Unfair and Lovely: Shadeism and Indian Cinema

We love a bit of Bollywood, don’t we? The glitz, the glamour, the thrusting of hips, the heaving of pointy bosoms. OK, so things have now evolved slightly in that pointy bosoms have now become rounder and of the firm implant kind. That’s just the women. Then for the big, ruffled up hero, we have the same thrusting hips, the rippling muscles, the chilly nipples, the tight up trousers (but flat crotch), the surf board ripped abs, the swishy swashy hair, the ready to conquer, the ready to battle for justice. The ready to impregnate the heroine with super sperm. She will carry that super gene of fabulous physique, heart wrenching humbleness, and big attitude. Big heroic attitude.

Then we have the catchy item numbers. We all want to feature in a “Kajra Re” or “Sheila Ke Jawani” video. There’s an innocent smuttiness to those songs which spells innocent fornication. Dry hump on her loosely worn gagra skirt and dupatta over her tight open back blouse exposing her white skin stretched across her midriff. Yeah they’re cool. On a representation level, the casting is acceptable. Bollywood features cast ensembles which their audience can normally relate to. The chiselled Punjabi nose. The straight silky hair. The fair skin which is commonly associated with North Indian looks – even if many North Indians are dark in their complexion, the audiences accept the misconception of fair. The North Indian look. The cast and what they bring to the table is relatable.

To us with South Indian and Sri Lankan origins, well, we don’t mind when a “Janaki”, “Vasu” or “Moothoosamy bhara haraami” are featured in these Bollywood box office hits. At least there is a darkie with coarse hair in vision. At least they are wearing Thiruneeru. At least Amma Janaki is wearing her shiny silk kanjivarum. At least they are talking Hindi in a hugely exaggerated South Indian accent. At least they are making audiences laugh. At our expense. I remember as far back as me being 6 years old seeing a Tamil character in a Bollywood movie which left me quite confused. Even at that age I felt there was something not right in the way Mehmood portrayed Master Pillai in the 1968 movie Padosan. Spotlighted. A stand-up comedy in Live at Some Mumbai Theatre show. This is a theme that I continued to see in many Bollywood films, but everyone else in my family seemed quite entertained by it. Maybe I am missing something they completely relate to? What I found more interesting is that Tamil, or generally South Indian actors, would not be cast to play these characters. Why would they? Clearly there was a discomfort with reinforcing self-stereotypes by the actors themselves. Or maybe the talent pool in Bollywood-dom is in its abundance to consider Southies.

Flash forward 40 years, there seems to be a different kind of obsession with us Tamils. If we tune attention to some of the Indian serials on our screens, they now tell a story of cross-cultures, South Indians living as neighbours with North Indians. The appearance is a little less exaggerated. Amma will still wear her hair in a loose plait adorned with mallipoo (jasmin flowers). Appa will have his Thiruneeru smeared across his forehead. The complexion is not as shoe polish dark as once portrayed. Accents are still given, but I now accept this is to demonstrate regional origins. But, the cast, and the female protagonist are still North Indian. Think Ishita Bhalla nee Iyer, played by Divyanka Tripathi (Yeh Hai Mohobattein); Vandu Iyer, played by Shruti Bapna (Yeh Hai Mohobattein); Swadheenta Ramakrishnan, played by Tridha Choudhury (Dahleez). Bollywood movies continue the trend with Ananya Swaminathan, played by Alia Bhatt (2 States); Vasudha, played by Shraddha Kapoor (Gori Teri Pyar Mein), Saraswathi Parthasaarthy, played by Mawra Hocane (Sanam Teri Kasam). To be honest, in these films, the four states of the South tend to merge as there is hardly any definition given as to whether the characters are Tamil, Telugu, Kannadiga or Malayali. All South Indians wear Thiruneeru, silk sarees and wear mallipoo it seems.

Whenever I have sat down to watch these films or drama serials, there is acceptance that in Mumbai, Delhi, and wherever the setting is taking place, North Indians and South Indians co-exist in the same state. Of course they do. However that is where my enjoyment ends. I do not believe these characters enough. I do not feel their North Indian origins have embraced anything South Indian to understand the characters they are playing. Nor have the casting directors put enough thought and research into wanting to cast South Indian actors to play these said characters in a way to make them look and feel believable.

So what is it that causes the absence of South Indian actors to play South Indian characters in the world of Bollywood? Let’s take Sanam Teri Kasam. Despite Mawra Hocane playing the character of a Telugu, the North Indian male protagonist, Inder Parihaar, is played by the very Telugu Harshvardhan Rane. So, to be male with a little more melanin, does not seem to disrupt appreciation of a Hindi movie. He will still be considered the mad, bad, tough, testosterone fuelled hero that will be simmered down by the cool, fair tones of the translucent skinned heroine. And she will be fair, docile, and know how to use that light skin charm with her white midriff making appearance through that sheer georgette saree. Even if she is not really Tamil. Or Telugu. Or Mallu. So long as she is “Fair and Lovely”.

On the Southern side of the industry, Kollywood, Tollywood, Mollywood and any other South-wood once had it nailed. More serious and emotional trauma was being dealt with in the movies of the South back in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s to even dare care about our Northy neighbours and how they should be represented to entertain the masses. But the casting was also predominantly South Indian. Every now and again we would occasionally see North Indian heroines including Rati Agnihotri, Amala Akkineni, Khushbhoo, Nagma, Tabu. However there was something different about these actresses. They pretty much adopted our culture as if it was their own. Khushboo felt like a Selvi in Kizhakku Vasal, no more than Rati stepping into Kannamma’s seruppa in Murattu Kaalai.

As South Indian movie industry progressed throughout the decades, the presence of South Indian actresses became less prominent. Dipping into the mid-90’s to the turn of the millennium, when Khushboo and Amala’s career began to simmer down, we saw the emergence of Simran, followed by Nagma’s baby sister, Jyothika, Sonia Agarwal, Reemma Sen, Tamannaah. Come to think of it, an era began where there seemed to be an absence of South Indian female actors playing female leads in Kollywood. I have not really watched much Tollywood or Mollywood to be across their casting in films, but I know that during a similar period, Kajal Aggarwal and Hansika Motwani began taking Tollywood by storm. And so the trend trickled throughout the South.

The obsession to cast fair skin female leads in Kollywood began to increase to the point where Kollywood started making bold moves coaxing the very white, very English Amy Jackson to push boundaries and play Tamilian and Mallu characters. The only female South actresses who seemed to hold their own during this time were Trisha Krishnan, followed by Sneha, Nayanthara and Asin. But as much as their North Indian (and English) contemporaries were able to step over from the North into South seamlessly, in an attempt to boost their careers, the aforementioned South Indian still never made their mark in Bollywood either as North or South Indian characters, despite possessing physical attributes which should pass the North Indian criteria of beauty. They probably were never even considered for such roles by the Bollywood casting directors. Therefore, it seems that in Indian cinema, the marketing hook and appeal of the movie is driven by the cotton wool angelic looks, which are typically seen in North Indian physical traits rather than the dusky and sultry appearance of an authentic South Indian actor. In a world where “Sex Sells” still has not become a cliché, Indian cinema continues to scream “Colour Sells”. Or “The Right Shade Sells”.

Authenticism is not just contained in the appearance of the character. There is a package which also includes delivery and how they connect with the dominant audience. In the 2010 instalment of Aayirathil Oruvan, the role of the Pandyan dynasty descendant, Anitha, demanded distinct Tamilian characteristics in how she delivers dialogue, how she carries herself in traditional costume and the emotion she portrays. However, Reemma Sen’s delivery barely skimmed the surface on stepping into the shoes of a character whom is supposed to have a rich authentically Southern background. For a film that screamed grandiose in shining the torch on a kingdom which contributed to shaping Tamil civilisation and culture, it failed to take the viewer on a believable historical journey, due to casting flaws.

In contrast both Baahubali instalments nailed the casting through female actors who carry matriarchal responsibilities in a way that is typical of majestic South Indian beauty. No other actor can sit on a throne like Ramya Krishnan did as Sivagami, which was very much comparable to the Goddess Rajarajeshwari Amman. No other actor can stand up to Sivagami and win her husband over in a standoff between two kingdoms as Anushka Shetty does in the skin of Devasena. For me, Tamannaah as Avanthika gets a little lost in the weight of the female leads that Ramya Krishnan and Anushka Shetty bring to the table. But that is a minor as the rest of the cast, male and female, tore their characters up to keep us engaged in them taking us through the Baahubali journey.

As for the men? Well, flicking through the YuppTV catalogue, the inventory consists of onld and new Kollywood films that feature old Thaatha’s, who at some point during the movie will kick their vetti from behind, tying it shorter around the waist to give more leg room and dance to a song accompanied by an orchestra of parai. He will be 60 something, but still insist with Amma he is not ready to settle with a ponnu.The gender divide is apparent, in that the North Indian contamination does not affect male characters – they can be as dark, as old as they want and still fornicate with young 20-somethings. Sorry, but I am referring to the likes of Petta Rajini, who is now being joined by the proud silver fox Ajith. The trend started to change with the emergence of Surya, Karthi, Mahesh Babu, Allu Arjun, bringing more variety to the male talent pool of South Indian actors and masculine sexiness which was missing from South Indian cinema for decades. Following the Kollywood trend, we can guarantee these actors will have the kind of shelf life Rajini and Kamal Haasan continue to enjoy.

How will this change? When will South Indian cinema present opportunities to the wave of South Indian female leads which will allow them to join the canonical list of artists alongside the likes of Saroja Devi, Sridevi, Jayapradha, Radha, Radhika? We are already seeing such promising talent on our screens, including Nithya Menen, Lakshmi Menon and Keerthy Suresh who defy all body perfect conventions and still dominate storylines allowing them to draw their audience into their characters. Samantha Akinneni and Aishwarya Rajesh are also very stunningly talented homegrown artists who switch between the modern to traditional village girl seamlessly. It is time casting directors of South India look towards the beauty and talent that homegrown female artistes promise to bring to the table. This will help to make our young daughters of Tamil origin feel proud to have role models who are authentically “just like them”.

The archaic prejudices that “light and white brightens our sight” when watching South Indian movies, has become cringe factor which de-values these movies. Particularly where reference is made to them (Gemini). Bollywood, on the other hands, may want to start looking South of the continent if they want South Indian viewers to believe in the South Indian characters they have written in the storyline. Let’s face it. Priya Bhavani Shankar would portrayed a much more heartfelt Ananya Swaminathan in 2 States. It would have set off the right chemistry with Revathi as her Amma. And it would have made Tamil viewers feel authentically beautiful.