‘Hum kaale hain to kya hua dil wale hain’ is a popular song from the movie Gumnaam that insists people to look beyond colour and outer appearance. Mehmood, a guy with dark complexion tries to impress Helen (a fair girl with golden hair) leading a way to an impossible cinematic pairing. Many iconic films over the decades have normalized portraying people with dark skin tones as a tool for comic relief. There are also plenty of advertisements that stimulate the desire to own a fair complexion making other skin tones an exception to Indian beauty standards.
The recent decision of Hindustan Unilever (HUL) to drop the word ‘fair’ from its Fair and lovely range has left people agape. Its chairman Sanjiv Mehta said in his statement: “We are making our skincare portfolio more inclusive, a more diverse portrayal of beauty.” Sunny Jain, Unilever president in a separate statement said: “We recognise that the use of the word ‘fair’, ‘white and light’ suggests a singular ideal of beauty that we don’t’ think is right, and we want to address this.”
Several companies have been criticized for standing up in solidarity with the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement but at the same time selling skin-brightening products. Last week the US-based company Johnsons and Johnsons announced that they are putting an end to the production of their ‘Clean and Clear’ fairness range of products in order to show their clear stand against systematic racism.
‘Fair is lovely’ is a cliché that has been dictating the Indian mindset since a long time. There are a lot of other cosmetic brands creating a perception that self-worth is to be decided by the unrealistic standards of beauty set by the society. From providing shade cards to launching instant fairness challenges, the beauty industry has evidently abdicated its responsibility.
The film industry aggravates this issue further and routinizes the distinction between the lower class and the upper class by way of skin-tone signalling. Whether we talk about Murad from ‘Gully Boy’ or Latika from ‘Bala’, their representations align in a stereotypical way making dark complexion an inseparable part of class distinction. The glorification of fairness is deep-rooted in our society and the film industry seems to follow its path.
Our country’s obsession with fair skin is a part of its colonial history and is clutched with the caste system. The marriage market in India is one of the most prominent industry that places a premium on being fair. According to a World Health Organization study, an estimated 61% of women in India use skin lightening creams, and the industry is forecasted to be worth $31.2bn globally by 2024. And not only women but men too are indulged in it and are found buying products that make skin tones lighter.
The film ‘Traffic Signal (2007)’ perfectly highlights the issue with scenes where a child gets inspired from an advertisement on a billboard and buys a fairness cream to get a fair skin tone but ultimately all his efforts go in vain. The phenomenon of aspiring to get a light toned skin in India is a result of a multi-layered system that work as a crusader of fair skin.
Indian campaigns like ‘Dark is beautiful’ and #unfairandlovely have showed concern over the obsession with fair complexion. We can say that Indian society is gradually learning to accept diversity but there is still a long way to go. As model Renne Kujur said: “Removing the word fair would not make people free from the stigma but it’s a good start”.
It took them 45 years to apprehend the fact that the notion itself was disrespectful to the whole human community. While many have welcomed this decision joy-heartedly, others believe that it’s just a deception as they are going to sell the products with the same components.In my opinion, it’s just a tiny step towards bringing the much-needed change, but it has definitely mounted pressure on other layers of the racial system.
To put it pithily, there is still a lot of scope left for our society to completely accept the variety of beauty that we have across India and all over the world. As in Mira Nair’s Mississippi Masala, Jamunabai asserts, “Black, brown, yellow, Mexican, Puerto Rican, we’re all the same. All us people of colour must stick together”.
(Ariba Neyaz is a final-year undergraduate student of journalism in Delhi University and is also a budding filmmaker. the views expressed are personal)