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On ‘Bala’ Trailer: Bollywood Has A Serious Brownface Problem

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Comedian Sarah Silverman recently revealed that she had issues in her career because an image of her in blackface became viral. In popular culture, blackface was worn by Caucasians to depict African American characters in theatre. Unfortunately, blackface has also been used as a caricature, by racist Caucasians, mostly to stereotype African Americans.

Recently, I wrote a long post condemning the decision to cast young women to play badass shooters, who broke age-related stereotypes. I also called out actress Taapsee Pannu’s response to the criticisms as nothing short of whataboutery.

Lo and behold!

Once again, Bollywood has stooped a new low with the trailer of ‘Bala’ and the associated brownface controversy.

Actress Bhumi Pednekar plays a character called “Ms Bold”, and she shared a poster of the character throwing away fairness cream products. Clearly, they want to show a woman overcoming stereotypes and prejudice associated with dark-skinned people. I mean, if that is what they want to show, then casting a fair-skinned woman with brownface is yet another painful, painful irony. It is similar to the case of ‘Saand Ki Aankh’, where the movie itself is about badass, aged women, breaking stereotypes, ironically played by younger actresses. This propagates the notion that older women are incapable of generating revenue.

I have seen several responses to the film, including the tweets from dark-skinned people, who were hurt by the idea of Bollywood’s inability to cast dark-skinned actors or actresses.

Brownface has been part of the movie culture for years. Like Prakash Raj’s (extra) darkened face in ‘Odiyan’, Bhavana in ‘Nammal’, Alia Bhatt in ‘Udta Punjab’, Ranveer Singh in ‘Gully Boy’, Hrithik Roshan in ‘Super 30’, Radhika Madan and Sanya Malhotra in ‘Pataakha’.

Now, there will be counter-arguments, including the most common “acting requires makeup and brownface is part of the makeup to present the character”. The question it raises is; is there scope for dark-skinned actors and actresses in Bollywood?

Wearing a wig or bald cap or shaving, should not be deemed the same as denying a person opportunity because of his or her skin colour. Especially when members of the industry itself, earn money from fairness products. Very few people have the courage to call out the racist mindset that drives this forward.

Actor Abhay Deol wrote a long facebook post calling out celebrities who have endorsed fairness products, and recently, actress Sai Pallavi refused a fairness cream commercial.

Examples Of Brownface In Our Culture

The movie ‘Vivah’ describes the fair girl as more beautiful and the jealous mother is shown applying a large chunk of powder on her dark daughter. The actress who plays her daughter, Amrita Prakash had to be darkened for the movie.

This feeds the whole racist mindset that fairness means beautiful, leading to a large culture that conjures demand for the fair-skinned.

There was a viral image from a children’s book where a fair-skinned woman was described as “beautiful” while a brown-skinned woman was called “ugly”.

Actor Nawazuddin Siddique revealed that an actress once refused to work with him because he was too dark. Even the dark-skinned actresses, Deepika Padukone, Rani Mukherji, Kajol, Priyanka Chopra, and others, were not spared from lightening makeup.

‘Saand Ki Aankh’ and Taapsee Pannu’s response to the ageism controversy was a sad example of how Bollywood is getting feminism wrong. Actress Sonam Kapoor, who is known for making bold statements on the wage gap, sexual harassment, LGBTQIA rights, and MeToo, did not take a clear stance on colour-based discrimination. During an episode in Koffee with Karan, she said: “If you’re not good looking, they think you’re a good actor.”

When Abhay Deol called her out for endorsing fairness products, she responded with whataboutery.

Bollywood, as an industry, has been cashing in on fairness and a majority of the performers, are fair-skinned, especially women. This is sad to see in a brown-skinned nation, where people turn into activists when a black person is discriminated against by Caucasians and the same disrespect is shown to dark-skinned individuals.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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