Why Bhumi Pednekar’s blackface in ‘Bala’ perpetuates the hegemony of colour

Blackface is outrageous. Why does nobody seem bothered?

ByRavikiran Shinde
Why Bhumi Pednekar’s blackface in ‘Bala’ perpetuates the hegemony of colour
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The newly released film Bala, starring Ayushmann Khurrana and Bhumi Pednekar, is problematic. It not only takes the insulting practice of brownfacing in Bollywood to a new level of blackfacing but does so under the guise of denouncing false conceptions of beauty and associated discrimination. In a country of predominantly dark-skinned people, a fair-complexioned actress is blackfaced so she can play a dark-skinned girl! The film, thus, ends up perpetuating the hegemony of colour.

After watching the movie, I could not decide what was more outrageous: blackfacing an actress or using a blackfaced girl to decry India’s obsession with fair skin. Yet, even as the film does brisk business – raking in Rs 61 crore in the first five days – there’s no palpable outrage over the blackfacing.

The film revolves around the problem of hair loss in Balamukund “Bala” Shukla, a standup comedian played by Khurrana, and has a dark-skinned lawyer named Lathika Tiwari, played by Pedekar, as a central character. But blackfacing fair-skinned Pednekar into Lathika Tiwari is a cruel joke that only serves to perpetuate the problem the movie seemingly seeks to address.

Asked why he cast a light-skinned actress in blackface, director Amar Kaushik told Firstpost, “For me actor comes first, and then comes how the actor will look in that character. If you limit yourself in the beginning that this actor won’t suit the character then for Ayushmann’s character, I should have taken an actor who has a receding hairline. Why did I cast an actor who has thick hair? Don’t we have Deepika Padukone playing an acid attack survivor in Chhapaak? These are the actors, and it is their job to get into the skin of a character.”

Kaushik’s argument is premised on two faulty assumptions. One, that there are no dark-skinned talented actresses worth looking at. Two, you can easily appropriate a dark-skinned girl using blackface and speak for her the way you can turn a hairy man into a bald man using a costume. 

How can a young director like Kaushik be so ignorant about blackface? Recently, Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, had to apologise after pictures emerged showing him in blackface during his high school days. In the United States, NBC News anchor Meagan Kelly was made to resign for saying on air that she was fine wearing blackface when she was a child.

Could the director not find a dark-skinned talented actress in India? Or did he simply think dark-skinned actresses are not talented?

Why not cast someone like Anjali Patil, who acted so wonderfully in Newton and Kaala. Patil, whose performance in Kaala actually helped address the colour paradigm in a real sense, would have been apt for the role of a fierce lawyer. Patil is no novice. She has earned praise for her work in Delhi in a Day, Chakravyuh and Newton, collecting a bunch of accolades, including a National Film Award. 

The “actor comes first” premise didn’t hold for Sharad Katariya’s Dum Laga Ke Haisha, which too stars Khurrana and Pednekar. When there was a need to cast a plus-size woman, Pednekar, who had never done a film before, was made to put on nearly 30 kg. They didn’t use a costume to make her appear “fat”; they wanted a “real fat woman”. In the case of this movie, the actor came second.

Pednekar, on her part, was blunt when asked about blackfacing in Bala. “These are characters I cannot say no to. I am an actor and I am supposed to do whatever it takes to transform,” she told Good Times. “There is a section of society that might not like it but that doesn’t mean I am going to stop.”

Think about it. After a long time, a Hindi film talked about the hypocrisy of fairness products and the mental trauma suffered by a 5-year old dark-skinned girl when she’s called names. Yet, it too came at the expense of having to see a blackface. It’s like hearing a sermon against domestic violence from a known wife-beater who, through sheer force of his oration, even makes some people cry.  But if you knew he was part of the problem, you wouldn’t laud his speech. 

Each time Lathika Tiwari came on-screen with her outlandish makeup, it offended me as a dark-skinned man. I am sure it offended many of the dark-complexioned women in the theatre even more.

After appearing to promote counter-hegemony by questioning Lord Krishna’s “beautification” of mythological hunchback woman Kubja and teaching everyone to be sensitive about physical appearance, the film contradicts both points and keeps the hegemony of colour and beauty intact.

Bollywood’s ‘dark mode’

Bollywood routinely boasts about superlative talents like Rekha, Smita Patil, Kajol, Nandita Das, Ajay Devgan, Chitrangada Singh, Bipasha Basu and Anjali Patil who range from dusky to dark-skinned. They have often been made to look much fairer (see Kajol in Dilwale) but when it comes to casting for a dark-skinned character, Bollywood usually prefers to say  “blackface it”.

In Rajesh Khanna’s blockbuster movie Sauten, Padmini Kolhapure’s Dalit father played by Shriram Lagoo was blackfaced. In Izzat, Dharmendra plays the son of an Adivasi woman and his face is darkened. In Razia Sultan too, Dharmendra in blackface plays Jamal-ud-Din Yaqut. Even Hrithik Roshan was brownfaced in Super 30 because his character, Anand Kumar, hails from the backward class even though the teacher on whose life the movie is based isn’t dark-skinned.

Bollywood has a multitude of unaddressed problems, including the lack of diversity in characters and actors (all characters in Bala have Brahmin names, including support roles), stereotyping certain sections of the society, and brownfacing. 

Bala not only continues the structural colourism under the guise of addressing it, but the film also sets an awful and dangerous precedent of blackfacing female actors. Ignoring this and making blackface characters the new normal would be shameful, to say the least. 

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