Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Bollywood Delusions: Race vs. Language

There's a short article in Bollywood Mantra about the new Hindi film actress Katrina Kaif, who has a small role in Sarkar and a starring role in Maine Pyar Kyun Kiya. She speaks Hindi with a heavy British accent, so professional 'dub' actresses fill in for her. Two other films of hers coming out will also have other women's voices:

Katrina Kaif will have two releases in as many weeks and Akshay Kumar, who starts with her in Raj Kanwar's Humko Deewana Kar Gaye, thinks she's shaping up to be a "major heroine". But Katrina's relatively small walk-on part in Ram Gopal Varma's Sarkar and her full-fledged part in David Dhawan's Maine Pyar Kyun Kiya have one thing in common - she did not speak her own lines in both films. Reason? Apparently Katrina's Hindi is a bit on the weaker side.

In fact, Varma had originally decided to retain Katrina's ultra-anglicised voice in keeping with her US-returned character in Sarkar. But the Hindi spoken by the actress was way too outlandish to pass off as a non-resident Indian accent. (link)

This raises a whole complex of issues, most of which point in one way or another at the weird neuroses that continue to haunt Bollywoood. But let me just make two points.

1. I'm generally sympathetic to the situation of Katrina Kaif. She was born and raised in England (indeed, her mother is British), so why shouldn't she speak Hindi with an accent? Some of my Indian friends tend to be a bit intolerant of Hindi or Punjabi spoken with a bad American or British accent (i.e., by people like me). It doesn't really bother me, but it is a double-standard: Indians speaking English with Indian accents want to be accepted and respected in the west, so why shouldn't that tolerance work the other way around? Kaif did apparently lose some roles earlier because of her poor Hindi and her accent, including a part in Saaya (not that that's a big loss).

If, by some bizarro accident I found myself in a Bollywood movie, I would also need that kind of help. So on this note I am somewhat sympathetic.

2. But why is Katrina Kaif in Bollywood to begin with? Why is she getting parts? It's not for her acting ability, which seems pretty minor, at least in Sarkar. I believe she and others are being brought in because they look white.

I don't hold that against them, but I do question why it's such a commodity in Bollywood. Here I swing slightly toward the side of the Bolly-skeptics. Generally, the complaint one hears is that the industry is hopelessly derivative of Hollywood in terms of storylines and filmic sensibility. In my post last week I disputed this -- I think there has been a spurt of creativity and innocation in the past 5-10 years.

But in terms of its attitude to skin complexion and actors' facial physiognomy, the recent wave of Anglo-looking actors and actresses suggests it's a no-contest. Or perhaps I should say, it's still a no-contest: Indian actors have always tended to be much lighter-skinned than ordinary Indians, and the projection of 'western lifestyle' has been a part of Indian movie mythology for at least 40 years. And it's always been somewhat troubling to me -- a sign of a lingering colonial mentality.

The difference now, in this era of hybridity-globalization, is that the simulacrum of whiteness is approaching perfection.

The oddity is that what is wanted is the physical appearance of whiteness mixed with a classy, sometimes English-inflected, but still authentic Hindi-speaking capability. I find that to be an interesting paradox. The need for good Hindi can be explained as an issue of effective communication with mass audiences, but it doesn't make the paradox any less real.

To put it very directly: Why is physical difference from Indian norms acceptable (or even desirable), while significant linguistic difference is an impossibility?


Blogger hammer_sickle said...

Excellent point Amardeep. I used to have the same kind of argument with my friends/family - about how Bollywood prefers white(r) skinned than wheate(r).

One friend, however, pointed that some of the biggest stars in bollywood are NOT bright colored - Sharukh, Ajay Devgan, Madhuri Dixit, Kajol...

I still wonder - are these exceptions or examples? After all there is a campaing of sorts to appear bright (aka clean?) by Fair & Lovely.

10:57 AM  
Blogger Rob Breymaier said...

In the limited number Bollywood films I've seen, I seemed to notice a pattern of the villain usually being dark skinned. And, this is even more true for the not-quite-at-the-top villain. The rich bad guy might be lighter skinned. But, those tha do the dirty work are almost exclusively darker.

11:50 AM  
Anonymous a said...

Interesting post. But I tend to disagree with the notion that the Bollywood prefers fair-skinned people because they appear white/western..

Indians do find fair skin beautiful and I believe thats not because of the "colonial mentality" (perhaps its the other way round ... white man considered superior because hes fair). and the fact that fair skin rare (ie. not the Indian norm) probably has something do with our love for it..

Kashmiris (the fairest of us) are generally considered beautiful, even if they show no western characteristics..

katrina kaif has had some success because her looks can easily pass as indian (despite the brit mother).. Yana Gupta and the like (who look more white/western) havent been able to move beyond the odd item number..

On the other hand, I do think Western dressup/makeup does have currency, especially with the young urban elite...

In an earlier post you talked about Vidya Balan's Indian looks, but its the makeup/dressup/hairdo that make her look more indian than the rest.. Dress up katrina kaif in Balan's clothes and she'll look as Indian as Balan..

1:13 PM  
Blogger Amardeep said...

Rob, yes, that's often true. You'll also see servants in films played by darker skinned actors. The latter, though, reflects the reality of Indian society (I would describe it as "colorism" rather than "racism" proper).

And a, I see what you mean, but the question is WHY so many Indians would describe a light-skinned person as better looking than a dark-skinned person. I don't buy that it's innate.

Look at this post and the discussion following it by Vikrum Sequeira to see an interesting discussion on this.

1:24 PM  
Blogger Michael Higgins said...

Hi Amardeep
I think the preference for fair skin is fairly universal and would exist even in the absense of strong racial differences among the peoples of the world. People who work outside develop darker skin. Fair skinned people have the luxury of not needing to labor outdoors. So there is a prejudice against people who seem to be "out-in-the-sun" too much.

In the west, the prejudice could be against white people who get red in the sun: hence the term "rednecks". These people are common laborers and therefore they have unrefined social and political views.

Of course, dark skin may be purely inherited and not a sign of labor status. Also some people may like to spend time outdoors, so a prejudice against dark skin is purely unfair. But I'm just saying that it isn't culturally derived - it isn't an Indian thing - it's universal.

2:15 PM  
Blogger Veena said...

Hi Amardeep,

No point in talking about why we consider fair-skinned to be more beautiful - the issue has been talked about a million questions. But you raise an interesting question. Why is linguistic difference not desirable? I think thats because we like to believe that we are beautiful white-skinned people who are as pretty as the whites but in reality,we are also into all things bharatheeya - culture, traiditon, language, religion whatever. Maybe its some kind of delusion that we have the best of both worlds - we are beautiful and we hold onto our culture! Not very different from the matrimonial ads that always ask for 'a blend of traditional and modern outlook'. For the life of me, I couldn't figure that one out.


5:00 PM  
Anonymous a said...


Why fair skin = beautful in India is an interesting question, and may be a result of the the caste system, the mughal invasions, english imperial rule, and perhaps some innate human tendencies.

But I dont really see the paradox you talk about in this post.. ie. western physical appearance vs. the indian accent..

Katrina's looks work not because she looks western but because she fits a very Indian idea of beauty .. "fair and lovely"

Why we think fair is lovely probably has something to do with what we think of the west and the white man/woman, but today that is how we define beauty.


7:24 PM  
Blogger Old Path said...

Indian concept of beauty. It’s simple and straightforward. It has nothing to do with lingering colonial mentality. Ask any ordinary Indian. He or she would say: “Fair skinned people looks beautiful to me you know. SriDevi..he bhagvan! Darker skins too, but rarely, like Rekha you know”. No psychological analysis required for this. It is just simple as that.

10:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Isn't a lot of this gendered as well? Women must be "beautiful" (fair skinned) but "homely" (no accent). I think an accent would be tolerated in a male actor. Think of all those films with a hero who is abroad and then "comes home" after meeting a true blue "fair and lovely totally Indian" girl.

10:33 PM  
Blogger Manorama said...

I was happy to read this tonight, as I'd just posted on authenticity issues in learning/speaking a language. It is rather frustrating.

I agree with the above commenter that gender is an important factor when considering the acceptability of accents in films.

12:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The obession with Gora rung (lightness of skin) stretchs far back past colonial times to development of the caste system.

A strange aspect of this is in the marriage market is it regarded as desirable for the husband to be darker then the wife and vice versa.

I disagree that people with strong Indian accents are treated with respect in the West ? Peter Sellers in the "Party" or the faux accent with the Jerky boys or in Madagascar.

4:24 AM  
Anonymous Kerim Friedman said...

In case you missed it, I posted my thoughts on this here.

8:01 PM  
Blogger pennathur said...

Check my post here


9:47 PM  
Anonymous Samuel said...

Man, she should act in Tamil movies. Almost no leading heroine speaks her lines in Tamil movies.

But hey I am talking about an industry which hires Manisha Koirala to play a Tamil villager. How realistic is that?

One just needs to watach four or five movies to notice that most heroines have the same voice. Really stupid.

12:01 AM  
Blogger Vikrum said...

This post has been removed by a blog administrator.

5:48 AM  
Blogger Vikrum said...

This post has been removed by a blog administrator.

5:50 AM  
Blogger Vikrum said...


I enjoyed reading your article. Also, thank you for the link to my Fair=Lovely article.

In regards to color/race: the majority of Indians value fair skin. This is true throughout different classes and different cultures. Both the impoverished masses and the elite classes fawn over fair skin. On a geographic level, fair skin is valued all over the country: from Tamil Nadu to Mumbai to Punjab to Bengal. Since so many Indians think fair skin is lovely, it makes sense that Bollywood seeks out fair (or mixed white-Indian) people for roles.

In regards to language: As you mentioned, Hindi films have to appeal to large and diverse audiences. The blockbusters have to please both the urban film enthusiasts and also the illiterate villagers. The poor chai-wallah from Lucknow or the rickshaw driver from Mumbai cannot relate with the broken Hindi of a woman raised in Britain. But they do admire her skin color and her looks.

Perhaps the phenomenon you described is not so unique to India. For example, when Arnold Schwarzenegger started acting, his thick Austrian accent was dubbed as it was deemed too foreign for American audiences. But the same movie producers who dubbed his accent also admired his physique.

So Kaif does not speak Hindi exceptionally well. But her features are considered extremely attractive in India. Hollywood once thought Arnold's accent was a liability. But his body fit in with an American macho ideal (e.g. Conan the Barbarian, Predator, the Terminator, etc.)

5:55 AM  
Anonymous Umair Muhajir said...

Spare a thought for India's other popular cinemas: Tamil film heroes are NOT likely to be "lighter skinned" than the population at large (Vikram, Madhavan, Vijay are three of the top four young stars in the Tamil film industry; only Surya in the top four may be considered "lighter" than average); however, Tamil actresses ARE likely to be fairer than average. But some (though not most) of that is the result of the fact that many Tamil film heroines aren't "natives", i.e. they are North Indians transplanted to the film industry: Kiran, Simran, Sada. The "fairness" issue (or the disproportionate impact of the same) is over and above all a gender issue...

[Aside: who else is infuriated that all the top western companies (like Nivea, L'Oreal, ad infinitum) have rushed to market "fairness washes" and creams in India? Apparently PC is only the rule elsewhere for these companies...]

Btw, don't know about Sada, but the rest are routinely dubbed for; so the Kaif example doesn't surprise me; Sridevi was dubbed for for years in the Bombay film industry. I think that's understandable as if the role is that of (for instance) a village belle, or a Bombay-girl living in a basti, it would seem weird to hear anglicized Hindi from the actress in question.

8:12 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

hmmmm..HOW shall i say this, and remain civil the whole while. She is SEEEING Salman Khan, salman khan = much of bollywood....parts will come by, money she will make. its how the game is played...Not denying that being or looking white dont help.

10:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i dont seem to understand why whenever the complexion issue is raised tamilians are given as an example as dark skinned. I happen to be a tamil brahmin and much fairer than so may north indians . I would say the same thing about other people from my community.

11:28 AM  
Blogger ElizaG said...

hey- I found your article interesting- esp. on the skin complexion factor in India because I'm researching that issue for my year 12 major work. It would be really great if you had the time to visit my site www.elizapip.blogspot.com and leave a comment so I could use it as my primary research for my major work.
Thanks a lot!

7:08 AM  
Anonymous shivam said...

Hi Amardeep,
No doubt we Indians are racist - very, very racist - but what do you make of the recent success of dusky models in Bollywood? Is Kaif half as wanted an actress as Bipasha Basu?

9:43 AM  
Anonymous deeds said...

ure rite bipasha is successful but hav u seen her first few movies like ajnabee etc she was pretty much made to look white then with make up.. her skin tone is not as dark as the average indian anyways. it was only when she became a star that she retained her 'dusky' look cause by then she was a star.
other dark females in bollywood r star kids like esha deol or kajol ....or have some filmi connection like rani.
its quite sick in my opinion that we are so self racist ..why parminder nagra of 'bend it like beckham' fame is dark skinned and is considered beautiful on the hit tv series 'ER' where she has a starring role...bollywood wud never give her a second look if she was born i india

6:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

yes white skin girls get more chances in indian films most of south indian producers search for mumbai gals.i have joined telugu movie industry 6 month.

7:20 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Black is beautiful"

Beyonce, the lightest of destiny's child, get the most attention.

Alicia Keys, who dont even sing as good as lauryn hill, is praised as if she is helen of troy.

I'm a dark skinned girl hailing from South India. Been in the states all my life. But everybody's always told me I should be an Indian actress, a model, on tv or in music videos, etc. because they tell me that I am tall, skinny, big eyes and nice face, etc.

When it comes to like Indian get-togethers, people are always saying, "She is the prettiest one no doubt, but she is so dark". My family members, all being fair (or atleast fairer than me) have always criticized my skin color. Lol it was funny when my grandmother would make fun of me because mehendi wouldn't really show up that well on my skin color.

Truth is... I think when it comes down to it... a girl or guy with white/light clear skin walks into a room full of indians. it's like angels singing in the background and everything lights up. Wow she is so fair! It's just uncommon, therefore = beauty.

Suppose I walk into a room full of white people, I hear angels singing and everything lighting up. although i'm dark. Why? because I'm considered different, like an "exotic" beauty or something.

Just like that, a fair skinned girl or boy is exotic to the average indian.

Most people want to marry people fairer than then, because probably they want their kids to be fairer... because they've always been envious of a "fairer" skin.

In telugu, we say "erraga burraga vunnadu" which literally means that that the boy is red (or light-skinned) which is equated with handsome-ness.

And all colors look better on fairer skinned people. There is no color too bright! or too clashing!

11:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Its great that us indians are discussing these issues and not turning away from them!

I myself am malayalee but brought up in the States. I was the only Indian in my class and therefore had to represent India! Since the states is such a great melting pot of diverse nationalities, they learn to appreciate beautiful women in all shades and sizes!

Beauty, i agree, is personal. Its what u were taught was beautiful...If U Show a picture of India Arie, most americans would agree that she is a classy and beautiful woman. But if u ask an Indian they might giver her a broom and ask her to sweep the floor! Sadly, indians can only see beauty in fair skin.

We as ppl should learn to appreciate beauty in all races, whether, black, white, oriental, Arab, Spanish, Native American....Learn to Love people for Who they are not and not according to their ancestors or their melanin composition!

I personally believe that God created all things to be held in Awe! Whether u are aishwarya rai or Mother Theresa!

10:12 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"And all colors look better on fairer skinned people. There is no color too bright! or too clashing!"

Really???? I don't believes. Try a bright red or yellow on fair skin. It is just obsession and equating color to wealth. Look at the West which is rich and mostly white. Had money resided with the dark skinned Africans, I am sure everyone will be trying to get dark.

It is just social climbing, shameless social climbing. That's that.

Also, looking at Indian historical stories, novels, men are obsessed with the woman's body and therefore so called "fall in love" as in the movie Utsav which is based on a historic novel. I have hardly come across an Indian lovestory (I mean historic, epic or some such) where the guy fell for the woman and lust was not the main thing.

Ah well...look here a dark girl says that all colors look good on white skin, poor thing!!

11:23 PM  
Blogger Geena said...

What Michael Higgins said about colorism or light-skin bias being universal is very misleading. People really need to think or don't have historical insight. Light-skin bias is "universal" because colonialism and White Western influence is "universal." Duh! People really underestimate how deeply Europeans/Caucasians have affected the world with their mentality and standards (consider how they have rewritten history, especially by messing up India’s, their languages are used as international languages, brainwashed people to favor their looks etc.)

I hate to make blanket statements but there seem to be many Indians who are in denial or just plain daft about how greatly colonialism has affected their perception of themselves and beauty. Old Path is ignorant not to make the connection between the hang-over of Euro rule and Indian psychology on beauty. Duh people! Centuries of Euro rule affects how you think! Even the tone of the Indian bloggers here is flat and kind of indifferent instead of OUTRAGED that Indians hate themselves. It IS because of colonialism that India favors light-skin.

The theory of light skin bias arising from light skinned people staying indoors and people becoming dark from working outside defeats itself. Think about it: most people in the world are brown to begin with. So staying indoors or outdoors isn't going to matter. They're brown regardless! Therefore, this fact taken by itself won't allow any development of light skin being connotated with high status because the rich people of color are and were orginally brown. No nation voluntarily looks down on their physical appearance; that's the product of invasion of light-skinned global minorities (i.e. mainly white people) subjugating people of color. And just the usage of the word "fair" is archaic! Bollywood is anti-Indian to the hilt! Favoring light skin with Euro looks; how obvious can you get? It's really sad that Indians are ashamed of their God-given dark skin, beautiful brown eyes and strong features. As long as this color problem persists, Indians will never have true Indian pride.

11:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As another dark girl, I know how it feels to be pressured to be fair. At Indian parties, people say "If only she was fairer!". Even as a 5 year old, a lady in India asked me why I was so dark and why my mother wasn't doing anything about it. And in India, Fair & Lovely makes girls feel like they cannot be as successful because they are dark. They show pictures of the girls when they are dark and show them unhappy and later, after they've used Fair & Lovely, they are happy and loved! The pressure has always been on girls to be fair, beautiful, courteous, submissive. But it's not only the girls now, they have lightening creams for men as well. They don't want to be stuck dark either.

I heard from the lady at the Fair & Lovely counter in a department store in India that her nephew was born dark and they used Fair & Lovely since he was little and now, he isn't dark! Isn't that saying something about how much we love our kids to put bleaching cream on them since they were only a few months old for the sake of making them "more attractive" based on a botched standard?

I hate how people say that there are a lot of Bollywood actors who are "dusky". I cannot think of a single sucessful actor that is dark. Bipasha Basu and Sushmita Sen may be darker than many of the other actors and actresses, but they are definitely lighter than the average Indian. Priyanka Chopra is in no way dark and neither is Madhuri Dixit.

The whole reason behind this "colorism" is because of British colonialism and the fact that most Indians are not fair making it exotic.

1:27 PM  
Blogger Bhavna said...

You guys are absolutely right- Indians love white supremacy and racism. You see it in every aspect of Indian culture in India and abroad. You could even start with our beloved caste system (sarcasm). Indians live for white supremacy and forever will drool and fall at the feet of whites. Hell it's even in their religion- aka caste system, and worshiping the whiter skin or so called upper class. The love and take pride in being slaves- take for example outsourcing. Talk to any Indian and they will love it and not get through their thick skull that it is modern day slavery. I am Indian myself and have grown up with this BS ideology all around me, but have stayed immune to this self hatred and racism. While it's a sad day in India moving backwards in time to colonialism, meanwhile the US has progressed forward, and elected its first black President. Stay in the dark ages and rot in hell if that's what you Indians (the racist ones) want.

6:02 PM  
Blogger Ramana said...

Yes I am from southern India, Yes I am dark.. Seems like confession in Addiction program.
I came to Canada with low self esteem about my color! I thought there is no girl is going to like me! Particularly when I was hanging around with fair skinned Indians my self esteem used to go further down.
But in fact all the white chicks liked me the most ignoring all the fair skinned Indians. I enjoyed immensely when their confidence going down, could not believe their fair skin has no takers!
I taunted all those guys dating the most beautiful white women in Concordia campus in Montreal!
After my rein on white women I moved to States and I got unexpected attention from Black beauties.Eventually defied all Indian rules married black woman and blesed with two wonderful exotic looking kids.
My daughter is 14 now, won the most photogenic face in the beauty contest and thrashed all those fair looking Indian girls.
Ramana from Atlanta

3:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ramana, what a cute story!!! I am glad you settled down with black woman and that you adore your beautiful mixed children. (I am black of Trinidadian descent and happen to love Indo-African mixes, "douglas" as we call them). All of us brown people need to work together against colorism! It's utter BS!! I love Bollywood movies but cringe at the blatant colourism it perpetuates.

11:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


About this discussion, I would like to make the following statements.

1) I guess that we need to accept (for all eternity) that we, as human beings, surely has a bias towards one complexion.

2) Stop blaming the British for every thing. If any thing we should be ashamed that we let the British influence our thoughts and that we are not able to shake off that influence even after 60 years since British left India.

3) I am brown and when I see a fair person, I dont feel inferior. I just think that the other person, by pure chance, has a genetic advantage than me. PERIOD.

4) Fair girls look good to boys and girls like..... well, I'll leave it to them.

;-) Have fun

7:48 AM  
Anonymous Professionnel said...

From recent time in general does not look films, does not watch after actors. And life became more intelligent, more completer. What and wish all!

8:56 PM  

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