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.



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 immigrants—mostly
students, and contract and illegal workers from Nigeria, Congo and Uganda—have 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,
DECEMBER 24, 2016

vol lI no 52


Economic & Political Weekly

except for their shade of skin. At the time Du Bois was writing this. racial segregation rules. all serve to construct an outwardly heartening narrative of “colour blindedness.3 Somatic appearances collapse the many different national. and would not be abolished until the Civil Rights Act of 1964. and not the colour of one’s skin. is on the seemingly absurd idea of a blackskinned woman occupying a hegemonic position (Varadarajan 2015). with whom she shares nothing. the 21st century.2 bandaria (female monkey). which dictated the unequal treatment meted out to people of different skin colours. In a short video produced by IndiaTimes (2015) to gather the experiences of black people living in India. For example. Bharatiya Janata Party minister Giriraj Singh made a joke to seemingly mock the credentials and shaky foundation of Gandhi’s headship of the Congress by attacking skin colour. and would not be reversed until the following century. the post-Selma era. sexual. or had a disease. have still not been proven. Categorically Economic & Political Weekly EPW DECEMBER 24. While we do have plenty of evidence that this colour blindedness is far from being fully achieved. Following a fallout with Indian National Congress president Sonia Gandhi. nor was any action taken to reprimand Singh by the party leaders. but often used as a derogatory term to refer to all Africans. One particular participant in this video admitted that Indians often covered their faces with handkerchiefs when he walked past them. The reasons for the attack are still not clear. is not acceptable. insinuations that. linguistic and political identities into a single identification as “black. and would only have access to the privileges restricted to the Blacks in the US—was. The onedrop rule—formulated to guard against the fear of contamination by blackness. 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). comments such as those made by Singh surface over and over again. education.4 whereby competence. through erected boundaries. whereby derogatory comments about skin colour are almost commonplace. and often also used as a swear word).” In fact. since casual racism is apparently permissible when not recorded!) and that he was prepared to apologise to Gandhi. but certain acts still policed the colour lines. someone not whiteskinned. Slavery—whose historiography is closely linked to black skin—had been officially abolished already. by asserting that any person with even “one drop of black blood” would be considered Black. and kaalia (blackie) among many other such pejorative terms. in fact. When questioned about his remark. on the other hand. such as racial segregation rules. needless to say. he claimed that “she would not have been targeted had there been no accident in the area involving an African student” (Hindu 2016). To be black in India is to get used to being called habshi (literally Abyssinians. does not so much mean an erasure of race. Achieving Colour Blindedness The 21st century. employment. for the past century. There is neither any admission of the fact that the remark. per se. 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. and Martin Luther King’s African–American Civil Rights Movement—the decolonisation of several African (largely black) countries. such as Black liberation movements— including the Black Worker’s Congress. 2016 vol lI no 52 denying the accusations that this violence was motivated by racism. Lou Dobbs. as an undoing of the systems that governed the roles and tasks ascribed to different races. Black interlocutors testified how Indians would run away from them. and the end of apartheid in South Africa. They are told that their appearance is frightening and threatening. What emerges from the video footage and the instances discussed above is how black skin is assumed to profess its own guiltiness—regardless of any other factors. They are leered and stared at on public transport. how Indians would look at them and spit. Violence Institutionalised These instances of violence exist alongside more institutionalised forms of racism in India. As Paul Gilroy (2013)—the notable scholar of black British and diasporic cultures—put it.” in this context.SPECIAL ARTICLE several onlookers recorded the whole incident and circulated the video on social media for purposes of entertainment. is often celebrated as having moved beyond Du Bois’s time. His exact words were: “If Rajiv Gandhi had married a Nigerian lady. 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. opportunities and services pertaining to all aspects of civil life along colour lines—including housing. the Albany Movement.5 it is undeniable that the Obama phenomenon represents a decisive step in the right direction. They are likened to the unhealthy. would the Congress have accepted her as its leader?” The joke. and often not even registered as racism. Singh’s response was to state that the comment had been made “off the record” (which obviously makes it all right. for him. 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.” such that it seems justifiable for an innocent black girl to be beaten in lieu of a black man. if she had taken offence. there were strict measures in place to establish skin colour as fate. whereby “post-racial. codified into a law in the 20th century.” They all admitted to being treated like animals on display—as if in a zoo—with Indians often pointing and laughing at them openly. though there have been some vague insinuations that the black students had been disrespectful to women. Indeed. as if he “was smelly. the achievements of Obama in auguring a post-race society is not only significant 77 . and transportation—were still upheld in the United States (US). and Chris Matthews. Parameshwar’s stance follows the misgivings of W E B Du Bois (1903) expressed at the beginning of the past century. medical care. The momentous struggles against the colour lines. which separated facilities. determines who the power-bearer would be.

black skin represented danger and signified that which lies outside familiar or approved social. ‘Me white like snow. and sexual structures. In other words. If I order my life like that of a moral man.242 in Hunter 1987: 114) such as those about dasyus (hosts) springing ‘from a black womb’ (RgV II. dark on the bottom) and constructs a hierarchy based on colour that reveals the fear of miscegenation. Kaali (the goddess incarnated to destroy evil. Phrases such as ‘the ancient singer praises the god who ‘destroyed the Dasyans and protected the Aryan colour’ ’ (RgV III. who propounded the theory that the Aryans […] were fair-complexioned Indo-European speakers who conquered the dark-skinned dasas of India. as they will be referred to below—are. benign. 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. whose name is also synonymous with the colour black). 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.4 in Hunter 1987: 115). known as much for her beauty as her indomitable will). seems to have been left out of this conversation. does holding up these dark deities as paragons of beauty. and “Aryan skin” on the side of the good and desirable. it seems. nature that persists despite their black exterior. immorality.43. II. Essentially.’ the other said. and Shiva (he of the dark—or rather dark-blue—throat. I simply am not a Negro. I know only one thing. Romila Thapar (1996: 6–7) explains the spread of these facile demarcations: The Aryan and the non-Aryan were segregated through the instituting of caste. all those who lived beyond the pale of the Hindu caste system’s regressive practices of untouchability and restrictive endogamy.6 in Muir 1972. but colour has played an important role in the Indian imaginary.34. had been drawing these demarcations much before the French. to contemporary and near-contemporary popular.284. The Vedas. Aryan skin is. (quoted in Thapar 1996: 5–6)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. or South Africa—never had a revolution to overthrow the colour lines. he is Negro who is immoral. black fell on the side of the “outcastes. purity and morality). These colour hierarchies explicitly place black skin on the side of the evil and unwanted. in order not to let it spill upon the earth). Much of this is reflected in sources as varied as the ancient Hindu scriptures (where colour determines standards of beauty. The arya-varna and the dasa-varna of the Rigveda were understood as two conflicting groups 78 differentiated particularly by skin colour. 2016 vol lI no 52 EPW Economic & Political Weekly . As if caste was not a demeaning factor already.” and yet known for his attractiveness). sin. of course. demarcating the Aryans from the others. separating the upper castes from the outcastes. 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. also called “Krishnaa” for her dark complexion. colour was ascribed to castes to mark out the desirable from the undesirable. the emphasis is DECEMBER 24. II. darkness.20. 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 America’s successful history of settler colonialism and racial slavery. It is also significant that.SPECIAL ARTICLE for the US.12. Admittedly. India. political. the celestial beings’ black exterior is contrasted with a white light that emanates from them—usually inserted as a circle to represent their white “aura”—whereby the innate whiteness is meant to represent their truer. a reference to the fairer skin tone of North Indians (believed to have migrated to India from somewhere in Central Asia).1. Sam V I. I do not even notice it. which continue to display a quasi-Brahminical obsession with colour-coding (light on top. The dasyus—or dasas. black=ugliness. which is the purity of my conscience and the whiteness of my soul. 323) abound in the Rigveda. and the poor from the rich. India did not enforce segregation rules based on colour. […] The complexities of caste were simplified in its being explained as racial segregation.49.9 in Hunter 1987: 114) [can also be found]. Whence the Martinican custom of saying of a worthless white man that he has a ‘nigger soul. around whom a myth of superior race has been constructed through the aid of Indologists such as Max Mueller.20.7 and II. all references to black skin were unequivocally negative. India—unlike the US. due to the poison that he retains in his throat. which doubtless underlined the racial interpretation of the terms. translated as the “hosts” because they were believed to be the “original” (albeit inferior) inhabitants of India. As seen from the above. Despite internal problems with colour. here. who were pushed to the south during the invasion by the fair-skinned Aryans (Thapar 1996). Draupadi (the heroine of the Mahabharata.174). the North from the South.1.41. stratifying colour as a fortifier of discrimination.12. ‘the slave bands of black descent’ or ‘the vile Dasyan colour’ (RgV II. virtue and morality disprove the prejudice against black skin? How do we then account for the fact that. and visual culture. Religious Prejudice Let us begin by looking at the religious scriptures and their organisation of colour prejudices. I. But. but also by language and religious practice. however. and ‘the impious varNa’ (RgV II. 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.’ Colour is nothing. These feelings of rampant anti-blackness are not at all distinct from Frantz Fanon’s (1986: 149) description of antagonism that set white against black: In the collective unconscious. in most depictions. religious.” that is.4 in Muir 1972. 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. Predictably. but for the rest of the world too. in modern English language discourse discussing the skin colour of the deities. such that it did not take long for this fissure to split into a caste demarcation as well. literary. I.

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. prior to the skin-lightening experience. even displaying a very poor sense of fashion. and scriptures written in their praise. They are the butt of ridicule. Rama is never worshipped. Thus black and white became symbols of wildness and domestication in the context of the Goddess. one of the leading matrimonial websites for Indians. Often. the perfect marriageable woman. Devdutt Pattanaik (2009) points out how it is significant that Kali is only black in her fierce. then Gauri was Kamakshi. smeared with turmeric. Sadashiv Amrapurkar as Rama Shetty in Ardh Satya (1983). featuring highly paid Bollywood and cricket stars. providing comic relief through their appearance. worshipped alone without any of her husbands. Black skin—even when belonging to divinity— calls for explanation and redemption. Shaadi. the gods begged her to seduce and marry Shiva.” as if in an attempt to avoid naming the skin colour as black. cites fair skin as the key factor in successful matchmaking. Pattanaik uses her as a foil to the much more often revered (and white-skinned) Sita. dances naked. They exude defeat and despondency in their appearance. the fearsome Kali who drinks the blood of her abusers. confidence and success (whether personally or professionally). but are also bestowed with the new confidence. and to contemporary culture. seeking brides (and often grooms) with “peachy” (not “wheatish”) skin tones.SPECIAL ARTICLE on “dark. In calendar art. this blackness of Kali has turned blue and purple. The roles of dark-skinned actors are thus set. songs. Moreover. As for the goddesses. Johnny Lever. and social skills that lead to success and eternal happiness. as projected in her faulted character and the tragic fate that befalls her. This is reflected. 79 .com. the wild one. it is unlikely that black skin was projected as anything else other than demeaning even in precolonial and ancient India. the consort of Shiva. As for the women. The commercials deliberately portray the victims of dark skin. as reflected in hymns. Nana Patekar as Anna Seth in Parinda (1989). One day. We are by now accustomed to matrimonial advertisements. the ascetic. or that the fair Radha might have cast dark magic on him with her kohlrimmed eyes. among other Economic & Political Weekly EPW DECEMBER 24. and ornaments are strategically placed to hide her nakedness […]. If Kali was Bhairavi. without whom. and. 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. Draupadi worship is popular in some parts of India as in North Tamil Nadu. As Gauri. primal form. copulates in public and drinks blood. The commercials for these products. then Gauri was Lalita. the auspicious one. 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. fashion sense. then Gauri was Mangala. an Indian actress of Anglo–Burmese descent. who shut his eyes in indifference to the world. not much has changed with regard to skin colour preferences and prejudices. whose whiteness contributes to her beauty. the mother-goddess. a direct link is drawn between fairness. This is not defiance. The humour in the song rests precisely on the fact of Mehmood’s unrealistic (unattainable) obsession with Helen. the one who loves blood. Then. When they are not playing the clown. She is indifferent to disapproving stares. dark as the night. she is barely a model to emulate. and in the popularity commanded by the skin bleaching industry. Though worshipped. attitude and posture. not black. There she is Amman. they come across this fairness cream. They not only gain good looks. In the lyrics of the famous song from the film Satyam Shivam Sundaram (1978). (Pattanaik 2014) It becomes apparent from all of the above that. and lo and behold! Life suddenly seems more than endurable. when they are not pigeonholed as comic relief characters or villains. happiness. This marriage of fair skin and beauty is indeed what the skin bleaching industry (estimated to be a multimillion industry) thrives on. If Kali was Chandi. There is a constant contrast drawn between their innate lightness. hence. wisdom and patience and Draupadi as a glamorous intimidating diva. as being complete failures. Siddharth Yadav and Kiku Sharda are among the actors who have made a career out of being mocked for being dark-skinned. the one whose glance stirs desire. says the scriptures. in several languages. by telling him that he is merely black because he was born on a moonless night. Beauty and Bollywood From the Vedas. which reveal the superficial collapsing of fair skin with beauty. the graceful one. the fair one. while Aryan invasion and British colonisation might have driven home colour prejudice in India by setting up white skin as aspirational. lusty seductress. Kali then took a dip in the river Yamuna and emerged as Gauri. in an interesting analysis. dark-skinned actors play the villain (often while sporting a South Indian accent). there are caricatures of dark skin in one of Indian society’s most basic expressions: Bollywood. though her dark skin makes her eye-catching and attractive (or is she eye-catching and attractive despite her dark skin?). who is wild—so wild that she unbinds her hair. in the thriving markets of matrimonial advertisements for potential partners. to explain away their black exterior.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. the dark one. In the case of Draupadi. often led on by supernatural forces. If Kali was Raktapriya. to popular discourse. This is her prakriti. they are given the roles of the sultry. her being. All thanks to a skin-lightening cream! Further. who is upheld as the model wife and mother. Prakash Raj as Jaikant Shikre in Singham (2011)—are but a few instances of iconic villains whose villainess is emphasised through their skin colour. Draupadi’s characteristics are much less affable: [Sita] is the graceful Lakshmi. her elusiveness for the dark-skinned man. She is Kali. 2016 vol lI no 52 things. she is fair and luminous: The Goddess in her more primal form is dark. the popular portrayal of these deities in sculptures and paintings is frequently blue. play havoc on the psyche of the blacknessfearing Indian. Krishna’s mother pacifies her son. bonhomie. the fearsome one. the golden one. the radiant one. who finds Radha’s fair skin more enviable than his. while demeaning blackness in its stride. her nature. The portrayal of this song sequence is particularly significant since Mehmood is crooning to Helen.

and righteousness are all used as prisms to attack. and then the DECEMBER 24. Taken aback. Bipasha Basu. violent. we need to think again. placing the fair Indian above the dark Indian. and Alone (2015). whereby the idea of “Africa” is used as a foil to show off India. In this particular sequence. as a category. seduces and tortures the black man in the cage to such an extent that he eventually dies. The men regain their breath. The camera moves from her horrified face to reveal the black man’s body. and discussing her movement and clothes. The narrative of the song is as follows: a savage is wheeled in. 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). Meanwhile. The pigmentation and gradient of skin tones become the windows for initiating a dialogue about nationalism. Rudraksh (2004).) The scene depicting her shock and remorse capitalises on the assumed shared code and unquestioned acceptance of the black man’s body as sinful by the Indian audience. snarling. composure. so that her skin colour here serves to highlight her decadence.’” One of the criterions for determining this limit here is skin colour. revealing layer after layer of Fanon’s predictions about holding up black as a symbol of shame and barbarity. class. Nandita Das—the 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 tones—talks about how darker actresses are often lightened (via make up. as the extreme other. only cringing when the black man briefly breaks out of his cage to get to Helen. ridicule. but then sighing in relief when he is recaptured and eventually dies. but the Indian above anyone else black. and becomes the stage for living out multiple other prejudices. Pankh (2010). growling. In a scene in the 2008 film. the post racial era augured by Obama is given a nod and mocked. Kartoos. Presumably. that is. Rakht (2004). The ‘Recognisable Other’ In the rest of this paper. Raaz 3 (2012). if we thought that the predicament of the dark-skinned Indian is the very worst fate reserved in Bollywood. the upper-class and higher-caste Indian is lighter than the lower-caste Indian peasant. while she clings to these very white sheets and attempts to wipe off smudged (black) mascara from her eyes and face. the men jump 80 and fall off their chairs. One of the earliest portrayals of a black man (in fact.” It is almost the same. Black Skin in Bollywood But. and uttering gibberish to seem more autochthonously “African”) was for a song sequence in the 1969 film. and sometimes more drastic procedures involving surgery and drug intake) for certain roles. in a cage. is a prime case in point. (quoted in Rajesh 2013) Beauty. among many others. prone to criminality. and seats.SPECIAL ARTICLE Indian scream queen. titled No Problem. and you still hate us?” The level of ridiculousness is beyond belief. In another film from the same year. and exploit dark skin. an Indian actor in blackface. wealthy Indians and white-skinned men watch this performance appreciatively from the audience. and civilisation. we will lighten you. mentioned above. African/Afro–Caribbean black skin occupies a niche of its own. his disgrace). 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. Isabel Hofmeyr and Michelle Williams (2001) have explored the way “‘Africa’ constitutes one of the limits of ‘India. we’re really good at it. and nationality is lived in India. This bigoted imagining of the black man or woman has remained unchanged over the years. poor. Intequaam. whenever she plays the role of an upper-class woman. class. but Indian. dramatically depicted as being sprawled across white sheets. Black Afro–Caribbean skin becomes the classical case of the “recognisable Other” described by Homi Bhabha (1994) as “the subject of difference that is almost the same. propriety. but not quite. The director’s superficially compassionate intervention is in the insertion of one particular woman frantically shouting: “Obama is the President of the United States. until the actual fair bride peeks out from behind the black woman and starts singing. In another song sequence in the 1999 film. to act as a prop for a cabaret sequence performed by none other than the same Anglo–Burmese actor. (It is interesting how intoxication has to be used as a factor to justify her attraction to the black man in the first place. It’s perpetuating a stereotype that only fair-skinned women can be educated and successful. The depiction of colour in Bollywood becomes the modality through which economics. given several overlaps in the shared history of colonisation and exploitation. She has been made famous for her associations with erotic horror thrillers such as Raaz (2002). due to not being able to bear his unfulfilled sexual longings. Hearing the phrase “I hate black faces. Fashion. Her friends slowly and theatrically lift up her veil to reveal a black woman. a veiled woman walks out and sits in front of a group of men who are staring at her gait appreciatively. is lighter/browner than the black Afro–Caribbean. the darkness of her skin is used as an allegory for the darkness of her soul.’ as a reassurance. the character played by Priyanka Chopra—a coveted fashion model gone wild—realises how low she has fallen. 2016 vol lI no 52 EPW Economic & Political Weekly . but so is the extent to which Bollywood would go to establish black as a negative marker. and the black woman is forgotten and soon disappears. directors instinctively want to lighten her skin: They always say to me: ‘Don’t worry. Helen.” some black tourists beat him up (hence advancing the thesis of black men being prone to violence). 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. morality. only when she wakes up with a black man in her bed after a night of drug-induced intoxication. Helen dances. On this scale. Bollywood’s range for non-Indian black actors is even stricter than the range reserved for black Indians—they are buffoonish. and represent social problems hailing from a different national and cultural context—which makes India’s situation seem enviable in comparison. marking the very extreme limits of social acceptance.

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. and above all else. but not quite. between India and several African and West Indian countries. but non-Indian black skin further imbibed the derision of India’s colonial masters.. 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. carrying on its bequest of sustaining systems of economic. but is now collapsible with “white. following colonial dictates. ethics.SPECIAL ARTICLE rich legacies of the anti-colonial struggle. above all: ‘Sho’ good eatin’. in the interactions of the young Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi with the black natives in South Africa. political and cultural dominance that prevailed during the colonial era in the past. the answer is yes. but of him too: I was responsible at the same time for my body. Whiteness. and this foil was provided in the shape of the darker African skin. and through the white man. The reverse happened much less often. How colonial training and perceived proximity to whiteness led to entire generations of brown sahibs. among many others. which are. Kenya. serves as the basis of operations of those who are trying to unify the hearts of the two races.” here. fetichism. Colonial Prejudice This hierarchisation raises important questions about what lies ahead for a world that is increasingly mixed. bound together under one common flag. Black Indian skin might have connoted all things negative from the scriptures onwards. …. among many other instances. uneven sense of colour differences that a politics of racial citation reveals. for my race. a criminal. It is as though no black man can see another black man except by looking through a white man. called the Indo-Aryan. I discovered my blackness. Africa. set at the diametric end of the colour spectrum. 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. But. and I was battered down by tom-toms. or no. But. following Antoinette Burton (2012). Gandhi looked down on black Africans. intellectual deficiency. cannibalism. because India still insists on a colour-coded hierarchy where Indians as brown emerge as “better” in comparison with the Afro–Caribbeans as black. “Better. I do want to point out that the term “brown” itself is quite centrifugal. would be sent to work as representatives of the empire. and more broadly South Asian skin tones. Black skin. a drug-peddler. In terms of decrying the relations Indians would maintain with other colonies though. I subjected myself to an objective examination. whose ultimate fantasy was to emulate the ways of the white man. 2016 vol lI no 52 When an African abuses an Indian he repeats all that the white men said about Indian indentured ‘coolies’. 81 . and South Africa. racial defects. even while recognising some of the uneasy. but used in the South African context as a derogatory term for people with black skin).” Brown. with its capitalist dynamics. [T]he belief .. Southern European skin. [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. Indeed. would just have been perceived as an inferior colony where Indian administrators. abides to the scale of success according to the logic of a global capitalist system that continues to support colonialism in the present era. trained under the colonial office. so I will not repeat the arguments here. Indians often found themselves as subjects and at the same time agents of the British empire in Zanzibar. and for the equation between people of different colours across the world. India’s 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. “elevated” India. This sense of superiority arising from closeness to whiteness is reflected. for example. that Indians are a homogenously racialised group. 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. and a savage and uncivilised human being with few. for example. This is another throwback to Fanon (1986: 84–85) whereby he asserted how his skin colour did not just speak for him. my ethnic characteristics. 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 men—who established white skin as a parameter against which all other skin tones were measured for “degrees” of racial purity and the ensuing authority entailed—and has been spurred on by a capitalist system that has retained much of the colour composition of the colonial system. for my ancestors.8 Before I go on. legally and outwardly. Walter Rodney (1969: 33–34) made the following observation: Economic & Political Weekly EPW DECEMBER 24. has already been explored by Bhabha. was once considered brown. I use brown skin here for Indian. proved the proximity of brown skin to whiteness. in South Africa. 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. there was the need of a foil to measure and put into perspective the success story of this acquired whiteness. Seeking to understand the misgivings of one coloured person for another in the Caribbean context. I certainly do not want to suggest. is sometimes used to connote mixed race. slave-ships. holding one black person responsible for the crime of another black person—as with the case of the Tanzanian and Sudanese nationals in the Bengaluru incident—is to condemn everyone with a particular shade of skin to the same predicament. and has multiple meanings in different places and during different times. and in turn the Indian has borrowed from the whites the stereotypes of the ‘lazy nigger’ to apply to the African beside him.

The Indian citizens of the empire might still not have been “quite white” in the way Bhabha defines it. the film-makers easily arrange their prejudices on either side of the colour line. Upon reaching this man’s house. to 82 close his business following a deal with some rich Australian (white?) businessmen.. while the brown Indian characters themselves move around freely and independently. and nationalism. Kumar’s character. which makes it appeal to and target the nationalist chords in upper-class and upper-middle-class Indians.9 The liberalisation of the Indian economy. To paraphrase Dan Ojwang (2013). in order to emphasise his torture at the black woman’s hands. which.’” Bollywood’s Agenda Popular culture obviously reflects and refracts many of the debates. as pointed out by Eva Hofmeyr and Michelle Williams (2001). as a contrast to a black woman. not surprising that the contest to elevate India vis-à-vis previous colonies forms part of Bollywood’s agenda. Bollywood has successfully represented many of these debates. 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. As studied by Angelie Multani (2009) and Tejaswini Ganti (2012) among others. The integration of black American rapper. And. if I may venture to use the word. if at all. and cultural mobility on the part of those who are black. whereby the nod to black popular culture is here intended to add to the internationalist credentials of the film. and therefore likely to get away with exaggerating on stereotypes more than any other genre. who raps along with Kumar in the title song of the film and features in a video with him. in which the US-based Kumar would sleep with any woman. to Australia—and his easy cosmopolitanism enables him to fit in and make himself at home practically anywhere in the world. Yet. and instead turn back after offering him money and their word to protect him. I will do a brief analysis of a few scenes from recent films in an attempt to unravel this logic. especially in view of the supposed rise of India as a global superpower. Rather than the colonial era. Africa continued to be represented through “quasi-colonial perceptions […] as the ‘dark continent.SPECIAL ARTICLE A general belief seems to prevail in the Colony that the Indians are little better. Happy Singh. with the result that the Indian is being dragged down to the position of a raw Kaffir. Even the children are taught to believe in that manner. is an open message about the politics that the film is purportedly espousing. meant that there have been many attempts—in politics as well as in the cultural field—to establish India as a worthy hero that has fared more admirably than many ex-colonies. and are. In one particular scene. Both women play the characters of customs officers at an airport. while largesse of heart and generosity is made synonymous with brown. for Steve Biko (one of the leaders of the Black Consciousness Movement) implied resistance to white supremacy. He is projected as the “new nomad. than savages or the Natives of Africa. but this did not stop them from flaunting their brownness as closer to whiteness than blackness. 2016 vol lI no 52 EPW Economic & Political Weekly . despite the fact that they are outlaws (and potentially also illegal immigrants in Australia). in no way inferior to their Anglo-Saxon brethren.” yoking together people of different skin tones. in the midst of a conversation about global economic and political hegemony.”10 The plot sees him moving through a number of sites with ease—from his birthplace in Punjab. this discourse in fact finds its peak in the postcolonial era. As for the politics within the plotline itself. is pointedly not the sentimental nationalist who hankers after home. in the various departments of life—industrial. It is not even as blatantly racist as some of Kumar’s other films. 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 Afro–Australian. I find this scene problematic at many levels. Ganti alerts us to the gentrified aspirations of Bollywood. but it is the black woman who performs a cavity search on Kumar. It is. 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. economic. ethnic and colour discrimination. as well as endorsed the competitive discourse that puts India in perspective with the rest of the world.” There was no united front represented under the generic category of “black. and the corollaries of being perceived as redoubtable partners in a new world order. It is not surprising that. therefore. many comparative analyses of India and European colonies in Africa emerged in this era whereby. Brown and black were broken down into distinct categories that connoted a civilisational hierarchy. [T]he Indians were. (Gandhi 1999) The whiter Indians felt further removed from ideas of and associations with “blackness. DECEMBER 24. black man. while the white woman stands by giggling at his misery.. intellectual. who owns a burger van. etc. the gangsters seek to bribe him with money instead to give up his van. yet. . which opened the portals of investment and trade to the world in the 1990s. a petite blonde is used as a prop. to Egypt. with the possible exception of South Africa. whose own ventures are suffering because of the popularity of this man’s burgers.”—to borrow the term from Eva Hoffman (1998)—whose “exile” (if it can be called that) “is more comedy than despair. and is otherwise destitute. 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. I admit that Singh is Kinng is slapstick. and the involvement of Bollywood in these representations is particularly influential. the gangsters decide against taking any sanction against this poor man. provided she was not black. as well as diasporic Indians. Vexed class relations act as a mask for their vexing colour prejudices. Snoop Dogg. Poverty coincides absolutely with the colour black. such as Kambakht Ishq (2009). political. this engineering of race through class awakens us to the reality that the Indian film-makers are providing little (or no) room for social. Moved. the gangsters realise that the black man is entirely reliant on his small franchise. Taking pity.

Race is not biology. defying any ideas of shared victimhood and struggle in a common past. who explains how Abyssinians were originally slaves from Ethiopia. but also India. I do not know of what. 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. His sojourn definitely has elements of an exile. Iowa’s lily-white electorate flocked to him joyfully. prolonging Du Bois’s predictions and fears into the 21st century. the Economist (2008) reported: “Mr Obama’s candidacy […] seemed a post-racial triumph. the racism of colonial scholarship and governance continues to be channelled through colour prejudices. 8 I borrow this reading of the world capitalist system from the works of Pablo Mukherjee (2006). lyrics of songs. Yet. here. and the US. Indians who are likely to shout foul in the face of racism when discriminated against on the basis of their appearance overseas. it disrupts and pre-empts accusations of racism. hair texture. 9 This is not necessarily a view that I endorse. and emerge as being better off in comparison to the members of the black diaspora who. black males aged 15–19 years were killed at the rate of 31. My use of the term racism here is to refer specifically to the prejudice and chauvinism directed against people on basis of skin colour. South Africa. Paul Gilroy (1992: 211) suggests that “the spaces in which cultural consumption takes place provide locations in which racial politics can be erased. or Hindi cinema as it has historically been known. 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. Amartya Sen and Jean Drèze (2013). Black means different things in Brazil. see. nor is it a category with the same accepted codes for measurement. in fact. such as China. 2 For a more comprehensive understanding of the different terminologies related to Africans in India. cannot be wrong. and social media movements such as “Black Lives Matter” and “Unfair and Lovely”). White Masks. continue to send a copy of the print edition to all our authors whose contributions appear in that particular edition. For a more critical perspective on this.SPECIAL ARTICLE The makers of Singh is Kinng. even while distancing it from the collapsing of skin colour with race. but I know that I am no good. as well as its Notes 1 I use the term racism. Brown insists on being placed over black. We are now discontinuing the practice. because what is black in one context may not be black in another. 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.17 per million (in comparison to the 1. 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. Bollywood has done nothing to erase the politics of race or colour. among others. 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. Instead. refuse to acknowledge their own racism. defended themselves by saying that since this is a scene that depicts interaction and solidarity among different diasporas. Shanti Sadiq Ali (1995). on January 2008. he seemed to embody the hope that America could transcend its divisions. 4 For example. see. But. 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. when in contact with white skin: “Sin is Negro as virtue is white. dialogues in films. the journal ProPublica (Gabrielson et al 2014) conducted a survey. after Obama fared well in the Iowa and New Hampshire pre-election polls.” This is in keeping with the discourse about the rise of India following its deep entanglement with the global economy in the last 10–15 years. but instead one that is perpetrated by the capitalist elite of India. We will. Skin colour. and that. I am guilty. when confronted with accusations of racism. It is pertinent that black Afro–Australians are used as a foil to the brown Indians because of Africa’s own perceived loss of connections with international trade. All those white men in a group. 3 Frantz Fanon (1986: 106) discusses this unquestioned association of guiltiness with black skin in his study. but not quite. We cannot universally talk of the “black race” for example. We will consider sending a limited number of reprints to authors located in India when they make specific requests to us. 6 Romila Thapar (1996) goes on to deconstruct this myth by showing how the division between Aryan and Dravidians is. “are almost the same. and linking it up with how black people would consequently come to regard the colour of their own skin as professing their guilt.47 rate per million of young white males in the same age group killed in police shootings). one through their poverty. in pursuit of its gentrified status. tracing the association of black skin with evil. and the other because of their lawlessness. While he rarely addressed the issue directly. and facial features are variably used as measurement devices for race all over the world. It is pertinent that the brown gangsters are the model minority—the wealthiest and the most successful— so much so that their chief is referred to as “King. The logic offered by the makers of Singh is Kinng. Black Skin. 7 Bollywood. from an analysis of deadly police shootings between 2010 and 2012. This data proves that colour is very much still a noticeable factor. In time. it appears. is in line with the nationalist discourse about India. vol lI no 52 83 .” 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). while the term habshi was a reference to slaves from the southern region of Arabia. and how the term habshi became pejorative and was associated with slavery. which is the logic of economics. But.” Not quite brown. 2016 developing relations (of seeming dependency?) with rising Asian economies.” Economic & Political Weekly EPW DECEMBER 24. is an important benchmark for identity formation in India. 10 Happy Singh is deceitfully sent away to Australia because the villagers are fed up of his antics. Attention ContributorsI The EPW has been sending reprints of articles to authors. of course. now disguised as arguments about economic hegemony and political credence. 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. though none of the despair. guns in their hands. why are the gangsters the benefactors and protectors of the burger merchant’s family? Both communities are potentially marginal and liminal figures. more linguistic than ethnic or racial.” By this logic. these demarcations fell off and were used interchangeably and with the intention to insult.

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