The “Dark” Side of Bollywood

I watched two social justice movies recently: Pink, which deals with Indian rape culture, and Article 15, which has a similar theme with the added layer of caste discrimination. Both of them were extremely well-taken, and I immediately recommended them to my friends.

But while watching each movie, I noticed one detail which made me pause. In many respects these films are groundbreaking – they venture into territory mainstream Bollywood is loathe to touch. And yet, both lean into one particular trope – one they share with masala movies like Chennai Express: the vilest characters are dark-skinned.

I’ve touched upon India’s rampant colourism before. Bollywood is no exception to the light skin obsession which enthrals most of the subcontinent (and its diaspora). The aforementioned Chennai Express makes ample use of this, depicting dark-skinned South Indians as buffoonish, easily duped thugs and coding them as “ugly” when juxtaposed against light-skinned Shah Rukh Khan. SRK’s character, the hero, is repulsed by them, and that repulsion is played for laughs. Like the hero, the heroine is also light-skinned and sharp-featured, highly desirable traits according to India’s Eurocentric beauty standards. None of the “good” or “intelligent” characters are dark-skinned: that trait is reserved for the clownish henchmen of the main villain, as well as for one bizarre and offensive cameo purportedly depicting an Indigenous South Asian.

Image Description: Stills from Chennai Express. The first shows Shah Rukh Khan being threatened by two dark-skinned men, while the second is a thumbnail taken from a clip of the scene involving an offensive portrayal of an Indigenous person. This movie is a prime example of the colourism coded into Bollywood casting.

Chennai Express can hardly call itself a paragon of progressive film representation. But that’s exactly what both Pink and Article 15 aim to be: so why can’t the two move past the stereotype of “dark is bad”? In Pink, all three of the heroines are very light-skinned, while Ankit – the most vocally threatening and violent of the would-be rapists – also happens to be the darkest-skinned of the lot.

Image Description: Vijay Varma as Ankit, the cruelest of the villains in Pink.

Article 15 has Ayushmann Khurrana, another very light-skinned actor, in the role of an intrepid police inspector who unearths a grisly ring of rapists and murderers preying on young Dalit girls. It is a powerful film in many ways – but once again, one of the worst people in the movie, a corrupt officer with the Central Bureau of Intelligence, is the darkest-skinned. And, like all the other examples, he is played by a South Indian actor. Although Article 15 breaks the mould a little by having a few deuteragonists who don’t quite fit the shining white ideal of most films, they still get much less screen time than Khurrana – and none of them are very dark-skinned. That is saved for the antagonists.

Image Descriptions: Two deuteragonists of Article 15.

Image Description: The aforementioned corrupt CBI officer.

Perhaps this seems like a small quibble to have with a pair of otherwise fantastic films. But the bone I have to pick is not specifically with these movies: my issue is with the culture which cast these films, the culture which sees no issue with making every good character light-skinned but, time and time again, casts most of the villains as dark-skinned. Why is the darkest-skinned character so often the meanest and most abusive? Why do even cutting-edge, anti-discrimination films not question this colourist dynamic? Why do we continue to disseminate the cinematic association between dark skin and evil to whole generations of young dark-skinned filmgoers?

––Aditi Ramaswamy

Software engineer; emerging author; almost certainly not a changeling. I write about the uncomfortable parts of Indian & American history & culture.