Super 30: Breaking down the 'brownface' brouhaha in Hrithik Roshan's upcoming film

Karishma Upadhyay

Jun 06, 2019 14:09:07 IST

Can a brown person be accused of ‘brownfacing’? Apparently, yes.

Ever since the trailer of the film Super 30 dropped, social media’s been abuzz with people unanimously criticising Hrithik Roshan for equating deglamorisation with a darker skin tone. We’ve always known that Hrithik is freakishly fair and has consistently used bronzer over the years; it’s nothing new and no one’s cared. This time, however, it’s so in your face that one has to question why it was done.

Super 30: Breaking down the brownface brouhaha in Hrithik Roshans upcoming film

Hrithik Roshan in Super 30. Screengrab from Youtube.

Three years ago, when Alia Bhatt swept all the ‘Best Actress’ awards for her role in Udta Punjab, nobody blinked. There was little or no outrage about her brownfacing then, so why now? Could it have something to do with the fact that this trailer came nipping at the heels of massive national outrage around the deep-seated caste politics in India’s educational institutions? The debate around a much larger issue has spilled over into something that might seem trivial to most, but the fact is our film industry has a choice when it comes to breaking or perpetuating stereotypes, and they’re clearly choosing the latter; because it’s convenient.

While the term brownfacing (the darkening of skin colour by non-brown performers to represent a brown person) was discovered by a lot of people in India for the first time this week, the practice itself has existed for decades. Whether it was Peter Sellers as Hrundi Bakshi in The Party (1968) or Jake Gyllenhall in The Price of Persia (2010), Hollywood is infamous for whitewashing in its casting choices (more recently Scarlett Johansson played a character of Asian descent in The Ghost in the Shell resulting in massive backlash). This has, however, reduced considerably over the past decade with the whole debate on inclusion.

Here in India, however, we’re nowhere close to even understanding why this is a problem. The most common reaction you’ll get from people is, “So what?”

To understand why our brand of brownfacing is as problematic as the west’s, if not more, one has to look at the characters it’s done for in the first place. In Doosri Sita (1974), Jaya Bachchan wore make-up that made her considerably darker to play a character so ugly that no one would love her. Zeenat Aman was brownfaced to play a domestic worker in Pyaas (1982). And who could ever forget Junior Mehmood singing ‘Hum Kaale Hai Toh Kya Hua…’ in Brahmachaari (1968), with the worst case of badly done dark make up ever. This has gone on for years, and continues to this day, with Ranveer Singh getting a darker look to play a slum dweller in Gully Boy.

See a thread running through all these roles? An 'ugly' girl, a domestic worker, a homeless orphan, a slum dweller. For the people of privilege making films, these roles represent ‘the others.’ This isn’t their peeps — this is a part of society that is supposed to remain subservient to them.

(L) Hrithik Roshan; (R) Anand Kumar, on whom the film is based.

India’s racism is embedded in its history, and nothing has really changed today. If you’re living in denial, just pick up a copy of today’s matrimonial classifieds. Everybody still wants a fair ‘bahu’ because she’ll breed fair sons who’ll grow up and become ‘fair and lovely supremacists’ and make India great again (or something to that effect). Linking one’s social class or wealth to the colour of their skin is, of course, a far more North Indian thing. In North India, a dark person is seen as either poor, of a lower class or ‘Madrasi’. And, a sizeable majority of those in positions of power in Bollywood have been North Indian men. It suddenly all makes sense, doesn’t it?

Hrithik’s role in Super 30 is based on the very inspirational life story of Bihari educator, Anand Kumar. It traces his journey from tutoring rich kids to opening a place of his own and teaching underprivileged children. Kumar was a common man who did heroic things and brought about social change. So, what was the filmmaker’s take? ‘Hrithik’s too fair to be believable in this role. Let’s make him darker’. We won’t cast a darker actor because who’ll watch the film? And we can’t have a fair guy playing a poor person because apparently it’s not realistic.

There’s a world out there desperately fighting these stereotypes on a daily basis, and trying to get people to look beyond the colour of their skin. Art has always had a role to play in bringing about social change, and over the last century, it’s the audio-visual medium that’s had the largest influence on social behaviour. As a filmmaker, if authenticity while representing a ‘real life character’ comes first, then cast authentically and maybe get an actor who reasonably looks the part. Also, maybe try looking beyond just skin colour. If commerce is your thing (nobody’s judging you), you have to believe that your chosen actor’s star power is enough to play any character without tripping on the potholes of negative stereotypes; you will get called out otherwise.

Updated Date: Jun 06, 2019 14:09:07 IST