Brownface & B'wood: Why Are We Racist When it Comes to Casting?

Films hinge on brownfacing stars to get audiences.

Hot Take
5 min read
Brownface & B'wood: Why Are We Racist When it Comes to Casting?

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Yes, we’ve heard it time and again that Hindi cinema is trying to push its boundaries when it comes to storytelling. We are apparently at a point where we have films that cater to diverse tastes. But why are we still okay with the practice of 'brownfacing' our actors?

Recently, actor Aahana Kumra faced backlash for her tribute post to cricketer Jhulan Goswami. In a series of pictures, Kumra recreated some pictures of the cricketer saying that she wasn't 'promoting any film'. "No I'm not promoting any film. This is purely a tribute to a woman I admire the most after spending time with her and learning her whole story about her journey, her hardships and her passion for the sport!"


What is 'Brownface'?

A racial “brownface” reference can be dated back to the 19th century, when in the United States of America, white performers used to darken their faces with makeup to play people of colour. The characters fanned racist stereotypes in their portrayal of black and other ethnic minority characters.

In the recent past, we have seen filmmakers resort to a brownface in Indian cinema too. Talking specifically about Hindi cinema, actors have usually donned a brownface when portraying someone from a lower income group or disadvantaged background.


A CNN report on Bollywood's brownface quotes award-winning film director Neeraj Ghaywan, who says it's actually "racism".

Actor Nandita Das has been speaking against the practice of years. In an interview, she said, "If I would do a role of a slum dweller or a lower caste woman it was fine. But the moment I would have to do a role of an upper caste or an affluent, educated woman, they would invariably come up to me and say 'I know you don't like to lighten your skin but you know she's an educated, affluent person.' So I would look at them and say it's wrong casting then because you're talking to somebody who's educated and this colour. They start stereotyping what an educated person looks like and it's perpetuated in cinema as well."

Das also co-directed ‘India's Got Colour', a video campaign from 2019, which appealed to people to celebrate diversity when it comes to skin colour.

Here are some examples of actors who have donned a brownface in recent Hindi flicks.


Varun Dhawan's Brownface in 'Coolie'

Given the track of character profiling in Hindi film, Varun Dhawan who played the role of a porter in 'Coolie' appeared couple of shades darker. Of course, a 'coolie' can't be fair? Not to mention the inconsistency when Dhawan pretends to be a loaded businessman and miraculously his "tan from toiling" as a porter disappears.


Hrithik Roshan - A Serial BrownFacer

Many would think that Hrithik Roshan has only donned a brownface in Super 30, but the star has done it in a total of three films till date. First, when he played a slum-dweller in Agneepath, then again when he did Mohenjodaro and the latest one being Super 30.

The profiling of every character helps understand how films perpetuate stereotypes. Roshan's brownface in Super 30 caused a stir after the trailer dropped, when netizens slammed his look and accent as unrealistic.

One user said, “It is as cringy as a white person playing a black (person) in American movies. Why can’t you find someone of the same complexion?”


Ranveer's Brownface in 'Gully Boy'

Ranveer Singh played Murad in Gully Boy, an aspiring rapper from a Mumbai slum. While the movie did well at the box office and was mostly appreciated by the film critics too, some went on to express disappointment with Singh's brownface in the film and said that it wasn't necessary for the character. The face was bronzed up to make him look the part - a boy from Dharavi.

Zoya Akhtar, the director of Gully Boy said, "Ranveer came from a holiday in Maldives. He came back toasty. So when we started shooting that’s how he was looking but he started fading. Now we had to keep him toasty to keep the consistency."

She added, “We didn’t do that to anyone. They can’t be peachy either though. There is a certain sun-spotting that comes when you live like that the whole time, spending a lot of time in the sun. They aren’t applying sunscreens. For someone like Amruta Shubhash (who plays Ranveer’s mother), she’s young but she looks like she’s lived. You don’t shoot in sequence so you have to keep it going.”

While addressing Ranveer Singh’s brownface, Zoya said, “No, I’m not a brown-facer.”

Bhumi Pednekar's Unnatural Brownface in 'Bala'

While Bala was all about accepting yourself the way you are, Bhumi Pednekar's stunning performance in the film drew flak for the grossly done brown/blackface.

Audiences yet again turned to social media to criticise the filmmakers. One user wrote, “Do we not have dark-skinned actors in Bollywood?” Bhumi Pednekar responded to the debate on social media and went on to defend her casting in the film.

“Many of these opinions set me thinking that maybe these people are right, but lot of it is also crap. So, I flush a lot of unwanted opinions down the toilet,” she told a news platform during an interview.


Alia Bhatt's Complexion in 'Udta Punjab' 

Alia Bhatt plays a dark-skinned migrant farmer in Udta Punjab. At the time when the movie released, not many pointed out the colouring of Bhatt's face. However, some critics expressed disappointment in the need to cast a big Bollywood star to "carry the film" instead of deciding to cast someone with the right complexion.


Films hinge on brownfacing stars to get audiences. This not only does great injustice to the deeper skin tone artistes in the industry, but also reinforces stereotypes that are deeply ingrained in our society.

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