the risk of sounding clichéd or tokenistic, schools celebrate Hannukah and Kwanza, not just Christmas. Our government needs to talk about disability, homophobia, and communalism — recognise it as educational requirement, put money behind it. Otherwise where is the sense of self for a young Munda girl within a pan-Indian image?"
Vohra talks of earlier decades when India's diversity was protected by what might now be seen as corny tropes: in the deliberate celebration of every festival, in pledging that all Indians are our brothers and sisters. "That is the difficulty of political correctness. There is always a tension between addressing our existing prejudices through political correctness and our desire to be irreverent and shirk political correctness. But that tension needs to be maintained so that we can keep fighting for politically correct ideas and old-fashioned ideals, without being suffocated by political correctness."
In a country as complicated as ours, acceptance of difference ought to be the goal of our waking hours and dreams. Not dismissed as impossible. Not erased in image and sound. Into the realm of schmaltzy but charming ideals weighs in the genetic scientist Dr Majumdar who says, "It is the diversity which makes us beautiful. It would be so boring if we all looked alike."
NISHA SUSAN, published on Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 11, Dated Mar 21, 2009
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