by Louisa Reynolds | 2014/15 IWMF Elizabeth Neuffer Fellow
November 20, 2014
“All the articles about me begin with ‘the dark and dusky actress’ because being dark is considered such an aberration”, says Indian actress Nandita Das.
Das explains that her parents nurtured her many talents without ever making a point of commenting on her skin tone, which meant that she grew up free from the obsession with fairness that torments many Indian women.
However, as soon as she became a rising star in her country’s film industry, she soon realized that due to her dark complexion she was expected to play lower caste roles or asked to “lighten her skin slightly” so that she could play an upper class role.
In modern day India, colonialist prejudice still underpins notions of beauty and whiteness is associated with wealth and better opportunities.
In the following clip, you can watch a series of ads for Ponds’ “White Beauty” cream that illustrate how the use of whitening creams have been promoted through racist advertising.
The ads are like a soap opera in which each ad provides a new installment of the drama. A beautiful, dark-skinned girl is shunned by her elegant lover in favor of a fair skinned girl. The years go by and the handsome, rich man is unhappily married while the ad’s heroine learns the importance of skin whitening to secure a good husband and begins to use Ponds’ “White Beauty”. Finally, the couple is reunited, overcoming the odds, and the viewer assumes that they live happily every after.
Many of these creams are a real health hazard for the women who use them, especially the products at the cheaper end of the scale that are made with poor quality ingredients that can cause permanent skin damage. In this case, it’s interesting to see how Unilever, which produces Dove, a range of products that supposedly celebrate women’s “inner beauty” is willing to cash in on caste prejudice in India to sell products such as “White Beauty”. Rather than caving in to the whiteness myth promoted by the film industry, Das became an outspoken activist for the “Dark is Beautiful” campaign against racism in the media. Today, she has acted in over 40 feature films in 10 Indian languages, her debut feature, Firaaq, won accolades in India and abroad and she is currently a Yale World Fellow.In the following video, she explains what “Dark is Beautiful” is all about:
Das says that a campaign, on its own, won’t transform Indian society but at least it can ignite a debate on the issue. “Prejudice or conditioning is not a habit; it’s much deeper than that. But we have to be hopeful and optimistic and believe that this can change within a generation”, she says.
My interview with Das, who gave a talk at MIT on October 16th, will be published in the next edition of Insight Guyana, a bi-monthly current affairs magazine. Guyana has one of the largest Indian populations in the Caribbean and my editor, Nazima Raghubir, immediately expressed an interest when I told her about the event.