Recently, the trailer of Super 30 dropped and even though there were several good things to talk about in it, many people on Twitter focused on calling Hrithik Roshan out for donning brownface.
Hrithik Roshan is playing the role of mathematician and teacher Anand Kumar, who came from a less privileged background. He is famous enough for us to know how he looks. While Hrithik has no resemblance in terms of facial look or body structure to Anand (which is absolutely fine), he gets his face painted dark brown to match Anand’s colour.
If you show faith in your casting and hire an actor who does not look like the real life person then what is the need to make him darker?
What is brownface?
Brownface is a term generally referred to white actors pretending to be brown-skinned with makeup or tanning, and at times hair dye.
Makers in Hollywood have since eons painted actors brown instead of actually casting someone of ethnicity. Some years back, Fisher Stevens, a white man, who played an Indian robot programmer in 1988 comedy Short Circuit 2, expressed his regret at taking up that acting job. Italian actor Al Pacino put on a brownface and adopted a cartoonish Cuban accent to portray drug kingpin Tony Montana in 1983 hit Scarface.
The whitewashing of the cast had been part of how Hollywood functions for decades. In the recent years though, with more focus on being inclusive, the instances have gone down majorly.
Can a brown person be accused of brownface?
Racism runs deep in Indian culture. Our obsession with the fair skin is not new. So the brownface problem in India is a slightly different one from the West. The thing is, most people in India would actually even wonder why darkening your skin to play a character is problematic.
In India we have all shades of brown. The stereotype is that people from less privileged backgrounds are much darker, and Bollywood is in danger of perpetuating that stereotype.
Imagine if Dev Patel had been painted dark brown because he was playing a boy from the slums! Making actor’s look artificially brown seems trivial on the surface, but is much a larger and deeper issue in the Indian context.
The fact that filmmakers are viewed as privileged outsiders telling the story of a group of people they know little about also accounts for appropriation.
Brownface in Bollywood
Let me point out that Hrihtik is not the first actor to paint his face brown for a role. It is just that some Indians have only now woken up to how problematic this is.
Two recent critically acclaimed performances, Alia Bhatt in Udta Punjab and Ranveer Singh in Gully Boy also saw the actors don the brownface. Alia plays a migrant labourer working at a farm and Ranveer plays a slum dweller.
Hrithik has been guilty of going for a brownface on couple of more occasions too - remember his slum-dweller act in Agneepath and a man from the Harappan civilization in Mohenjodaro?
The problem of not hiring an actor with the right colour, and instead painting the face of fair-skinned actors is much older though.
In 1983, Zeenat Aman played the role of a sweeper in Pyaas, putting on dark make-up. In Doosri Sita, Jaya Bachchan plays an ugly girl vanquishing in jail and so she was painted dark brown. In Khoon Bhari Maang, Rekha plays an unattractive girl (hence dark make-up) in the first half and then when she turns attractive in the second part she is much fairer.
In 1986’s Naseeb Apna Apna, actress Raadhika plays an unattractive girl from the village who is married off to Rishi Kapoor’s character, who can’t stand her, and instead is in love with a “fair and beautiful” Farah.
You see the pattern here? Slum dwellers, labourers, villagers, sweepers, unattractive or ugly - this is what we associate dark-skinned characters with in our Bollywood films. And that is definitely offensive.
Point is that if you do cast a person who does not look like the real life or fictional character that he or she is essaying, then why paint their face. Show enough confidence in your casting or hire someone who is naturally the right colour for the role.
Times have changed, and Bollywood needs to moves on from perpetuating stereotypes related to colour, and start casting the right actors for the right roles.
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