If Kollywood is a religion, Rajnikanth would be the undisputed God. The actor, who is fondly known as “Superstar,” is dark-skinned and is loved by the masses and has been ruling the roost for decades. His devoted fans will spring to his defence if anyone were to reduce him to just his appearance. In his movies, dialogues glorifying the dark skin colour are often well-received by the audiences with thunderous claps and whistles in theatres. Generally, melanin heroes are never reduced to the colour of their skin or their appearance.
But that reception almost entirely applies to melanin heroes alone, as dark-skinned actresses continue to be sidelined to make way for fair looking actresses despite being equally or more talented. It is like South India is not ready for a black goddess to rule the box office, yet. I can count the number of movies with a non-fair skinned actress as the lead. In most movies, dark-skinned actresses will end up playing second fiddle to the lead actress or be cast as a comedian. Growing up, I can’t recall seeing a dark skinned woman being gushed over as much as her dark skinned male co-star. I’m giving examples of the Tamil movie industry because I grew up watching mostly Tamil movies.
India’s unhealthy obsession with fair skin is well known but gender colourism is a part of it that is barely addressed. It is in fact obscenely conspicuous in Kollywood. Have you ever noticed how the leading ladies are always lighter-skinned than their counterparts? This prejudicial preference is even mocked in Tamizh Padam 2.
Do you want to know the irony?
Ancient India embraced the colour black as a symbol of strength, beauty and power. Our goddesses Parvati and Kali are black. Sculptures of them are often carved out from black stones as a mean of staying true to their respective descriptions. South Indians pray to them every day but, here we are in 2018 still unable to let a dark-skinned goddess rule the silver screen.
However, it is not the case for melanin heroes. Actors like Vishal have been likened to Lord Krishna in movies. Gender colourism at its very best.
One of the biggest disappointment is that there has not been a proper campaign from within the film fraternity. Dark-skinned actors could help fix things by being honest to the unjust male chauvinism and gender colourism that is still very much alive in Kollywood. The only actress I have known to be vocal about this is Nandita Das. She acted in Mani Ratnam’s Kannathil Muthamittal. She detested that her skin colour was often deemed as a disadvantage and filmmakers relied on makeup and lighting to make her appear lighter on camera. Maniratnam may have given her a meaty role but, are we simply going to rely on one or two filmmakers alone to advocate for just representation?
If the audiences managed to warm up to dark-skinned actors like Dhanush, Madhavan, and Vishal, I believe they would be accepting of talented and beautiful actresses like Parvathy, Priya Anand and Aishwarya Rajesh, too. In my opinion, their talents supersede many of the commonly featured actresses but, their abilities have not been afforded the same respect as the male actors.
Are the dark-skinned actresses only fitting for roles portraying women from the lower-economy class?
This stigma surrounding dark skin has been around for centuries, thanks to British colonialism. It will not diminish any time soon given that the entertainment industry and media continue to portray fair skin as an advantage. This is rather contradictory as most South Indians are known to be dark-skinned and yet, movies that aim to cater to them barely represents their social reality.
Sure, you can say that they are just movies. Do you know how big movies are in India?
Representation is of profound significance because movies are huge in India. Stars are loved with devotion. People throng to movie theatres not just once or twice but as many times as they had like to watch their favourite stars. Their dialogues and mannerisms are learnt by heart and replayed on television screens all the time. Perpetuating colourism is as harmful as showcasing injurious lifestyle habits like drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes. The harms may not be conspicuous but, not absent.
Recent evidence proves that representation matter and can be profitable are movies like Black Panther, A Wrinkle in Time and Crazy Rich Asians. These movies proved that diverse voices matter.
I am an Indian and my ancestors originated in the Southern part of India. I grew up watching Tamil movies, only to realise that I have been fed false representations. Don’t get me started on the role of actresses in movies. They are often dumbed down or simply cast to serve as an arm-candy. They go missing for more than half of the movies’ duration.
Kollywood is biased, influenced by some (or many) chauvinistic men, who care more about minting money than breaking the damaging stigma that perpetuates colourism in hundreds of its star-studded movies that get released year in, year out.
That is the tea.