Bollywood actress takes on India's complexion bias

Indian actress and director Nandita Das smiles while posing during a photocall for the Cinefondation and Short Films Jury at the 66th edition of the Cannes Film Festival in Cannes on on May 22, 2013. -- PHOTO: AFP
Indian actress and director Nandita Das smiles while posing during a photocall for the Cinefondation and Short Films Jury at the 66th edition of the Cannes Film Festival in Cannes on on May 22, 2013. -- PHOTO: AFP

Bollywood actress and director Nandita Das has acted in over 30 movies and bagged numerous awards for her passionate performances, including at the Asian Festival of First Films in Singapore.

As a child, she remembers she was often at the receiving end of comments on her skin tone.

“Poor thing, she is so dark” and “you have nice features despite being dark” were common ones.

“Had it not been for my parents, for whom this was not a topic of conversation, I would have grown up believing I was just not good enough,” says the actress on her website.

“It was only in later years I realised how fortunate I was.”

In India, a perception exists that fair is beautiful and that people with lighter skin find greater success in finding a partner and do better at the workplace.

This has spawned a multimillion dollar industry of fairness products generating US$400 million (S$507 million) in revenue every year

And, it spurred Nandita Das to lend her voice and fame to a campaign called Dark is Beautiful.

Launched in 2009 by Women of Worth, a non-profit outfit, the campaign has been trying to dispel the deeply entrenched notion that beauty is linked to fair or lighter skin tone.

It has shot into the public eye since Ms Das became the face of the campaign, some four months ago.

Not only is the 43-year-old actress endorsing the campaign, but she is also sharing her own experience of making it in an industry where she says that the prerequisite for an actress is fair skin.

She has faced movie-makers asking her to apply makeup to lighten her skin tone. And her refusal to do so has, she admits, cost her certain roles.

The Dark is Beautiful campaign has been unfurled on Facebook, print advertisements featuring Ms Das and an online petition, which so far has so far got 8,000 signatures. Not a very big number for a billion-strong country.

Ms Kavitha Emmanuel, the director of Women of Worth, told Asia Report that she knows it will be an uphill battle to break the stereotypes.

“Change of mindset will probably take a long time but it is never impossible.

“Awareness is the key issue. Most people are unaware that such a bias can actually affect people in a deep way,” she holds.

A glance through the matrimonial section of Indian newspapers or the array of fairness creams on shelves shows how commonplace the bias is.

“Handsome, fair boy seeks suitable match,” reads one of many similar advertisements in a leading Indian newspaper. “Seeking life partner who is very beautiful, very fair,” says another.

The fairness cream industry in India targets both women and men, urging them to discover success in life with a lighter skin tone.

Superstar Shah Rukh Khan, and other popular Bollywood actors like John Abraham and Deepika Padukone, endorse various brands of fairness creams.

The online petition by Women of Worth urges Shah Rukh Khan, one of the most influential Bollywood voices, to give up his endorsement and join Nandita Das.

“Mr Khan, we invite you to join celebrities such as Nandita Das and use your influence to promote the positive message: ‘Beauty Beyond Colour’,” says the petition.

The actor has not responded.

Ms Das has also talked about another aspect of the fairness bias, pointing out Bollywood’s use of skin colour to indicate a character’s socio-economic profile.

“When I am on a film set playing an educated upper-middle-class character, the crew will tell me, ‘I know you don’t like to wear makeup to lighten your skin, but this is an educated girl you are playing, so it would be appropriate for you to look fair’,” she says.

“But what does that say about me?

“I’m educated and I’m dark.

“It is as if filmmakers cannot wrap their heads around the possibility that dark skin can be associated with success, even when it is embodied for them in the very person with whom they are speaking.”

Having Ms Das as the face of the campaign will certainly help mainstreamed the debate and challenged people's perception of beauty and success. But the deeply entrenched notion of "fair is beautiful" is unlikely to change overnight.

As my family's former helper once told me with the best intention at heart: "Didi (meaning sister in Hindi), you must use Fair and Lovely (a popular brand of skin lightening cream).''