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Home / Books / Essay: On Kaala, a film on racism against black people in India

Essay: On Kaala, a film on racism against black people in India

A crowd-funded film explores Indian prejudice

books Updated: Jun 26, 2020, 17:36 IST
Shoma A Chatterji
Shoma A Chatterji
Hindustan Times
A scene from Kaala.
A scene from Kaala.

Racism is defined as a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities. It also assumes that a particular race is inherently superior. George Floyd’s killing in police custody in the US has led to the Black Lives Matter movement across the world. Racism is prevalent in India too. Among Indians, even certain shades of brown are anathema. This is borne out every day in matrimonial ads screaming for “fair and lovely” girls. It is possible that this prejudice persists even in job interviews with fair-skinned candidates often winning over someone with darker skin.

Indians suffer from a gigantic colour complex. This is obvious on the billboards that line the streets from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, in the preferred skin tone of the stars of Indian cinema and of the statuesque models that appear in advertisements in the print and electronic media. Fairness is said to be a colonial concept. Why then does it also exist in Western fairy tales? The major cosmetic companies are global today and believe that women are universal, only their needs are different. Are women responsible for their homogenization by cosmetic firms? To sum up, the globalization of culture marches on with internationally-standardized canons of physical allure strutting arm in arm with the objectification of women.

Bryan, the protagonist, is played by Nigerian Jude Boman Tony, a student of IT at Noida University.
Bryan, the protagonist, is played by Nigerian Jude Boman Tony, a student of IT at Noida University. ( Courtesy Kaala )

Things turn even uglier when it comes to young black men from Africa who are targeted in India because of their skin colour. In My Experiments with Truth, Gandhi narrates how, as a young boy embarrassed by the colour of his dark skin juxtaposed against the white-skinned Britons around him, he kept washing his face with soap until his skin cracked and began to bleed. Placed in perspective, it appears amusing. But it is a racist mindset that we have not been able to rid ourselves of more than seven decades after the British left Indian shores.

Attacks against Africans in India are pathetically ironic given that many Hindus worship the Goddess Kali, who is represented as being black. Black in Sanskrit is kaala; the feminine form is Kali. So she is Kali, the black one. Black is a symbol of the Infinite and the seed stage of all colours. The Goddess Kali remains in a state of inconceivable darkness that transcends words and mind. Within her blackness is the dazzling brilliance of illumination. Kali’s blackness symbolizes her all-embracing, comprehensive nature, because black is the colour in which all the colours merge; black absorbs and dissolves them. Black is also said to represent the total absence of colour, signifying the nature of Kali as ultimate reality. Thus, in Sanskrit, the colour black is nirguna (beyond all quality and form). Either way, Kali’s colour symbolizes her transcendence of all form. As the limitless Void, Kali has swallowed up everything without a trace. That is why she is black.

But the colour of the goddess has not predisposed Indians towards blackness. Tarun Jain’s short film Kaala, inspired by the brutal attacks on African nationals that took place in Delhi between 2016 and 2017, depicts the harassment and torture of a young black man in the city. It is perhaps the first film set in India that explores racial prejudice.

Brian’s girlfriend Rashmi.
Brian’s girlfriend Rashmi. ( A scene from Kaala )

The story is brief but telling. Strange gazes, comments, gestures welcome the protagonist Bryan to the city of Delhi. He feels uncomfortable but is excited on meeting his new Indian girlfriend, Rashmi. But Rashmi abandons him and leaves him deeply disappointed. The warm lights of the city and vibrant music accompanies Bryan through the darkest night of his life. Interestingly, none of the actors in the film has faced a movie camera before. Bryan is played by Nigerian Jude Boman Tony, a student of IT at Noida University.

“As a resident of Delhi, I have closely observed such incidents. The attacks were constant and made headlines every other day. I could do nothing about it. The idea of the film was to bring the issue to the forefront. Kaala is a hard-hitting story of a teenager, who is trapped in a situation that may not have happened had he been from some other race, community or group,” Jain says. The film, which was made on a tight budget of 15 lakhs, was financed by pooling the young filmmaking team’s personal resources and from funding raised on Wishberry, a crowd-funding platform.

Tarun Jain, director of Kaala
Tarun Jain, director of Kaala

“This story is not based on a true one but is an amalgamation of real incidents that I came across during my research. I wanted to connect to the larger audience and that kept taking me back to the stories I have heard. That’s how I developed the character of Bryan, a college student from Africa who now lives in Delhi, and all that he goes through,” says Jain who hopes platforms like Netflix will snap up the film.

Shoma A Chatterjee is an independent journalist. She lives in Kolkata.

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