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Not Quite Black


Black Skin in Popular Indian Cinema
Vedita Cowaloosur

From Frantz Fanon, via Edward Said, to Stuart Hall and


Paul Gilroy, we have learnt how, in instances of
encounters between people of different national, ethnic
and racial provenances, skin colour has been held up as a
conspicuous marker of culture (or thereby lack of), as
well as a parameter for measuring vice and virtue. There
are, however, shades of difference among the people
who thrive within this hierarchical arrangement of skin
colour. These debates are analysed by looking at Indian
popular culture, especially Hindi cinema.

Vedita Cowaloosur (vedita.cowaloosur@gmail.com) is a postdoctoral


fellow at Stellenbosch University, South Africa.

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n February 2016, India woke up to the news of a vicious


mob attack on a black Tanzanian girl in Bengaluru. This 21year old, a student at Acharya College, had been dragged
out of her car, repeatedly beaten, stripped of her clothes and
made to parade around naked on the streets. When she tried
to escape her attackers by boarding a bus that had slowed
down, she was punched and kicked out by the passengers. Her
car was subsequently torched. All this while, the local police
stood by and did not deem it necessary to intervene in her defence. Her fault? She had unwittingly stumbled upon the scene
of a crime committed by a black man 30 minutes before she
had arrived there. The latter, a Sudanese national, had run
over and killed a pedestrian, before evading capture.
When she eventually got away from the mob and attempted
to file a complaint at the police station, she was met with pointblank animosity. The policemen stated that they would only
file a report if she succeeded in bringing in the Sudanese driver
(whom she had never even met before) who was actually
implicated in the hit-and-run incident.
This incident follows several other incidents witnessed in
India in the past few years of racism targeting black skin.1 In
2014, the then-ruling law minister of Delhi, Somnath Bharti,
planned and executed a similar assault on the black community. The plan was to raid a particular area in Khirki Extension
in New Delhi at midnight, where black immigrantsmostly
students, and contract and illegal workers from Nigeria, Congo and Ugandahave settled in recent years. The raid was initiated due to suspicion of prostitution and drug trafficking by
members of the black community in this area.
In the process of seemingly acting on behalf of law and order, Bharti and his mob forcibly entered the houses of several
black inhabitants, and molested and assaulted nine women,
who have since registered a case of house trespass, mischief,
assault with intent to outrage modesty, rioting and criminal
intimidation against all those who took part in the raid (Indian
Express 2014).
Yet another attack was led by another spontaneously formed
mob in a Delhi Metro Station in September 2014. The victims
of this mob were three young black men; one from Burkina
Faso, two from Gabon. The young men were first ridiculed,
and then brutalised by being beaten until they bled and had to
be administered medical care. They pleaded with the crowd to
spare them, and sought refuge inside a police cubicle, but the
rioters threw furniture at them and tried to climb in to continue with the onslaught. Instead of coming to their rescue,
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several onlookers recorded the whole incident and circulated


the video on social media for purposes of entertainment. The
reasons for the attack are still not clear, though there have
been some vague insinuations that the black students had
been disrespectful to women; insinuations that, needless to
say, have still not been proven.
Violence Institutionalised

These instances of violence exist alongside more institutionalised forms of racism in India, whereby derogatory comments
about skin colour are almost commonplace, and often not even
registered as racism. Following a fallout with Indian National
Congress president Sonia Gandhi, Bharatiya Janata Party minister Giriraj Singh made a joke to seemingly mock the credentials and shaky foundation of Gandhis headship of the Congress by attacking skin colour. His exact words were: If Rajiv
Gandhi had married a Nigerian lady, someone not whiteskinned, would the Congress have accepted her as its leader?
The joke, for him, is on the seemingly absurd idea of a blackskinned woman occupying a hegemonic position (Varadarajan
2015). When questioned about his remark, Singhs response
was to state that the comment had been made off the record
(which obviously makes it all right, since casual racism is apparently permissible when not recorded!) and that he was prepared to apologise to Gandhi, if she had taken offence. There is
neither any admission of the fact that the remark, per se, is not
acceptable, nor was any action taken to reprimand Singh by
the party leaders.
In a short video produced by IndiaTimes (2015) to gather the
experiences of black people living in India, comments such as
those made by Singh surface over and over again. To be black
in India is to get used to being called habshi (literally Abyssinians, but often used as a derogatory term to refer to all Africans, and often also used as a swear word),2 bandaria (female
monkey), and kaalia (blackie) among many other such pejorative terms. Black interlocutors testified how Indians would run
away from them, how Indians would look at them and spit.
They are leered and stared at on public transport. They are
told that their appearance is frightening and threatening.
They are likened to the unhealthy. One particular participant
in this video admitted that Indians often covered their faces
with handkerchiefs when he walked past them, as if he was
smelly, or had a disease. They all admitted to being treated
like animals on displayas if in a zoowith Indians often
pointing and laughing at them openly.
What emerges from the video footage and the instances discussed above is how black skin is assumed to profess its own
guiltinessregardless of any other factors.3 Somatic appearances collapse the many different national, sexual, linguistic
and political identities into a single identification as black,
such that it seems justifiable for an innocent black girl to be
beaten in lieu of a black man, with whom she shares nothing,
except for their shade of skin. Indeed, this was the position
taken by Home Minister of Karnataka G Parameshwar when
questioned about the measures taken towards punishing those
who had been involved in the Bengaluru attack. Categorically
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denying the accusations that this violence was motivated by


racism, he claimed that she would not have been targeted had
there been no accident in the area involving an African
student (Hindu 2016).
Parameshwars stance follows the misgivings of W E B Du
Bois (1903) expressed at the beginning of the past century, for
the past century. Du Bois had predicted that the task of the
20th century would have been to tackle the inequalities of a
world that was divided into a skin-coded hierarchy, which dictated the unequal treatment meted out to people of different
skin colours. At the time Du Bois was writing this, there were
strict measures in place to establish skin colour as fate.
Slaverywhose historiography is closely linked to black
skinhad been officially abolished already, but certain acts
still policed the colour lines. For example, racial segregation
rules, which separated facilities, opportunities and services
pertaining to all aspects of civil life along colour linesincluding
housing, medical care, education, employment, and transportationwere still upheld in the United States (US), and would
not be abolished until the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The onedrop ruleformulated to guard against the fear of contamination by blackness, by asserting that any person with even one
drop of black blood would be considered Black, and would
only have access to the privileges restricted to the Blacks in the
USwas, in fact, codified into a law in the 20th century, and
would not be reversed until the following century.
Achieving Colour Blindedness

The 21st century, on the other hand, is often celebrated as having moved beyond Du Boiss time. The momentous struggles
against the colour lines, such as Black liberation movements
including the Black Workers Congress, the Albany Movement,
and Martin Luther Kings AfricanAmerican Civil Rights
Movementthe decolonisation of several African (largely
black) countries, and the end of apartheid in South Africa, all
serve to construct an outwardly heartening narrative of
colour blindedness.
In fact, the 21st century, the post-Selma era, has also been
touted as a post-racial era by prominent scholars and journalists such as James Wootens (possibly the first journalist to
use the term in 1971 in the New York Times), Lou Dobbs, and
Chris Matthews, whereby post-racial, in this context, does
not so much mean an erasure of race, as an undoing of the
systems that governed the roles and tasks ascribed to different
races, through erected boundaries, such as racial segregation
rules. The election of Barack Obama as the first Black President of the US is often held up as proof that the world has taken definite strides towards colour blindedness,4 whereby competence, and not the colour of ones skin, determines who the
power-bearer would be.
While we do have plenty of evidence that this colour blindedness is far from being fully achieved,5 it is undeniable that
the Obama phenomenon represents a decisive step in the right
direction. As Paul Gilroy (2013)the notable scholar of black
British and diasporic culturesput it, the achievements of
Obama in auguring a post-race society is not only significant
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for the US, but for the rest of the world too, for whom Obama is
an icon of the changing colour perceptions:
I am less concerned with Barack Obama than with the historical moment he has come to personify. His presidency provides an important
opportunity to reflect upon the changing significance of racial divisions in US politics as well as to assess emergent patterns in how African American political culture becomes relevant to people located
elsewhere in the world. The latter point qualifies the former because
the POTUS and the FLOTUS are now prominent celebrity figures in
a global culture: icons of recently diversified power whose wellgroomed images lend meaning and charisma to the ideas of racial difference sourced in north Americas successful history of settler colonialism and racial slavery.

India, however, seems to have been left out of this conversation. Despite internal problems with colour, Indiaunlike
the US, or South Africanever had a revolution to overthrow
the colour lines. Admittedly, India did not enforce segregation rules based on colour, but colour has played an important
role in the Indian imaginary, separating the upper castes
from the outcastes, the North from the South, and the poor
from the rich. Much of this is reflected in sources as varied as
the ancient Hindu scriptures (where colour determines standards of beauty, purity and morality), to contemporary and
near-contemporary popular, literary, and visual culture,
which continue to display a quasi-Brahminical obsession with
colour-coding (light on top, dark on the bottom) and constructs a hierarchy based on colour that reveals the fear of
miscegenation.
Religious Prejudice

Let us begin by looking at the religious scriptures and their


organisation of colour prejudices. Anjali Gera Roy (2008: 99)
observes the following references to colour in the different
Vedas:
Derogatory references to the black skin or krishnam vacham (RgV
IX.41.1, Sam V I.49.1, II.242 in Hunter 1987: 114) such as those about
dasyus (hosts) springing from a black womb (RgV II.20.6 in Muir
1972, I.174), the slave bands of black descent or the vile Dasyan colour (RgV II.20.7 and II.12.4 in Hunter 1987: 115), and the impious varNa (RgV II.12.4 in Muir 1972, I.43, II.284, 323) abound in the Rigveda.
Phrases such as the ancient singer praises the god who destroyed
the Dasyans and protected the Aryan colour (RgV III.34.9 in Hunter
1987: 114) [can also be found].

These colour hierarchies explicitly place black skin on the


side of the evil and unwanted, and Aryan skin on the side of
the good and desirable. The dasyusor dasas, as they will be
referred to beloware, here, translated as the hosts because
they were believed to be the original (albeit inferior) inhabitants of India, who were pushed to the south during the invasion by the fair-skinned Aryans (Thapar 1996). Aryan skin is,
of course, a reference to the fairer skin tone of North Indians
(believed to have migrated to India from somewhere in Central
Asia), around whom a myth of superior race has been constructed through the aid of Indologists such as Max Mueller,
who propounded the theory that
the Aryans [] were fair-complexioned Indo-European speakers who
conquered the dark-skinned dasas of India. The arya-varna and the
dasa-varna of the Rigveda were understood as two conflicting groups

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differentiated particularly by skin colour, but also by language and religious practice, which doubtless underlined the racial interpretation
of the terms. (quoted in Thapar 1996: 56)6

References that set up the Aryan versus dasas in scriptures


fuelled this misconception about the superiority of the fairer
North Indian skin versus the darker South Indian skin, such
that it did not take long for this fissure to split into a caste demarcation as well. Romila Thapar (1996: 67) explains the
spread of these facile demarcations:
The Aryan and the non-Aryan were segregated through the instituting
of caste. The upper castes and particularly the brahmanas of modern
times were said to be of Aryan descent and the lower castes and untouchables and tribes were descended from the Dasas. [] The complexities of caste were simplified in its being explained as racial segregation, demarcating the Aryans from the others.

As if caste was not a demeaning factor already, colour was


ascribed to castes to mark out the desirable from the undesirable, stratifying colour as a fortifier of discrimination. Predictably, black fell on the side of the outcastes, that is, all those
who lived beyond the pale of the Hindu caste systems regressive practices of untouchability and restrictive endogamy.
As seen from the above, all references to black skin were
unequivocally negative. Essentially, black skin represented
danger and signified that which lies outside familiar or approved social, political, religious, and sexual structures. These
feelings of rampant anti-blackness are not at all distinct from
Frantz Fanons (1986: 149) description of antagonism that set
white against black:
In the collective unconscious, black=ugliness, sin, darkness, immorality. In other words, he is Negro who is immoral. If I order my life like
that of a moral man, I simply am not a Negro. Whence the Martinican
custom of saying of a worthless white man that he has a nigger soul.
Colour is nothing. I do not even notice it. I know only one thing, which
is the purity of my conscience and the whiteness of my soul. Me white
like snow, the other said.

The Vedas, it seems, had been drawing these demarcations


much before the French.
The cynical and offended Hindu will probably try and point
out the gap in my argument by bringing to attention the exceptions of Krishna (the dark-skinned god whose very name
means black, and yet known for his attractiveness), Kaali
(the goddess incarnated to destroy evil, whose name is also
synonymous with the colour black), Draupadi (the heroine of
the Mahabharata, also called Krishnaa for her dark complexion, known as much for her beauty as her indomitable will),
and Shiva (he of the darkor rather dark-bluethroat, due to
the poison that he retains in his throat, in order not to let it
spill upon the earth). But, does holding up these dark deities as
paragons of beauty, virtue and morality disprove the prejudice
against black skin? How do we then account for the fact that,
in most depictions, the celestial beings black exterior is contrasted with a white light that emanates from themusually
inserted as a circle to represent their white aurawhereby
the innate whiteness is meant to represent their truer, benign,
nature that persists despite their black exterior.
It is also significant that, in modern English language discourse discussing the skin colour of the deities, the emphasis is
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on dark, as if in an attempt to avoid naming the skin colour


as black. Moreover, the popular portrayal of these deities in
sculptures and paintings is frequently blue, not black. There is
a constant contrast drawn between their innate lightness, to
explain away their black exterior, as reflected in hymns, songs,
and scriptures written in their praise. In the lyrics of the
famous song from the film Satyam Shivam Sundaram (1978),
Krishnas mother pacifies her son, who finds Radhas fair skin
more enviable than his, by telling him that he is merely black
because he was born on a moonless night, or that the fair
Radha might have cast dark magic on him with her kohlrimmed eyes. Black skineven when belonging to divinity
calls for explanation and redemption.
As for the goddesses, in an interesting analysis, Devdutt
Pattanaik (2009) points out how it is significant that Kali is only
black in her fierce, primal form. As Gauri, the consort of Shiva,
the perfect marriageable woman, she is fair and luminous:
The Goddess in her more primal form is dark, dark as the night. She is
Kali, the dark one, who is wildso wild that she unbinds her hair, dances
naked, copulates in public and drinks blood. She is indifferent to disapproving stares. This is not defiance. This is her prakriti, her nature, her
being. In calendar art, this blackness of Kali has turned blue and purple,
and ornaments are strategically placed to hide her nakedness []. One
day, says the scriptures, the gods begged her to seduce and marry Shiva,
the ascetic, who shut his eyes in indifference to the world. Kali then took
a dip in the river Yamuna and emerged as Gauri, the radiant one, the
golden one, the fair one, smeared with turmeric. If Kali was Chandi,
the wild one, then Gauri was Mangala, the auspicious one. If Kali was
Bhairavi, the fearsome one, then Gauri was Lalita, the graceful one. If
Kali was Raktapriya, the one who loves blood, then Gauri was Kamakshi,
the one whose glance stirs desire. Thus black and white became symbols
of wildness and domestication in the context of the Goddess.

In the case of Draupadi, though her dark skin makes her


eye-catching and attractive (or is she eye-catching and attractive
despite her dark skin?), she is barely a model to emulate, as
projected in her faulted character and the tragic fate that befalls her. Pattanaik uses her as a foil to the much more often
revered (and white-skinned) Sita, who is upheld as the model
wife and mother. Though worshipped, Draupadis characteristics
are much less affable:
[Sita] is the graceful Lakshmi, without whom, Rama is never worshipped. Draupadi worship is popular in some parts of India as in
North Tamil Nadu. There she is Amman, the mother-goddess, worshipped alone without any of her husbands, the fearsome Kali who
drinks the blood of her abusers. It is interesting to note that modern
writers tend to project Sita more as a silent suffering victim and Draupadi more as an outspoken demanding heroine while traditional storytellers saw Sita as a person full of love, wisdom and patience and
Draupadi as a glamorous intimidating diva. (Pattanaik 2014)

It becomes apparent from all of the above that, while Aryan


invasion and British colonisation might have driven home colour prejudice in India by setting up white skin as aspirational,
it is unlikely that black skin was projected as anything else
other than demeaning even in precolonial and ancient India.
Beauty and Bollywood

From the Vedas, to popular discourse, and to contemporary


culture, not much has changed with regard to skin colour
preferences and prejudices. This is reflected, among other
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things, in the thriving markets of matrimonial advertisements for potential partners, and in the popularity commanded
by the skin bleaching industry. We are by now accustomed to
matrimonial advertisements, in several languages, seeking
brides (and often grooms) with peachy (not wheatish)
skin tones, which reveal the superficial collapsing of fair skin
with beauty. Shaadi.com, one of the leading matrimonial
websites for Indians, cites fair skin as the key factor in
successful matchmaking.
This marriage of fair skin and beauty is indeed what the skin
bleaching industry (estimated to be a multimillion industry)
thrives on, while demeaning blackness in its stride. The commercials for these products, featuring highly paid Bollywood
and cricket stars, play havoc on the psyche of the blacknessfearing Indian. Often, a direct link is drawn between fairness,
happiness, confidence and success (whether personally or professionally). The commercials deliberately portray the victims
of dark skin, prior to the skin-lightening experience, as being
complete failures. They exude defeat and despondency in their
appearance, attitude and posture, even displaying a very poor
sense of fashion. Then, they come across this fairness cream,
and lo and behold! Life suddenly seems more than endurable.
They not only gain good looks, but are also bestowed with the
new confidence, bonhomie, fashion sense, and social skills
that lead to success and eternal happiness. All thanks to a
skin-lightening cream!
Further, there are caricatures of dark skin in one of Indian
societys most basic expressions: Bollywood.7 I would not be
exaggerating when I say that there is a virtual non-existence of
positive representations of black skin in popular Bollywood
films. Mehmood singing hum kaale hai to kya hua dilwale
hai (So what if I am black? I have a big heart) in Gumnaam
(1965) sets the tone for the positioning of the dark-skinned
character as the buffoon, the inferior being who has to prove
his worth by glossing over his appearance and emphasising
the bigness of his heart to the woman he is trying to woo. The
portrayal of this song sequence is particularly significant
since Mehmood is crooning to Helen, an Indian actress of
AngloBurmese descent, whose whiteness contributes to her
beauty, and, hence, her elusiveness for the dark-skinned man.
The humour in the song rests precisely on the fact of
Mehmoods unrealistic (unattainable) obsession with Helen.
The roles of dark-skinned actors are thus set. They are the butt
of ridicule, providing comic relief through their appearance.
Johnny Lever, Siddharth Yadav and Kiku Sharda are among
the actors who have made a career out of being mocked for
being dark-skinned.
When they are not playing the clown, dark-skinned actors
play the villain (often while sporting a South Indian accent).
Nana Patekar as Anna Seth in Parinda (1989), Sadashiv
Amrapurkar as Rama Shetty in Ardh Satya (1983), Prakash Raj
as Jaikant Shikre in Singham (2011)are but a few instances
of iconic villains whose villainess is emphasised through their
skin colour. As for the women, when they are not pigeonholed
as comic relief characters or villains, they are given the roles of
the sultry, lusty seductress, often led on by supernatural forces.
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Indian scream queen, Bipasha Basu, is a prime case in point.


She has been made famous for her associations with erotic
horror thrillers such as Raaz (2002), Rudraksh (2004), Rakht
(2004), Pankh (2010), Raaz 3 (2012), and Alone (2015), among
many others. Presumably, the darkness of her skin is used as
an allegory for the darkness of her soul, so that her skin colour
here serves to highlight her decadence.
Nandita Dasthe Indian actress who is the face of the Dark
is Beautiful campaign that seeks to draw attention to the nefarious effects of skin colour bias and celebrates all skin
tonestalks about how darker actresses are often lightened
(via make up, and sometimes more drastic procedures involving surgery and drug intake) for certain roles. So while she is
often offered the role of a lower-caste woman or peasant due
to her darker skin (which she plays with minimal make-up),
whenever she plays the role of an upper-class woman, directors instinctively want to lighten her skin:
They always say to me: Dont worry, we will lighten you, were really good at it, as a reassurance. Its perpetuating a stereotype that
only fair-skinned women can be educated and successful. (quoted in
Rajesh 2013)

Beauty, morality, class, and righteousness are all used as


prisms to attack, ridicule, and exploit dark skin.
Black Skin in Bollywood

But, if we thought that the predicament of the dark-skinned


Indian is the very worst fate reserved in Bollywood, we need to
think again. African/AfroCaribbean black skin occupies a
niche of its own, marking the very extreme limits of social acceptance, propriety, and civilisation. Bollywoods range for
non-Indian black actors is even stricter than the range reserved for black Indiansthey are buffoonish, poor, violent,
prone to criminality, and represent social problems hailing
from a different national and cultural contextwhich makes
Indias situation seem enviable in comparison. This bigoted
imagining of the black man or woman has remained unchanged over the years.
One of the earliest portrayals of a black man (in fact, an
Indian actor in blackface, growling, snarling, and uttering gibberish to seem more autochthonously African) was for a
song sequence in the 1969 film, Intequaam. The narrative of
the song is as follows: a savage is wheeled in, in a cage, to act
as a prop for a cabaret sequence performed by none other than
the same AngloBurmese actor, Helen, mentioned above. Helen
dances, seduces and tortures the black man in the cage to such
an extent that he eventually dies, due to not being able to bear
his unfulfilled sexual longings. Meanwhile, wealthy Indians
and white-skinned men watch this performance appreciatively
from the audience, only cringing when the black man briefly
breaks out of his cage to get to Helen, but then sighing in relief
when he is recaptured and eventually dies.
In another song sequence in the 1999 film, Kartoos, a veiled
woman walks out and sits in front of a group of men who are
staring at her gait appreciatively, and discussing her movement and clothes. Her friends slowly and theatrically lift up
her veil to reveal a black woman. Taken aback, the men jump
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and fall off their chairs, until the actual fair bride peeks out
from behind the black woman and starts singing. The men regain their breath, composure, and seats, and the black woman
is forgotten and soon disappears.
In a scene in the 2008 film, Fashion, the character played by
Priyanka Chopraa coveted fashion model gone wildrealises how low she has fallen, only when she wakes up with a
black man in her bed after a night of drug-induced intoxication. (It is interesting how intoxication has to be used as a factor to justify her attraction to the black man in the first place.)
The scene depicting her shock and remorse capitalises on the
assumed shared code and unquestioned acceptance of the
black mans body as sinful by the Indian audience. The camera
moves from her horrified face to reveal the black mans body,
dramatically depicted as being sprawled across white sheets,
while she clings to these very white sheets and attempts to
wipe off smudged (black) mascara from her eyes and face, revealing layer after layer of Fanons predictions about holding
up black as a symbol of shame and barbarity.
In another film from the same year, titled No Problem, the
post racial era augured by Obama is given a nod and mocked.
In this particular sequence, Paresh Rawal tells Akshaye Khanna
(who has inadvertently painted his face black by smearing
fresh paint all over it) that he hates black faces because it reminds him of his kaala munh (black face, that is, his disgrace).
Hearing the phrase I hate black faces, some black tourists
beat him up (hence advancing the thesis of black men being
prone to violence). The directors superficially compassionate
intervention is in the insertion of one particular woman frantically shouting: Obama is the President of the United States,
and you still hate us? The level of ridiculousness is beyond
belief, but so is the extent to which Bollywood would go to establish black as a negative marker, as the extreme other.
The Recognisable Other

In the rest of this paper, I will go on to show that the popular


portrayal of black skin goes beyond the shallow colourism of
the Indian beauty and glamour industry, and becomes the
stage for living out multiple other prejudices. The depiction of
colour in Bollywood becomes the modality through which economics, class, and nationality is lived in India, placing the fair
Indian above the dark Indian, but the Indian above anyone
else black. The pigmentation and gradient of skin tones become the windows for initiating a dialogue about nationalism,
whereby the idea of Africa is used as a foil to show off India.
Isabel Hofmeyr and Michelle Williams (2001) have explored
the way Africa constitutes one of the limits of India. One of
the criterions for determining this limit here is skin colour. On
this scale, the upper-class and higher-caste Indian is lighter
than the lower-caste Indian peasant, but Indian, as a category,
is lighter/browner than the black AfroCaribbean.
Black AfroCaribbean skin becomes the classical case of the
recognisable Other described by Homi Bhabha (1994) as
the subject of difference that is almost the same, but not
quite. It is almost the same, given several overlaps in the
shared history of colonisation and exploitation, and then the
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rich legacies of the anti-colonial struggle, between India and


several African and West Indian countries, but not quite,
because India still insists on a colour-coded hierarchy where
Indians as brown emerge as better in comparison with the
AfroCaribbeans as black. Better, here, abides to the scale of
success according to the logic of a global capitalist system that
continues to support colonialism in the present era, carrying
on its bequest of sustaining systems of economic, political and
cultural dominance that prevailed during the colonial era in
the past.8
Before I go on, I do want to point out that the term brown
itself is quite centrifugal, and has multiple meanings in different places and during different times. Southern European
skin, for example, was once considered brown, but is now collapsible with white. Brown, in South Africa, is sometimes
used to connote mixed race. But, following Antoinette Burton
(2012), I use brown skin here for Indian, and more broadly
South Asian skin tones, even while recognising some of the
uneasy, uneven sense of colour differences that a politics of
racial citation reveals. I certainly do not want to suggest, for
example, that Indians are a homogenously racialised group.
Colonial Prejudice

This hierarchisation raises important questions about what


lies ahead for a world that is increasingly mixed, and for the
equation between people of different colours across the world.
While there is no doubt that the origins of colour prejudices
are largely attributable to slavery and the colonisation of a
largely non-white world by white menwho established white
skin as a parameter against which all other skin tones were
measured for degrees of racial purity and the ensuing authority entailedand has been spurred on by a capitalist system that has retained much of the colour composition of the
colonial system.
Why have the dynamics between non-white people not
changed much following their multiple exchanges in the postcolonial era? The New Delhi attacks point to the recycling of
the very same prejudices and stereotypes that the colonial
white world levied at the black man: that the black man is likely to be an anti-social element, a criminal, a drug-peddler, and
a savage and uncivilised human being with few, or no, ethics.
Indeed, holding one black person responsible for the crime of
another black personas with the case of the Tanzanian and
Sudanese nationals in the Bengaluru incidentis to condemn
everyone with a particular shade of skin to the same predicament. This is another throwback to Fanon (1986: 8485)
whereby he asserted how his skin colour did not just speak for
him, but of him too:
I was responsible at the same time for my body, for my race, for my
ancestors. I subjected myself to an objective examination, I discovered
my blackness, my ethnic characteristics; and I was battered down
by tom-toms, cannibalism, intellectual deficiency, fetichism, racial
defects, slave-ships, and above all else, above all: Sho good eatin.

Seeking to understand the misgivings of one coloured


person for another in the Caribbean context, Walter Rodney
(1969: 3334) made the following observation:
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When an African abuses an Indian he repeats all that the white men
said about Indian indentured coolies; and in turn the Indian has borrowed from the whites the stereotypes of the lazy nigger to apply to
the African beside him. It is as though no black man can see another
black man except by looking through a white man. [emphasis mine]

Is this prejudice then attributable to the common intermediary? Have Indians been so brainwashed by their encounter
with the white man that they have even imbibed his prejudices? To a large extent, the answer is yes. Black Indian skin
might have connoted all things negative from the scriptures
onwards, but non-Indian black skin further imbibed the derision of Indias colonial masters. Indias encounter with Africa
(other than through the Siddi community, who are Indians of
African descent and have been living in the country since the
17th century) (Ali 1995) would have primarily occurred in the
shadow of British colonial conquests, and through the white
man. Africa, following colonial dictates, would just have been
perceived as an inferior colony where Indian administrators,
trained under the colonial office, would be sent to work as representatives of the empire. The reverse happened much less
often. Indians often found themselves as subjects and at the
same time agents of the British empire in Zanzibar, Kenya, and
South Africa, but very rarely did a colonial subject trained under British administration in any of the African colonies come
to India for the same kind of posting.
How colonial training and perceived proximity to whiteness
led to entire generations of brown sahibs, whose ultimate fantasy
was to emulate the ways of the white man, has already been
explored by Bhabha, among many others, so I will not repeat
the arguments here. In terms of decrying the relations Indians
would maintain with other colonies though, it is significant to
analyse here how this possibility of acting as an agent of the
empire meant that whiteness (and its accompanying prestige)
was considered more attainable by Indians than by their fellow
colonised in Africa. Whiteness, with its capitalist dynamics,
elevated India. But, there was the need of a foil to measure and
put into perspective the success story of this acquired whiteness, and this foil was provided in the shape of the darker African
skin. Black skin, set at the diametric end of the colour spectrum, proved the proximity of brown skin to whiteness.
This sense of superiority arising from closeness to whiteness
is reflected, among many other instances, in the interactions
of the young Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi with the black
natives in South Africa. Gandhi looked down on black Africans,
and this is reflected in the way he too adopted the discourse of
the coloniser and did not shy away from calling black Africans
kaffirs (literally infidel, but used in the South African context as a derogatory term for people with black skin). Gandhi
in fact went a step further to emphasise the difference between black Africans and brown Indians by postulating about
the belief in the common ancestry of Indians and Europeans:
I venture to point out that both the English and the Indians spring
from a common stock, called the Indo-Aryan. .
[T]he belief ... serves as the basis of operations of those who are trying
to unify the hearts of the two races, which are, legally and outwardly,
bound together under one common flag.

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A general belief seems to prevail in the Colony that the Indians are
little better, if at all, than savages or the Natives of Africa. Even the
children are taught to believe in that manner, with the result that the
Indian is being dragged down to the position of a raw Kaffir.
... [T]he Indians were, and are, in no way inferior to their Anglo-Saxon
brethren, if I may venture to use the word, in the various departments
of lifeindustrial, intellectual, political, etc. (Gandhi 1999)

The whiter Indians felt further removed from ideas of and


associations with blackness. There was no united front represented under the generic category of black, yoking together
people of different skin tones, which, for Steve Biko (one of the
leaders of the Black Consciousness Movement) implied
resistance to white supremacy. Brown and black were broken
down into distinct categories that connoted a civilisational
hierarchy. The Indian citizens of the empire might still not
have been quite white in the way Bhabha defines it, but this
did not stop them from flaunting their brownness as closer to
whiteness than blackness.
Rather than the colonial era, this discourse in fact finds its
peak in the postcolonial era, in the midst of a conversation
about global economic and political hegemony, especially in
view of the supposed rise of India as a global superpower.9 The
liberalisation of the Indian economy, which opened the portals
of investment and trade to the world in the 1990s, and the corollaries of being perceived as redoubtable partners in a new
world order, meant that there have been many attemptsin
politics as well as in the cultural fieldto establish India as a
worthy hero that has fared more admirably than many ex-colonies. It is not surprising that, as pointed out by Eva Hofmeyr
and Michelle Williams (2001), many comparative analyses of
India and European colonies in Africa emerged in this era
whereby, with the possible exception of South Africa, Africa
continued to be represented through quasi-colonial perceptions [] as the dark continent.
Bollywoods Agenda

Popular culture obviously reflects and refracts many of the debates, and the involvement of Bollywood in these representations is particularly influential. As studied by Angelie Multani
(2009) and Tejaswini Ganti (2012) among others, Bollywood
has successfully represented many of these debates, as well as
endorsed the competitive discourse that puts India in perspective with the rest of the world. While Multani traces the nationalistic streak of Bollywood by analysing how the portrayal
of the white man changes from that of the oppressor to that of
an equal, Ganti alerts us to the gentrified aspirations of Bollywood, which makes it appeal to and target the nationalist
chords in upper-class and upper-middle-class Indians, as well
as diasporic Indians. It is, therefore, not surprising that the
contest to elevate India vis--vis previous colonies forms part
of Bollywoods agenda.
I will do a brief analysis of a few scenes from recent films in
an attempt to unravel this logic.
In a scene in the 2008 film Singh is Kinng [sic] a gang of
Indian Sikh gangsters operating in Australia set off to threaten
an AfroAustralian, black man, who owns a burger van, to
82

close his business following a deal with some rich Australian


(white?) businessmen, whose own ventures are suffering because of the popularity of this mans burgers. Upon reaching
this mans house, the gangsters realise that the black man is
entirely reliant on his small franchise, and is otherwise destitute. Taking pity, the gangsters seek to bribe him with money
instead to give up his van, but the black man introduces them
to his large family and beseeches them to calculate what the
cost of maintaining such a large family would be if he were to
get rid of his only source of livelihood. Moved, the gangsters
decide against taking any sanction against this poor man, and
instead turn back after offering him money and their word to
protect him.
I find this scene problematic at many levels. I admit that
Singh is Kinng is slapstick, and therefore likely to get away
with exaggerating on stereotypes more than any other genre.
It is not even as blatantly racist as some of Kumars other films,
such as Kambakht Ishq (2009), in which the US-based Kumar
would sleep with any woman, provided she was not black. In
one particular scene, a petite blonde is used as a prop, as a
contrast to a black woman, in order to emphasise his torture at
the black womans hands. Both women play the characters of
customs officers at an airport, but it is the black woman who
performs a cavity search on Kumar, while the white woman
stands by giggling at his misery.
And, yet, I would argue that Singh is Kinng is probably even
more problematic than films such as Kambakht Ishq because it
is a film that projects itself as deliberately eschewing racial,
ethnic and colour discrimination, and nationalism. The integration of black American rapper, Snoop Dogg, who raps
along with Kumar in the title song of the film and features in a
video with him, is an open message about the politics that the
film is purportedly espousing, whereby the nod to black popular culture is here intended to add to the internationalist credentials of the film. As for the politics within the plotline itself, Kumars character, Happy Singh, is pointedly not the
sentimental nationalist who hankers after home. He is projected as the new nomad,to borrow the term from Eva
Hoffman (1998)whose exile (if it can be called that) is
more comedy than despair.10 The plot sees him moving
through a number of sites with easefrom his birthplace in
Punjab, to Egypt, to Australiaand his easy cosmopolitanism
enables him to fit in and make himself at home practically
anywhere in the world.
Yet, the film-makers easily arrange their prejudices on either
side of the colour line. Poverty coincides absolutely with the
colour black, while largesse of heart and generosity is made
synonymous with brown. Vexed class relations act as a mask
for their vexing colour prejudices. To paraphrase Dan Ojwang
(2013), this engineering of race through class awakens us to
the reality that the Indian film-makers are providing little (or
no) room for social, economic, and cultural mobility on the
part of those who are black, while the brown Indian characters
themselves move around freely and independently, despite the
fact that they are outlaws (and potentially also illegal immigrants in Australia).
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The makers of Singh is Kinng, when confronted with accusations of racism, defended themselves by saying that since this
is a scene that depicts interaction and solidarity among different diasporas, it disrupts and pre-empts accusations of racism.
But, if this scene had indeed been intended to display the virtues of diaspora by showing the interaction and solidarity between black diasporas and brown diasporas, why are the
gangsters the benefactors and protectors of the burger merchants family? Both communities are potentially marginal
and liminal figures; one through their poverty, and the other
because of their lawlessness. Yet, the film-makers portray the
Indian gangsters in such a way that they are able to effectively
extract their identity through the broader grouping of nonwhite diaspora in a predominantly white country, and emerge
as being better off in comparison to the members of the black
diaspora who, it appears, are almost the same, but not quite.
Not quite brown.
The logic offered by the makers of Singh is Kinng, here, is in
line with the nationalist discourse about India, which is the
logic of economics. It is pertinent that the brown gangsters are
the model minoritythe wealthiest and the most successful
so much so that their chief is referred to as King. This is in
keeping with the discourse about the rise of India following its
deep entanglement with the global economy in the last 1015
years. It is pertinent that black AfroAustralians are used as a
foil to the brown Indians because of Africas own perceived
loss of connections with international trade, as well as its
Notes
1 I use the term racism, even while distancing it
from the collapsing of skin colour with race.
Race is not biology, nor is it a category with the
same accepted codes for measurement. We
cannot universally talk of the black race for
example, because what is black in one context
may not be black in another. Black means different things in Brazil, South Africa, and the
US. Skin colour, hair texture, and facial features are variably used as measurement devices for race all over the world. My use of the
term racism here is to refer specifically to the
prejudice and chauvinism directed against
people on basis of skin colour.
2 For a more comprehensive understanding of
the different terminologies related to Africans
in India, and how the term habshi became pejorative and was associated with slavery, see,
Shanti Sadiq Ali (1995), who explains how Abyssinians were originally slaves from Ethiopia,
while the term habshi was a reference to slaves
from the southern region of Arabia. In time,
these demarcations fell off and were used interchangeably and with the intention to insult.
3 Frantz Fanon (1986: 106) discusses this unquestioned association of guiltiness with black
skin in his study, Black Skin, White Masks, tracing the association of black skin with evil, and
linking it up with how black people would consequently come to regard the colour of their
own skin as professing their guilt, when in contact with white skin: Sin is Negro as virtue is
white. All those white men in a group, guns in
their hands, cannot be wrong. I am guilty. I do
not know of what, but I know that I am no
good.
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developing relations (of seeming dependency?) with rising


Asian economies, such as China, but also India.
Paul Gilroy (1992: 211) suggests that the spaces in which
cultural consumption takes place provide locations in which
racial politics can be erased. By this logic, Bollywood and other forms of Indian popular culture should have been the ideal
levelling and harmonising space for colour divides and prejudices prevalent in India. But, in pursuit of its gentrified status,
Bollywood has done nothing to erase the politics of race or
colour. Instead, the racism of colonial scholarship and governance continues to be channelled through colour prejudices,
now disguised as arguments about economic hegemony and
political credence.
While small pockets of resistance that seek to draw attention to the absurdity of anti-blackness exist within the industry (such as the Dark is Beautiful campaign championed by
Das, and social media movements such as Black Lives Matter
and Unfair and Lovely), lyrics of songs, dialogues in films,
and roles ascribed to different characters on the basis of their
colour continue to make it seem as if the colour black is undesired and unwelcome in India. Indians who are likely to shout
foul in the face of racism when discriminated against on the
basis of their appearance overseas, refuse to acknowledge
their own racism, defying any ideas of shared victimhood and
struggle in a common past. Brown insists on being placed
over black, prolonging Du Boiss predictions and fears into
the 21st century.

4 For example, on January 2008, after Obama fared


well in the Iowa and New Hampshire pre-election
polls, the Economist (2008) reported: Mr
Obamas candidacy [] seemed a post-racial
triumph. While he rarely addressed the issue
directly, he seemed to embody the hope that
America could transcend its divisions. Iowas
lily-white electorate flocked to him joyfully.
5 Following the umpteenth killing of an innocent
black boy on baseless suspicions arising due to
the colour of his skin (which led to the famous
Ferguson protests in 2014), the journal ProPublica (Gabrielson et al 2014) conducted a survey,
which revealed that young black males in the
US are 21 times more likely to be shot dead by
police officers than young white males, and that,
from an analysis of deadly police shootings between 2010 and 2012, black males aged 1519
years were killed at the rate of 31.17 per million
(in comparison to the 1.47 rate per million of
young white males in the same age group killed
in police shootings). This data proves that colour is very much still a noticeable factor.

6 Romila Thapar (1996) goes on to deconstruct


this myth by showing how the division between Aryan and Dravidians is, in fact, more
linguistic than ethnic or racial.
7 Bollywood, or Hindi cinema as it has historically been known, is an important benchmark
for identity formation in India. Angelie Multani
(2009) does a thorough analysis of how influential Bollywood is in the way that it represents the aspirations of and serves as a role
model for millions of Indians.
8 I borrow this reading of the world capitalist
system from the works of Pablo Mukherjee
(2006).
9 This is not necessarily a view that I endorse,
but instead one that is perpetrated by the capitalist elite of India. For a more critical perspective
on this, see, among others, Amartya Sen and
Jean Drze (2013).
10 Happy Singh is deceitfully sent away to Australia because the villagers are fed up of his
antics. His sojourn definitely has elements of
an exile, though none of the despair.

Attention ContributorsI
The EPW has been sending reprints of articles to authors. We are now discontinuing the
practice. We will consider sending a limited number of reprints to authors located in India
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We will, of course, continue to send a copy of the print edition to all our authors whose
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Gilroy, Paul (1992): There Aint No Black in the Union Jack: The Cultural Politics of Race and Nation, London: Routledge.
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Crude Racism Does Real Damage, NDTV,
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Wootens, James T (1971): Compact Set Up for
Post-racial South, New York Times, 5 October.

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