Ghostface: On Bollywood And India’s Fear Of Being “Too Dark”


A lot of Indian kids have pictures of themselves in ghost-face.

That’s when you take a selfie with your head covered in talcum powder. I laugh now, but I’m guilty of doing the same, wanting to turn myself into a powdered donut, wondering if I was the wrong color.

My parents, first generation South Indians from Kerela, believed they had the answer.

“Too dark,” my mother informed me, her impressionable teen. “That’s what I get for marrying your father.” In our culture, the subtle differences in skin tone, sometimes impossible to discern, mattered. Being a few shades lighter than my dad, she never neglected a gloating opportunity. “The closer you are to white the better off you are,” was her confounding message.

As a matter of record, that was about when she quickly informed me that my melanin was here to stay.

To be fair, it wasn’t just her. Seemed like the whole world was (still is) color obsessed and determined to make me hate the very wrapping I came in.  

The “white is right, them vs. us message” was and still is ubiquitous and wholly entrenched in our culture: movies, magazines, friends, and family are all held captive by this kind of self-inflicted Sunday afternoon racism. Because of the white-out, I spent so many wasted years running from myself, wondering why I was the color of an Ethiopian coffee bean and if there was anything I could do about it. 

Yes, it was an absurd thing for a kid to obsess about, and I’m lucky I survived my efforts to please and shape-shift from deep mahogany to boring beige. In my vain not so scientific detour, I reached for every kind of fade cream, bleach, and cake mix remedy I got off the street that promised to banish the black and deliver lily whiteness.

No quick-fix was off limits.

Because I did not have an allowance and I lived on handouts, I skipped the over-priced-over-the-counter “Jolene” bleach (still on the shelves) and instead, reached for modestly priced homespun solutions that were in my budget. Like I mentioned, no idea was too silly: I soaked my head in egg whites and milk. I layered pancake batter on my cheeks. I rubbed my pores raw with lemons. Despite the fact many of these far-out concoctions were “fingers crossed” passed around from one dark kid to another and skipped the FDA and, therefore, could have seared the flesh off my bones, the potions, thank God, did their trick and filled me with unbridled hope.

Could I claim I had become even one shade lighter?

That was negligible. Mostly, I ended up plastered in a layer of bread pudding that dried into a hard candy shell and cracked into million little pieces all over my head — sort of like the pictures I’d seen of breakaway ice-sheets in the Arctic Circle.

Despite the utter disaster and the mess, I persisted.

Why? Blame Indian movies.  

You see, Bollywood’s been white-washed.

I was born there, been back many times, and let me confess, India is every shade but white. But not so fast, says the sum total of India’s commercial film output.

If you check out the sprawling hand-picked casts of some of the city’s homegrown flicks, you will experience the “Bollywood Conundrum’ in full effect, the unattainable European Ideal of beauty — light skin, light eyes, the Nordic Mountain Valley ideal, or what I call, the Heidi features rammed down the throats of the dark skinned masses. In this self-imposed white, the indigenous, ethnic, full bodied beings seen in relief in the erotic temple carvings of Khajuraho and the robust figurines of people and animals discovered in Indus Valley, are in danger of extinction..

Sadly, this “Indian” look is DOA on the big screens on the screens of India. Somehow or another, without informing NATO, Bollywood has performed a brilliant hat trick — relocated the tropical Indian landmass to the Czech Republic — and all without losing one piece of luggage.

It’s all hush-hush. No one’s talking.

Brand name actors with any kind of color, if they want to add to their resume, have to accept affectionate slurs like “dusky,” and play along with this “India is White” lie. They can be seen in advertisements and movies wearing the wrong foundation (something ten times lighter than need be) and clomping about under unwieldy sun-shielding umbrellas, damming the largest star in our galaxy for sabotaging their complexions.
If asked, they routinely apologize for their perceived darkness, making assurances to the audience that a light skinned cousin or sister-in-law really does exist.

To me, this head scratching behavior rings true. In fact, I’ve heard this stomach churning stuff in real life … some medium toned kid, trying to fit in, makes excuses and says: “Um, I’m dark, but my sister’s uncle’s niece in so-so city has light skin and blue eyes.” That kind of cringe-inducing stuff makes me sick, because, like it or not, I’m often the one repeating it.

And about the movies, what happened to the brown people?

If people are going to change they have to see it to believe it.

After chatting up a casting director in India for where all the regular Indians are, I got the bitter truth: If you show up at an audition without a “peaches and cream” complexion, no “call back” for you. Don’t even think about crashing a party scene, even the extras have to lighten up. No busting in the old fashioned way — as a rouged -up, hip thrusting backup dancer either. It is invasion of the lighter skinned body snatched everywhere you look.

Sad but true, it’s not just American talent scouts churning through the soviet block for the next Gisele.

Bollywood’s also on the look-out for this Nordic glamour queens.

Not even the scared out-of-control-go-for-broke-song-and-dance are immune from this white out. Top Indian producers, instead of going native, are maxing out their air miles and going Siberian, flying in long-legged dancers all the way from Russia for the insane musical “Vegas on crack” atmosphere, like Kung Fu moves from China, that seemed so irrefutably Bollywood.

As the way it stands now, instead of watching real live Indians in tights do the Bollywood Shuffle, the audience at home gets white-washed clones of Indian people.

To me, that’s like replacing the Cosby family show with white doubles shipped in from Scotland. I don’t know about the rest of the world, but I’m guessing that Bill Cosby would not put up with that.

Why aren’t the people of India filling the streets, in a rage, wanting equal representation in their homespun media?

Actually, no one seems to notice.  

In fact, box office is boffo.

Just like me and the white talcum powder, I suspect everyone’s been brainwashed…or whitewashed. In fact, a recent poll of nearly 12,000 people of Indian decent conducted on, a marriage portal for thousands of lovesick singles, reported that skin tone (and not a bubbling personality) was the most important quality when selecting a life partner.

It’s perplexing how open everyone is about the unsettling “No Darkies Allowed” message. In fact, this kind of blistering openness is exactly why my parents kept me and my sister locked up during our summer vacations and forbade us from any skin compromising outdoor activities.

“So you don’t get any darker,” they liked to howl.

Stuff like, “Come inside, you’re getting dark,” or the “I don’t know how I ended up with such dark kids!” is what the vacations sounded like at our house.

And wait, if I thought that was weird, the skin-trade got weirder around husband hunting season. When my sister came of a certain age and started reading romance novels by the pound, my parents started their insane search for a suitable hubby. Of course, every strained discussion about the groom started with his color. Once this person started describing himself as “wheatish” (the color of bran flakes) there had to be some serious money on the table, or a bunch of advanced college degrees to make up for the invading darkness in the family gene pool.  

In the meantime, what’s a dusky groom to do?

Skin transplants?
Hide out in some ashram?
Get a giant eraser?  

Sometimes I have to agree with my parents, it’s best not to ask the tough questions. “You might not like the answer,” my mother liked to say.

Madison Avenue, through their conglomerates, and outlets, rose to the challenge. They pump out the slippery answer daily: quaint little commercials filled with neo-eugenics propaganda about Aryan superiority. I’m talking about the infamous fade cream spots of present day India, or what I call golden nuggets of goodness that make DW Griffiths’ “Intolerance” look like a “can we get along training” film.

Even with the scale reduced to television size, the innocuous hate-speech-on-‘roids content within the frame, to me, is just as frightening the infamous Klan raids in Griffith’s seminal silent era big screen epic about white pride run amok.

Case in point: in one especially unnerving spot, a covering actor in dark-face, is stuck in a horrible minstrel show reminiscent of pre-civil rights America.

His foundation looks like a ski-mask, probably because it is five shades darker than his own flesh. Don’t blame the glam squad, this is part of the act. The producers got a lighter skinned dude to play the “darkie” so the miraculous reveal happened, more reliable than the monsoons, it’s more dramatic than anyone imaged possible.

As far as the plot’s concerned, it’s the same old story: an aspirational yarn about people on the outside looking in — wanting the good life — but held back on account of something missing from their lives.

In this incarnation, our wilting actor, eyes bulging, stares blankly at a warmer toned Disney inspired version of himself living a fairytale white man’s life, landing the corner office, getting the perfect woman, pleasing his parents, and producing light sinned airs to the perfect family.

At the end of the nauseating ordeal nightmare pumped into a million homes, the “darkie” pleads for help.

From where does his help come?

Enter international skin lighting companies, massive conglomerates like Vaseline and Ponds want to save the day. Because of the bazillions of rupees people shell out yearly (worldwide) for Fade Creams, the insidious message — listen people, your entire net worth, even your burial plot, hinges on the tone of your skin and not your deeds — is palpable. Also mystifying is how the insidious corporate propaganda machine of the skin crème industry has the unflinching stamp of approval from those who should know better: media a-listers, titans of industry, and mega-watt celebrities.

What’s a tan kid to do?

If India’s Tom Cruise says your life will be better three shades lighter in seven days, just like me, the average kid is going to hit the bleach.

What worse, it’s not just the movies. The self-inflicted wounds of history — care of the caste system, Imperialism, invading armies of the past, and the magnificent good and unflinching bad stuff of life that made India the original cultural melting pot it is today, has also left a color divide drawn right through the center of the subcontinent.

Once again, just like in the marriage portals, in my family, and the movies, way too many people are unabashed about what side they’re on.

Nothing wrong with looking African, I tell them.

And what, may I ask, is wrong with African anyway?

Should the entire sub-Saharan, home to the all families of mankind, be dunked in a giant vat of Esso Vanishing Cream?

Yes, says the skin cream industry — stamp out the past, lose the Dravidian roots (kinky hair darker skin) hide the indigenous Indians.

To level the competition, some families go too far. They spend generations selectively breeding the “African-ness” out of their genes. That’s why the arranged marriage thing is so popular back home: it’s all part of the bigger plan to keep the darkness at bay. My family’s a mixed bag, so looks and color are all over the map. I’m stuck in the middle — coffee brown — not dark enough to give up the fight, but not light enough to please the parents either.

Honestly, what’s the big deal with being so white anyway?

It’s not all that.

Unlike my lighter skinned pals, I can wear any color under the sun; in fact, leaving the house in a melody of fuchsia, electric plum, and neon blues is one of the great pleasures in life, outside of swimming with the whales or getting a zillion hits on my latest YouTube posting. My lighter skinned pals, on the flip side, have to live in depressing low Chroma pastels, like periwinkle and silver-grey.

The only hues I can’t wear are chartreuse and Naples yellow because they make my olive undertones look green.

Who wants to wear Naples yellow anyway?

Also, I can bake in the sun all day. White kids have to run inside for cover and miss out on all the glorious, life affirming solar stuff, or vitamin D.

I hate to gloat, but being brown, when I think about it, feels super fabulous until someone sub-human says something rude like, “Hey, um, does that color rub off?”
No it doesn’t — thank goodness.

Actually, when I’m at the receiving end of that kind of talk, I want to run the snake oil salesmen and the fade crème business out of town.

Why don’t they stop making a crème that wipes out a person’s identity and instead, create a fairness crème, something like the American Bill of rights that promises everyone (fingers crossed) an opportunity?

Until then, if you ask me, here’s how I think we can fix the problem. First: the people in charge need to let a few dark skinned people into the limelight. That way, there’d be a lot fewer self-hating Indian kids shopping the ethnic aisles for hair relaxers. Secondly: If some evolved adult had the nerve to tell people of color that we were not rejects from another planet, the whole darned color line would fall apart and we could get on with our merry lives.

Until that happens, kids in doubt will wear their foundations two shades lighter.

And ghost-face snaps will continue.

As far as my own issues with the color of my skin, strangely enough, my relief came not from the conflicted flicks of Bollywood, but from the inspired burst of creativity that exploded out of the independent African American Cinema of the late 90s.

Yes, thanks to the sumptuous films of Spike Lee, I ditched the bleach and the wide brimmed hat.

This is what happened: after sitting through a retro screening of Mo’ Betta Blues, a Spike Lee joint about suffering musicians, hanging with Wesley Snipes, and giving the same red dress to your wife and your mistress, I realized I had wasted a lot of energy trying to hide my best feature, the glorious mahogany shade of my skin. Because Denzel Washington looked assured and hunky parading in and out of Earnest Dickerson’s lush lighting plans, not to mention the resplendent John Coltrane score, I was like, “oh my God, I love my wrapping.”

Finally. I had big screen hero I could admire that looked like me. Because of Denzel, I fell truly, madly, deeply in love with the color brown, and, even better, I knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that I had finally become myself.  

But I had to spend many years with bread pudding on my face to get there.

featured image – Shutterstock