At a time when the practice of 'brownfacing' is refusing to die in Hindi-language content, yet another disturbing facet of racist bias has unraveled and this time in Bengal, a fairly liberal outpost.
Bengali television actor Shruti Das reportedly lodged a complaint with the Kolkata Police last week. Das alleged that she has been at the receiving end of a spate of online hate comments for her ‘dusky skin tone’. This the actor has said is nothing new but has been a reality since 2019, the year when she bagged her debut lead role.
Das, who shifted base to Kolkata for work from her hometown Katwa in the Purba Bardhaman district of West Bengal, alleged that she has been subject to racist slurs "Blackboard" and "Kalindi". “We worship Kali and Krishna [Hindu deities] who both are dark-complexioned but we cannot accept a heroine who is not of fair skin. I was surprised to find that one girl from Katwa posted some comments on the verified Facebook page of the channel I am working for. So, I lodged a complaint with the Kolkata police and I believe that action will be initiated,” Das told the media. “I am in a steady relationship with the director of my first TV serial Trinayani, and the hate brigade, after getting to know that, has been making distasteful remarks, questioning my character and my talent,” added the actor who now plays the lead in Desher Mati.
Kali, kalo and ingrained racism
Das referencing goddess Kali can help us immerse into Bengal’s long-standing tradition of worshipping the dark-skinned goddess with large eyes, blood-red lips and jet black hair let loose. The dancing goddess also wears a necklace of skulls and a belt of human heads. The visual currency of the goddess trampling Lord Shiva is charged with a feminine energy (sakti), power and madness. Worshipped by both erstwhile zamindars as well as Tantra practitioners, the cult of Kali cuts across codes of Brahminical caste purity, barriers of class and gender conventions. Kalighat off the course of the river Hooghly in Kolkata draws its name from the revered Kali temple. Scholar Sanjukta Gupta in her article The Domestication of a Goddess, writes how the Kalighat Kali is not the fierce avatar but one of “youthful, charming, and feminine beauty”. Bengal is also home to a profound devotional music genre Shyama Sangeet that celebrates the beauty, kindness and magnetism of the mother-goddess.
Yet, ironically, Kali is othered, not mainstreamed. The Bengali word for black is kalo, the term also refers to persons with darker skin tones. Moyla or ‘dirty’ is another Bangla word used to describe darker skin tones. The association of the word kalo with ugly is so deep-rooted that there actually exists an apologetic aesthetic of ‘dark yet beautiful’, a phrase that someone growing up in Bengal will not find too uncommon. Often used by the educated and the enlightened, it draws attention to how a dark-skinned person, especially a woman can still be beautiful, so much so that it merits a mention.
Bengali culture, especially the dominant metropolitan culture associated with Kolkata, is strewn with references of the cultured bhadralok and bhadramohila and such apathy towards dark skin tones might come across as an anomaly, only a closer examination will reveal otherwise. Bengali matrimonial ads demand forsha or fair-skinned brides curiously uttering the qualification in the same breath as ‘well-educated/ Convent-educated, cultured with etiquettes, working, English-speaking’. Signaling caste-and-class-based prejudices, the fair-skin fan club equates lighter skin tone with being English-speaking and educated.
Tracing colorism in Tollywood
The textbook definition of colorism is discrimination against individuals with darker skin tones as existing among people of the same ethnic or racial group. In a country of a brown race, it is indeed a glaring case of ingrained racism that fair skin is idolized. Representations of fair-skinned actors as the ideal in mainstream cinema have created a hierarchy of aesthetic and beauty further fueling prejudice against melanin-rich skin tones.
Skin-tone shaming is not new in the Bengali film and television industry, better known as Tollywood. National-award winning Bengali actor Parno Mittra who came out in support of Das has been vocal against this norm. “Often, we are told to put on makeup in a way that would make our skin tone a few shades lighter. I usually avoid too much makeup," Mittra told the media. Actor-turned-politician Saayoni Ghosh, currently president of the All India Trinamool Youth Congress, has expressed solidarity with Das sharing how she herself has been bullied owing to her “short hair and English skills”. Ghosh was quoted in the media, “In our industry, fair-skinned heroines are often cast as dusky characters. Why don’t we normalize dusky skin?” Actor Oindrila Sen who saluted Das’s courage, has shared how actor Ankush Hazra was trolled for his dark complexion.
In the Bengali daily soap Krishnakali (currently on air), the lead protagonist’s (Tiyasha Roy) character who is shown to be a Krishna worshipper proficient in singing bhajans is ‘brownfaced’. Such racist overtones make Roy’s character a far cry from the revisionary currency of Kali that challenges upper caste-and-class aesthetic standards.
The fact remains that dark-skinned actors are still underrepresented in Bengali television and commercial cinema. And those who are in the arena are not free from the burden of stereotypical portrayals.
Why the stand taken by Das matters
According to the report ‘India Fairness Cream & Bleach Market Outlook, 2023’, the women’s fairness cream category is predicted to clock in market revenues of more than Rs 5,000 crore by 2023. The men's fairness cream market is anticipated to grow with a CAGR of 6-8% by 2023. The popular Fair & Lovely (now Glow & Lovely) advertisements, and largely the ‘complexion correction’ market segment have portrayed fairness creams as the solution to problems in life that include low self-esteem and lack of success. Mainstream media representations have not been any better; talented actors have been described as ‘unconventionally beautiful’, ‘bold’, ‘magical’ or ‘defiant’ owing to their skin tones.
Last year, as per news media reports, the West Bengal government suspended two female teachers in East Burdwan district on the charge of teaching pre-primary students from an English alphabet book that spelt out U for “Ugly”. The illustration printed beside the letter was that of a boy with a dark complexion. The problem is too deep to be ignored. At a time when young women and men are increasingly breaking small-town or mofussil barriers to act in Kolkata’s Tollywood, Das has taken a decisive step to correct a regressive mindset stemming from a culture bent on ‘correcting’ complexions. It is about time to call out racist bias by its name.
(Edited by Amrita Ghosh)