A conversation with between Nandita Das and Insight contributor Louisa Reynolds
In India, notions of beauty have been shaped by colonial prejudice and whiteness is associated with wealth and better opportunities. The film industry has been largely responsible for perpetuating racist stereotypes and on more than one occasion, actress Nandita Das was asked to “lighten her skin slightly” so that she could play upper caste roles.
Rather than caving in to such demands, Das rebelled against racism in the media and became an outspoken activist for the “Dark is Beautiful” campaign launched in 2009 by activist group Women of Worth to celebrate “beauty beyond color”.
The campaign has challenged the cosmetics industry, which has cashed in on India’s obsession with fairness by using racist advertising to promote whitening creams such as “Fair and Lovely” that often cause long-lasting damage to the women who use them.
Das has acted in over 40 feature films in 10 Indian languages and her debut feature, Firaaq, won accolades in India and abroad. This year she was chosen from almost 4,000 applicants as one of Yale’s World Fellows.
In this interview with Insight’s Louisa Reynolds, Das argues that a campaign, on its own, might not be able to transform Indian society but at least it can ignite a debate on beauty, race and India’s caste system.
LR: To what extent did notions of whiteness shape your childhood?
ND: As a child, it was never a focus. My father would say “that’s a nice sari” but he wouldn’t comment on my skin color. Children should be given confidence or made to feel who they really are by what they do, what they think, how they respond, and what their interests are. It only became an issue when every article about me started with “she’s dark and dusky” or when someone would whisper: “Do you mind lightening your skin slightly?” if I played a character that was educated. I’ve also been told: “don’t wear bright clothes because they don’t look good with dark skin”.
LR: Are beauty ideals in modern day India still shaped by colonialist prejudice?
ND: We were colonized for 200 years and the white man is always seen as someone above us. Indians are very racist within their own structure and there is definitely a very deep hierarchy.
LR: One of the focal points of the “Dark is Beautiful” campaign is the fight against whitening creams. In what ways do these creams cause severe damage to the women who use them?
ND: There are lots of horrible side effects of these creams especially the cheaper ones, because they put cheaper ingredients in them. In tribal villages where people barely have anything to eat, they have tubes of “Fair and Lovely” that are past their sell by date. They become a dumping ground. And now there are tons of little clinics that say “we will make you ten shades lighter in two hours”. Dermatologists are cashing in on this and are doing all kinds of skin peeling and other dangerous things.
LR: Do you think it’s contradictory that Unilever produces “Fair and Lovely” and on the other hand it has the Dove Self Esteem Fund?
ND: Dove actually has a whitening cream too, and they say that they only promote that line in South Asian countries. The Body Shop, which focuses on a more ethical, holistic approach to beauty, also has a whitening line. So there are contradictions.
LR: Is it possible to take legal action against these companies for using racist advertising?
ND: As a citizen you’re up against a big company. Public litigation was filed years ago against “Fair and Lovely” but they always lost.
LR: Some people would argue that there’s nothing wrong with whitening creams, breast implants or any other cosmetic procedure if it makes women feel better about themselves…
ND: It’s the kind of sexism that you see in Bollywood. These skimpily dressed women who are dancing and sing lyrics that are almost offensive are saying: “This is my body. If I want to be naked, I’ll be naked”. It’s almost being connected to women’s liberation and you sound prudish if you say that this can increase molestation or that they’re objectifying women. It’s the same with the creams, they’re being connected to self-esteem and people say: “if I feel fairer I’m going to feel better” when the fact that you’re being made to feel small because of the color of your skin is the actual premise of it.
LR: Does the existence of these products merely reflect a demand?
ND: Absolutely. Prejudice precedes these products. You see pictures of blue-eyed and fair skinned Hindu gods and there are songs for kids that say “oh my dear brother, find me a fair sister in law”. Addressing these products is not really fighting the root cause. Changing mindsets is something that needs far more work; when many things come together simultaneously that’s when change happens.
LR: So what’s the best way to address the issue? Should we begin by educating school children in a different way?
ND: I was having the same debate with people who are trying to work on these issues in schools. Sometimes I feel that talking about the issue also generates a negative psychological feedback. Maybe you can’t keep telling a child: “don’t worry about being dark; it’s OK, you’re fine”. He or she hasn’t started worrying until you started saying all sorts of strange things and then he or she starts thinking: “oh, is that a problem?”
LR: So what could bring about a significant change?
ND: This campaign is not going to change everything in India. It has its purpose, which is to bring the issue to the public domain. There’s got to be a sustained effort for years. Representations of women will have to change, the way that parents and teachers deal with children, and how we deal with this as a community. It’s a very complex issue that’s not just connected to the color of the skin. It’s connected to casteism, to class, and to region. All of us have to do our bit and hope that we can see that change in our lifetimes.