Peter Sellers' The Party is the go-to movie for expressing anger over brownface: Is the ire warranted?

Kuzhali Manickavel

May 09, 2019 08:42:33 IST

'Allegedly Problematic' is a monthly column by Kuzhali Manickavel, which takes a cheeky look at literary/cultural offerings from the past that would now be considered, well, problematic — and asks, 'But are they really?'.

Read more from the series here.


I’d like to begin by correcting a mistake I made in my last column. It’s a mistake which just goes to reiterate that particular column’s premise — that one should probably not write about things based on assumption alone. A reader pointed out that the Khond tribe of Odisha did in fact practice human sacrifice. Human Sacrifice among the Khonds of Orissa C.1836-1861: A Study by Lalrameng K Gangte says the following: “So, human sacrifice among the Khonds was both a social institution and a religious rite which underlay a close identity between the ecclesiastical and
temporal interests of the tribesmen. It was a means of propitiating the earth goddess whose favours were needed to maintain the fertility of the soil.” So there we have it, Favell Lee Mortimer was kind of right about something.

This month, I am taking a look at a movie called The Party, starring Peter Sellers, which came out in 1968. It’s the usual go-to movie for people on the internet who want to talk about why brownface is offensive. Ben Kingsley allegedly used brownface in Gandhi and there are numerous other instances where white people were essentially painted brown in order to play a nonwhite role. But for some reason, it’s The Party that is the favourite one to get angry at when one wants to get angry about brownface. I’m embarrassed to say that in my extremely limited circle, no one really knows what brownface is. Only some of them think they know what blackface is but they couldn’t really be sure because let’s be honest, it doesn’t affect us. But almost all of them loved The Party, and every single one of them felt the need to say "Birdie Num Num" when the movie was mentioned.

Peter Sellers The Party is the go-to movie for expressing anger over brownface: Is the ire warranted?

The Party, starring Peter Sellers, came out in 1968

Indians in India have a unique relationship with skin colour. On the one hand, we have a very robust industry which runs solely on the premise that everyone’s skin should be lighter because that is what makes one popular, financially successful and an all-round winner at life. Some of our children’s literature clearly show the bad guys as dark and the good guys as light-skinned. In our movies, we are guilty of blackface, brownface, whiteface and a myriad of other faces. If a character is poor, working class or “tribal”, they are almost always of a darker hue than the “normal” people in the movie.

The issue with brownface is that it reduces an individual to a caricature based on skin colour. You are not playing a single, specific character but what you assume makes up an entire race
of people. All Indians are brown, all Indians talk funny, all Indians are socially clumsy, the list can go on endlessly if you really want it to. At its worst, it’s tiresomely racist. At best, it is an incredibly lazy and boring way to portray a person.

Having said all that though, I have to admit that in my youth, I loved this movie to death.

The main character was an Indian, or an assumption of an Indian, and I had never seen this before in any English movie or TV show. He was the good guy. He got the girl. And apart from all that, it was one of those movies which was just good time pass. I don’t really understand why Sellers felt the need to darken his face for the role. While I don’t think it makes him look Indian, it certainly
makes him look greasy and a little blotchy, unless the belief at the time was that Indians, as an entire race, were a greasy and blotchy people.

Next: We revisit The Party and see how offensive or inoffensive it is.

Kuzhali Manickavel is the author of the short story collections 'Insects Are Just like You and Me except Some of Them Have Wings' and 'Things We Found During the Autopsy', both available from Blaft Publications

Updated Date: May 10, 2019 09:31:52 IST

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