Sunday, October 25, 2009

Bollywood Blackface - My Take...

Okay, when I read this post which mentions the blackface in All the Best, I knew I had to add my two cents.

This is the second time I've seen it mentioned.

From Ms. Bose's blog post:

Anyhow, Auditorium 2, where All The Best was being screened was full of the desi crowd, and my movie partner – also from Delhi – snorted snootily that it almost felt like being at Golcha theatre in Daryaganj. The movie was kind of stupid – and Sanjay Dutt should seriously retire — but towards the end there is a time when Bipasha Basu appears as an African princess from some shadowy kingdom in the Dark Continent after being impregnated by the Deadly Dutt. How do I know she is African? Because she speaks suspiciously incorrect ‘Swahili’. Her ‘dark avatar’ is her brief double role: for most of the film, she’s Jhanvi, married to Ajay Devgan, wears lots of foundation – and looks eerily white — and is the typical Hindi film heroine.

The ‘coloured’ Bipasha Basu, on the other hand, slaps on some hideous, slimy paint – just to make the ‘black’ point so very obvious.

Which is alright really, it’s a masala Bollywood flick after all, and you don’t expect political correctitude.

But I was pretty stunned when the foundation-coated ‘fair’ Bips tells Sanjay Dutt about the coloured princess: “Oh, so you clearly have penchant for all things black: you like black tea, black coffee and now this…”

That single comment elicited the loudest laughter from the desi crowd.

Wow, I thought, some things never change.

Okay, yes, that scene is tasteless but she had it right when she says "you don't expect political correctitude" from Bollywood.

In the West, we have a strong aversion to blackface - especially here in the United States where the practice is tied up with our long history of the enslavement of Africans and Native Americans, not to mention the years of segregation and discrimination that came after slavery "officially" ended in the middle of the 1800s. We are still dealing with the fallout from our unequal past - just look at the rhetoric used against President Obama, from food stamps with his face on them to the signs telling him to go back to Kenya. Most of our film rhetoric, however, is still more like this list of unintentionally racist films about racism than actually inclusive and forward thinking.

But the country that lauds Tracy Ullman's "Bollywood Pharacist" - in which the humor seems to be that she plays Indian (in black face) and breaks into song - has little to stand on when judging the political correctitude (great phrase, which I am going to borrow) of Bollywood.

Bollywood blackface just doesn't have the years of troubled history behind it that we have here in the West. While it is tasteless, so are the many, many examples of actors dressing up like "Randy Arabic Sheikhs" or "Dumb Punjabis" or how about all those actresses playing "Gypsy Princesses" or "Exotic East Asians"? Racial stereotyping is par for the course in Bollywood - tasteless, yes, but intentionally hurtful - I don't think so.

For all the talk of the black face in All the Best, nobody has mentioned that there was another scene where one of Ajay and Fardeen's friends is insulted by being called "Made in China." Or what about in Blue where Akshay's character enjoys the attentions of both Black and White bikini girls with some comments about liking "one of each"? Nobody commented on that, either. What about Deepika Padukone's "Meow Meow" in Chandni Chowk to China? She may not have painted her face but she was playing an exaggerated racial stereotype. Does the lack of face painting make that okay but not Bipasha's "African" princess?

Racial humor is just much more blunt and in your face in Bollywood films. White people are lecherous, greedy, and villainous; people from various regions of India have their stereotypes; and so do people from East Asia and Africa. I just don't think that black face is meant to be any more hurtful than the "Arabic Sheikh" or "Meow Meow." Bollywood black face is just a costume - not a political statement. If somebody wants to argue for putting more reasoned and less exaggerated stereotypes of all races in Bollywood films, I'm happy to listen and would probably agree but arguing just against black face is missing the broader context in which it appears in Bollywood films. Not only did All the Best have Bipasha's "African" princess but a dopey "South Indian" maid and an exaggerated slum dweller turned nouveux-riche lottery winner - not to mention an always classic "gay baiting" scene and the aforementioned "Made in China" joke and Johnny Lever playing a gangster. It was a low-brow comedy! The mere presence of Johnny Lever should be enough to tell everyone not to take anything too seriously.

And here is a thought - is the black faced Bipasha as an "African" princess really worse than the stereotyped drug-dealing African thugs depicted in Kaminey, played by actual Africans? Or what about in Fashion when Priyanka's character knows that she has reached rock bottom when she sleeps with a black guy, who is played by a real African? Especially when you consider that Bipasha's "African" princess gets married to (*spoiler alert*) Sanjay Dutt in a happy ending.

More interesting than the complaints about Bipasha in black face was the comment about her white foundation make-up. Now, we all know that fair skin is - sadly - one of the requirements for becoming an actress and I think this is a much bigger problem than the occasional "African" or "Arab" showing up in a comedy film. Part of the problem is the inherent Bollywood bias towards fair skin as a marker of beauty - which I don't feel qualified to comment on, not being Indian myself. But there is another hidden bias here - the cameras.

As India grows its technology sector, I would love to see them come up with a camera that works better with darker skin tones. You see, when technology is developed, the developers (understandably) work to develop it to work best on themselves - in this case, white people. Fair skin films better because cameras are designed that way. Perhaps if we improved the technology, Bipasha Basu wouldn't need to slather on the pale foundation... (And for a visual of what I'm talking about Check out this photo.)

In any case, racial relations are not easy and never have been but I don't think that the black face in All the Best is the worst thing of all time nor was it done with hurtful intentions. Tasteless - yes but evil - no. Bipasha's "African Princess" is just the flip side of Preity's blond-bewigged "Russian" or Mallika Sherawat's "Rustic Gypsy Girl."

For some interesting reading on American race relations, I recommend this article from the Atlantic Monthly talking about the End of Whiteness here in America:

There’s no better example of the era’s insecurities than the 1923 Supreme Court case United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind, in which an Indian American veteran of World War I sought to become a naturalized citizen by proving that he was Caucasian. The Court considered new anthropological studies that expanded the definition of the Caucasian race to include Indians, and the justices even agreed that traces of “Aryan blood” coursed through Thind’s body. But these technicalities availed him little. The Court determined that Thind was not white “in accordance with the understanding of the common man” and therefore could be excluded from the “statutory category” of whiteness. Put another way: Thind was white, in that he was Caucasian and even Aryan. But he was not white in the way Stoddard or Buchanan were white.

11 comments:

shell said...

Very good article. I tend to try not to dwell on racial discrimanacies(is that a word?), and think that to do so is the world's biggest problem. That being said, I do agree that our culture is less tolerant of racial humour (though that isn't to say I don't hear my fair share of native indian or black jokes), and that's because we made it that way through years of oppression.
Lastly, if you don't want to be exposed to stereotypes, racial or otherwise, you may as well lock yourself in a closet. Either that or learn to deal with it.

Simran said...

I agree with Shell. There are some things that you just have to end up dealing with. Racial jokes are not great. They suck to be blunt but it's just something that's hard to get rid of. Where I live, I see people making fun of their own cultures. We're always going to be exposed to it because honestly, I think this generation is quite immature. Great article though. Made some great points. And I just want to point out one part: What about Deepika Padukone's "Meow Meow" in Chandni Chowk to China? She may not have painted her face but she was playing an exaggerated racial stereotype. I thought that this was an excellent thing to point out. I'd love to say some things regarding this quote but I think I might end up offending some people so I'll leave it here. Thanks filmigirl :)

shell said...

I just reread my comment and I don't think I worded it correctly. I didn't intend for it to sound like I condone discrimination. What I meant to say was that racial discrimination is one the the biggest problems in the world, however, I don't put a lot of stock into what I watch in movies.

Daddy's Girl said...

Thanks for this really interesting piece - your comments on camera technology and fair skin are very thought-provoking, and have helped fill some of the gaps in my unerstanding. The bias towards fair skin (I think we all remember Rimi Sen's comments implying that black skin requires expert make-up in order to look attractive, Rani's 'whitening up', especially in her earlier films, and Bebo's alleged 'kali billi' slur) is something I've always found quite troubling, although I think it is starting to change somewhat, and different skin tones are becoming more accepted (although this might very well just be wishful thinking on my part).
I agree that it's probably not intended to be hurtful, but I do think these racial stereotypes are very unfortunate, especially considering that most of the people that make movies in Bollywood these days are (presumably) educated and well-traveled. The fact that it's not intended to hurt anyone doesn't make me feel any better when ANY race is reduced to a crude, ridiculous caricature.
I am not a Westerner - I was born on the African continent and have lived here all my life, so blackface doesn't necessarily have the same loaded significance for me as it would to a Westerner, but I still find it (and other shallow representations of black people in Hindi film - most recently, I was quite put off by the rabidly aggressive, almost animalistic black woman who assaults Akshay Kumar's character at the airport in 'Kambakkht Ishq') pretty irritating, and sometimes offensive. The fact that the only black people (or supposedly black people) that show up in Hindi films are usually criminals or thoroughly amoral is disturbing to me (Bips' 'African' princess actually sounds like a refreshing exception - almost). And I feel the same about crude jokes and stereotypes involving other races - I find the 'loose, immoral white woman' stereotype irritating as well, and cheer when I come across a more nuanced representation of a white woman - such as the ones in 'Salaam e Ishq' and 'Rang de Basanti'. My friend and I couldn't finish watching 'Chandni Chowk to China' when we went to see it at the cinema, and Deepika's thoroughly stereotypical 'meow meow' ninja was one reason.
At the end of the day, these kinds of characters and scenes certainly haven't stopped me from watching and enjoying Bollywood films to the hilt, and I do fully understand that they aren't intended to hurt anyone, and that the sensibilities of Indian film-makers and audiences are very different from Western and other sensibilities, but I just think it's sad and unnecessary.

Daddy's Girl said...

I'm not saying Hindi film should jump on the PC brigade to the point where the films are robbed of their flavour and everything is construed as offensive (although I doubt that could EVER happen), and sometimes I do find the 'non-PCness' of Bollywood films very refreshing, but these crude racial stereotypes and 'jokes' walk too close to the edge for me.
It's just not funny (and it bothers me that people still find these jokes SO hilarious that film-makers keep inserting them in movies - lowbrow or not), and it's cheap and lazy in my view ('oh, let's just slot in a racial joke here for a quick laugh'), and deserves, I think, to be criticised. It's the 21st century, Hindi films have come such a long way, and if people aren't yet aware that people, both Indian and non-Indian, can find these stereotypes offensive, they probably should be.
Is Hollywood (and other film-making industries) guilty of the same stereotyping? Most definitely. But that doesn't mean we've lost the right to criticise it when it crops up in Bollywood. The examples you mentioned from 'Blue' and 'Kaminey' should have been commented upon (I know I've read quite a few negative comments on the 'rock bottom' scene in 'Fashion'). The 'All the Best' scene really doesn't sound that bad, especially given the way the story plays out (and I could say the same about Preity's prayer scene in 'Jhoom Barabar Jhoom') and I think we've all seen much worse in Hindi films, but if it gets people talking about some of the aspects of Bollywood cinema that could do with some change, I don't think the negative comments on it are such a bad thing. Apologies for the loooong comments, and thanks again for another very thought-provoking piece.

Filmi Girl said...

@Daddy's Girl Thank you for your thoughtful comments! I hope I didn't sound like I was supporting racial stereotypes but I was annoyed that the "black face" aspect of All the Best was being singled out for derision when there is so much other racial stereotyping that goes on in Bollywood.

Hollywood is still pretty bad with racial stereotypes of non-white people. For some reason, I find it more offensive in Hollywood because they are making films from a position of power, where Bollywood can get away with a bit of third cinema underdog status when mocking white folk.

eliza bennet said...

Great article and I agree with the points you make.

veracious said...

I'm with DG on this one. but I just think it's sad and unnecessary. sums it up for me.

It's a fair point that there's much offensive things that aren't blackface in Bollywood movies, offensive to different races/groups of people.. I think the reason why blackface or yellowface or brownface jumps at me personally as a viewer is because it's so grossly exaggerated in every way. And because it's more accentuated than a lot of other questionable depictions, it's easy to point out as objectionable.

ajnabi said...

I think you made some fantastic points, particularly about But the country that lauds Tracy Ullman's "Bollywood Pharacist" - in which the humor seems to be that she plays Indian (in black face) and breaks into song - has little to stand on when judging the political correctitude (great phrase, which I am going to borrow) of Bollywood. Personally I find both options deplorable.

And I especially don't mean to get all Western-superior-judgmental about the issue. When I see racial stereotypes and offensive depictions of all sorts, not just blackface, I call them out in my reviews. I also call out fat jokes, jingoistic attitudes and denigrating attitudes toward women (under which I would file the "one of each" comment). Such things aren't the basis for good humor. But that won't stop me from giving the movie an overall good review.

Still, I think it's a little ingenuous to make the argument that it doesn't count as "that bad" because they're equal-opportunity offenders. Bolly-lovers would howl in protest if/when a Japanese film depicted all Indians as--well, pick whatever stupid or offensive stereotype you'd like, I'm not going to list them--and rightly so. If Nollywood or South Africa's entertainment depict desi people I'd be interested to see how they're perceived through a storyteller's lens. And of course Americans tend to have desi people onscreen either as medical doctors, scientists, or 7-11 owner-operators; I'm not saying everyone else is so much better than Bollywood, I'm saying humanity needs to get a clue in general.

Out of all the examples you listed, the one to which I *would* give a free pass would be Kaminey, since almost everyone in that film is an irredeemable thug, desis included.

Your paragraph on technology is certainly eye-opening--pun not intended. I had no idea.

ajnabi said...

Oh yeah, I just remembered in the credits for RNBDJ, when SRK's character says something like "She's going to make all the Japanese people open their tiny eyes." Oh, really? You had to go there? I have to confess I was grateful it wasn't subtitled when I watched the film with my Japanese sister-in-law.

Filmi Girl said...

@ajnabi Very interesting comments! I do take your point on the "not that bad" tone of my post. I am not encouraging of racial humor but I guess I really don't think that the black face itself is that bad when removed from the Western context.

Maybe I've just become jaded towards the "one of each" attitude of low brow Bollywood comedies...

I watch a fair amount of East Asian media and let me tell you that they manage to do some pretty offensive things with African people even without black face. And white people are usually about as charming as they are in Bollywood - your usual lechorous/greedy/stupid folk.

I'm not saying everyone else is so much better than Bollywood, I'm saying humanity needs to get a clue in general.

I think this sums it up nicely. :)

Note from Filmi Girl:

I love Bollywood - and all the ridiculous things that happen in Bollywood - but it doesn't mean that I can't occasionally make fun of various celebrities and films.

If you don't like my sense of humor, please just move on by - Trolls are not appreciated and nasty comments will be deleted.

xoxo Filmi Girl