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Racial profiling is so endemic in the West that it’s become a given – loathed perhaps but also accepted as part of reality. Sadly, it’s the same thought process that is shading Indian cinema. Brownface, or the act of darkening one’s complexion to represent a section of society, is only now getting its just desserts – ire from the masses. Here’s a look at some films that have used colour to paint a character instead of raw talent.
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In the 1957 classic ‘Mother India’, Sunil Dutt, who played Birju, an angst-ridden farmer-turned-bandit was the first to put make-up on to look darker. Many other movies followed the action.
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In Amazon Prime Video’s ‘The Family Man 2’ Samantha Akkineni's character has been called out for "brownfacing." Creator Raj Nidimoru defended the decision, saying to a news outlet: “The idea is to get somebody fit for the role. The colour of skin is usually used in the context of beauty. That context is not in our series. She’s a warrior, that’s it. And how do they look? They are weather-beaten, they have sun-tanned faces, they don’t have time to look in the mirror, they don’t have time to go to the spa. The idea is that she’s a girl who’s been living that life, and that’s it. It is the right get-up for that character."
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Hrithik Roshan has been found guilty of the practice of going dark for three movies: ‘Agneepath’ (2012), in which he played a slum dweller; in ‘Mohenjo Daro’ (2016), in which he played a historic Indus Valley figure; and in 'Super 30', where he played a Bihari mathematician (2019).
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In ‘Udta Punjab’, Alia Bhatt, who is naturally quite fair, plays a migrant farmer – and so of course her dark foundation game in the film is strong. While the film's social messages were applauded when it released in 2016, fans and critics alike were upset by the need to choose a huge Bollywood celebrity to "carry the film" rather than a lesser-known thespian with the correct complexion.
Image Credit: Insta/udtapunjab_
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The 31-year-old actress Bhumi Pednekar sparked outrage in 2019 when she shared a promotional photo for her film ‘Bala’ on Twitter, in which she was painted brown. The film is a satirical comedy about colorism and other social concerns, with Pednekar's character growing to embrace her dark complexion despite the prejudice she endures. The irony, oh the irony.
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In the 2019 box office blockbuster ‘Gully Boy’, Ranveer Singh plays Murad, an aspiring rapper from the Mumbai slums. Despite the film's success, critics quickly pointed out that Singh's darkening of skin didn’t add anything to his character.
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Varun Dhawan, who portrayed a porter in 'Coolie No. 1,' appeared a few tones darker. And then there was the sudden lightening of complexion when he pretends to be a wealthy businessman.
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Sanya Malhotra and Radhika Madan were both 'darkened' to play rustic belles in the critically acclaimed 'Pataakha'.
Image Credit: Screen grab from a scene from 'Pataakha'