I was in school when I first started associating danger with skin colour. My friends and I had been told by a parent to not go near strangers, who our imagination coloured in darker hues. As I grew up along the shores of the Godavari in western Andhra Pradesh, this meant an almost-comical wariness of almost everyone, from the very friendly milkman and the school attendant to my mother’s office staff. Years later, I realised my phobia was no laughing matter.
Festering racism in India is back under the spotlight after a wave of violence was unleashed on Nigerian students in Greater Noida, who were beaten, kicked and punched by a rampaging mob. For the 40,000-odd Africans living in India, this was an only-too-familiar reminder of the danger the community lives under.
Six Africans were thrashed in three separate incidents in Chhattarpur last year. A week before that, a Congolese national was bludgeoned to death. In Bengaluru, a Tanzanian student and her friends were attacked by a mob last year.
Africans say this is only the tip of an iceberg of discrimination that our society directs at them every time they step out onto streets, malls or public spaces. They are roughed up, showered with racial slurs and often called criminals, drug peddlers and sex workers – exemplified in the midnight raid at south Delhi’s Khirki village led by then city law minister Somnath Bharti.
But the root of this animosity is a far more insidious prejudice that is cemented by our popular culture: The bias against darker skin tones that lets us use the word “kaala” as an all-weather insult.
In our television serials, advertisements and our biggest cultural influencer – Bollywood – people of darker skin tones are pushed to the margins to be caricatured as comic relief or demonised as villains. Dark-skinned actors find themselves cast as villains or grotesque comics, and female artists find that their skin colour is preventing them from being cast as an object of the hero’s desire. They are drug-peddlers, rapists, criminals or vamps who will be defeated by the mostly fair-skinned hero.
Take the iconic song from Gumnaam where legendary comic Mehmood sings his heart out to Helen, trying to convince her of his noble intentions despite his dark complexion – Hum kaale hue toh kya hua, dilwale hain, hum tere tere tere chahnewale hain – the lyrics establishing the cinematic improbability of a dark-skinned lover for a beautiful woman.
The Hindi film industry’s many famous villains are also no exceptions to this bias. From Gainda Singh in the 1993 cult-classic Tiranga and Gokul Pandit in the 1998-thriller Dushman to Khokha Singh in 1995’s Trimurti, bad guys all share the same dark skin tone. In some cases, fair-skinned actors are even given a coat of makeup – remember Anupam Kher as Dr Dang in Subhash Ghai’s 1986 film Karma – to better suit the popular profile of the nefarious mind, the criminal.
Even Hindi cinema’s most-ubiquitous villain, Kaaliya from Sholay, was not only several shades darker than the lead pair of Jai and Veeru but also had his name as a twist on a kaala, the hindi word for dark.
Our movies are frequently set abroad but our heroes don’t seem to meet any non-white people there, even in ostensibly multi-ethnic cities such as New York. African characters are either absent or seen as animalistic or beast-like. Such tropes are watched, enjoyed and internalised by millions of people who treat Bollywood as a near religion and then go back into their cities and villages, remembering that dark-skin is a indicator of danger and crime.
Prominent actors with dark complexions – such as Nawazuddin Siddiqui or Nandita Das – have repeatedly spoken against the bias inside the film fraternity that stops any artist without milky white skin from getting lead roles.
This connection between beauty and skin tone is laid bare by our serials – where almost no actor is dark – and our Rs 3,000 crore fairness cream industry that props up skin-lightening mechanisms as the only avenue to success. It doesn’t help that the most prominent of such creams – which promise jobs, marriage and love for fair skin – are endorsed by top Bollywood stars such as Shah Rukh Khan. Our imagination of “Athithi Devo Bhava” doesn’t capture black-skinned foreigners, who are derided as Kaala or Habshi. Dark skin is also wrongly seen as a caste marker.
A spate of attacks may have jolted India into a conversation on racism but until our popular culture – and especially our Bollywood – continues to peddle regressive stereotypes about people with darker skins, Africans will continue to be seen as the quintessential “other” and dangerous biases will swirl. Any countermeasure needs an honest and thorough introspection of what we think of as entertainment.