As a kid, my mother was obsessed with a cassette of the greatest hits of the iconic Indian folk-pop singer L. R. Eswari. The tape rarely left the deck of our family’s GMC Suburban, so for years, every ride we took was sound-tracked by Eswari’s sweet vibrato-laden voice. It was an endless source of fascination for me.
Recently, the first track on the tape, a twelve-bar blues number called “Aadavarellam Aadavaralam,” popped back into my head. So, like any other internet-ing citizen, I looked it up on YouTube.
The song comes from a 1964 film called Karuppu Panam, and the video I unearthed featured a cabaret scene with a fair and beautiful songstress, her backup singers crooning away as several couples performed a lively jig.
Around the 40-second mark, however, I realized something was off. The singers were dark. At first I was pleased—how rare it is to see people with darker skin color in a successful film! But then I realized these weren’t dark-skinned Indians. These weren’t even black people. The over-exaggerated light lips, the short matted hair—these were actors in blackface.
Unfortunately, what I saw was not some kind of one-off racist imagery. After additional research into Indian cinema, I found myself down a rabbit hole of disturbing racial tropes. Classic American “minstrel-style” blackface isn’t that common in Indian films, but it’s not unusual for movies to feature horrifying stereotypes of other cultures and races—particularly black people. It’s a sensitive conversation to have, but a necessary one, especially given the recent controversy over the light-skinned Zoe Saldana donning prosthetics and other props to appear “blacker” in the new Nina Simone biopic, Nina.
But how did blackface, with its largely American influences, snake its way into Indian film?
I posed this question to Patricia Hilliard-Nunn, an adjunct associate professor of African American studies at University of Florida, who told me it came down to the wide reach of American pop culture.
“These images have been influenced by the cinema of the United States,” Hilliard-Nunn said. Bollywood, along with copying popular American plot devices, also copies racist tropes made popular in 20th century radio, film, and television—including the idea of blackface.
But blackface didn’t find a place in Indian visual culture exclusively because it was a chic American export. Indian cinema was primed to accept these images due to much deeper issues of race and colorism, the practice of discrimination based on skin color, thanks largely to the colonization of India by white British dudes.
During colonial times, the country’s outsiders created a system wherein all power was given to white, or lighter skinned, citizens—while the larger, mostly darker-skinned population was subjugated. “It wasn’t just the physical colonization,” Hilliard-Nunn explained. “The key is this mental colonization, or slavery, that privileges whiteness.” Sadly, this often came at the degradation of blackness.
But we can’t blame colorism solely on colonialism.
The earliest roots of light-skinned supremacy in India can be traced to the belief that the nation's population can be divided into two main races: the Dravidian peoples of the south, who are purportedly the “original” Indians and have darker skin, and the Aryans of the north, descendants of the central Asian Aryan invaders who conquered India and have lighter skin.
The most recognizable manifestation of colorism in India is the caste system—an insidious form of social stratification that, for thousands of years, divided Indian society into classes based on social function, “purity,” ethnicity, occupation, language, and other social factors. Fair skin was frequently associated with higher castes, and vice versa. Social mobility was not impossible in traditional Indian society, but even as recently as 2014, more than 90% of marriages still occurred within castes. Even today, lower-caste Indians are subject to discrimination, bias, and violence.
All of these complex issues have trickled down to the South Asian film industry, which includes a network of 20 regional industries, ranging from Bollywood (Hindi language pictures) to Kollywood (Tamil language) to Tollywood (which can refer to Telegu or Bengali language cinema).
Darker-skinned people, if they’re even included in films, almost exclusively portray villains or sidekicks that provide comedic relief, or are generally subservient minor characters. For example, in the 1983 film Souten, the fair-skinned Indian actor Shreeram Lagoo dons brownface to portray the lowly assistant of a businessman.
In the 2000 film Hadh Kardi Apne, an Indian man wears blackface to portray a husband who finds his wife (who also appears to be in blackface) in bed with another man as part of a supposedly hilarious misunderstanding.
In the rare instances when actual black people portray black characters, they still fulfill astoundingly harmful stereotypes.
In the 2014 film Fashion, for example, starring Priyanka Chopra (who currently plays the lead in ABC’s Quantico, which has been praised for its diverse cast), the main character realizes she’s hit rock bottom when she has an alcohol-fueled one-night stand with a black man.
In the 2009 film Kambaqqt Ishq, one of the main characters undergoes a cavity search led by an airport security officer, who is a black woman.
There’s no need for this scene, and it’s clearly just for comedic relief, but the woman appears to be a racist caricature of blackness and a perpetuation of the idea of demonizing blackness.
Given that Indians don makeup to represent other Indians, it’s not surprising that they would employ similar tricks to play other races. Ajay Gehlawat, an associate professor of theater and film at Sonoma State University and author of the book Twenty-First Century Bollywood, points out that most incidents of African blackface in Indian cinema occur within specific contexts of whiteness.
“Whiteness is a trope that is constantly appropriated by Bollywood,” explained Gehlawat, who believes exaggerated whiteness and blackface often go hand in hand.
In the 1969 film Intaqam, the character played by Helen, a renowned Burmese-born Indian actress, sports a blond wig and blue contacts and dances before a caged African “savage.” The savage is actually an Indian man sporting blackface and a loincloth, who communicates his primal sexual desire through yelling and aggressively pounding at his chains. Helen taunts this beast of a man who, after being let out of the cage, is forced back in by other men in blackface who whip him. It’s an incredibly disturbing scene. Both the woman and the “beast” are playing exaggerated racial tropes, while actual white actors portraying members of the audience look on as if it’s just another night at da club.
Frustratingly, this racist number, considered one of Helen’s greatest performances, was not an anomaly for films of the era. The trope of a white seductress facing off against a lecherous jungle savage can be found all over Western white media, from Fay Ray and King Kong to pulp stories from the 1940s and 50s that degraded blackness through references to “African beasts” and savage sexuality.
Blackface may have originated as an American export, but it obviously does not absolve the modern Indian film industry of perpetuating racist tropes. While blackface is reviled today in Hollywood, as recently as 2012, Indian cinema still featured it on screen.
In the 2009 film All the Best: The Fun Begins, actress Bipasha Basu briefly appears in blackface, playing a Tanzanian princess who saves the main character from a villain (an Indian man in blackface) and his henchmen (most of whom appear to actually be black).
In the 2012 film Tezz, male back-up dancers appear in blackface, sporting afros and exaggerated red lips.
So why is this still acceptable in India?
Shoba Sharad Rajgopal, formerly a journalist with the Indian broadcast company Doordarshan and now an associate professor of ethnic and gender studies at Westfield State University in Massachusetts, has her own opinions. “Unfortunately, our society remains very backward and racist in many respects,” she told me. She believes Indian society still has a lot of re-educating to do in order to shake off colonial perspectives on race and ethnicity. “We have copied our masters very well,” she said.
The fact that India has made, and continues to make, money off of racist caricatures created by the same oppressive colonial authority that subjugated it for hundreds of years is appalling. But there’s an incentive to keep up the status quo.
“You have writers and producers who sit down and they decide what is acceptable and what is not,” Hilliard-Nunn said. “You can never expect them to be self-critical of Bollywood when they have not always been critical of the society and the racism in Indian society.”
As we continue to become a more globalized society, hopefully Indian cinema will begin to see the danger in blackface and offensive black caricatures. And perhaps at least some of the millions of Indians who spend money on movies will begin to understand that the same racism that allows these portrayals is the racism that continues to oppress Indians at home and abroad. Sometimes even their very own family and neighbors.