A number of famous actors have either failed to condemn bigotry in their own country or have advertised skin lightening products.
The killing of George Floyd has provoked a global outpouring against police brutality and institutional racism targeting African-Americans and other visible minorities in the US.
Indian actors have been no different, adding their voice to the chorus calling for change in protests and online messages of solidarity across the world.
However, as many Bollywood observers are pointing out, these stars are not without their own demons when it comes to racial prejudice and support for the far-right.
Criticism of Bollywood actors and actresses centred on their own idealisation of lighter skin, such as through the promotion of skin lightening creams, and their silence on issues such as hate rhetoric and violence targeting the country’s Muslim minority.
When actress Priyanka Chopra posted a message of solidarity on instagram, featuring the caption ‘I can’t breathe’, many followers pointed out her own silence on minority issues in India.
“End this race war here in the US, and around the world. Wherever you live, whatever your circumstances, NO ONE deserves to die, especially at the hands of another because of their skin color,” Chopra wrote in the caption accompanying the image.
One user responded: “Have you forgotten your advert of the garnier skin whitening cream????”
Another asked why Chopra had not spoken up during recent anti-Muslim violence in the Indian capital, New Delhi, in which scores were killed: “As you write this opportunistic, unaware, shameless post sitting on your green card with your fairness cream advertisement sponsored UPPER CASTE privilege, please take a moment to reflect on your performative selective wokeness.”
Chopra was by no means alone in being targeted for her perceived hypocrisy. After actress Disha Patani shared an image with the caption ‘all colours are beautiful’, Indian Twitter users were quick to point out her role in advertising skin lightening products.
“Actors .... who are obsessed with skin lightening have no rights to say this !!!” said one Twitter user.
Since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic and consequent curfews imposed, Indian police have been accused of taking a heavy handed approach to enforcement, with a number of videos of violent beatings of Indian nationals by officers going viral.
The fact that many of the same stars called out US police violence but failed to do the same for alleged Indian police abuses also drew criticism.
One Twitter user wrote: “Since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic and consequent curfews imposed, Indian police have been accused of taking a heavy handed approach to enforcement, with a number of videos of violent beatings of Indian nationals by officers going viral.”
Priyanka Chopra condemns racist murder of George Floyd but gets paid to advertise skin creams that lighten your skin colour. If she is still Goodwill ambassador for some UN agency, can they please dump her. Her values stink. https://t.co/Dh0SwyasUY— Naila Kabeer (@N_Kabeer) June 2, 2020
Colourism in Bollywood
Bollywood has long been accused by feminists and anti-racists of implementing a uniform standard of beauty on its actress, in which light skin is prized.
The phenomenon is an extension of wider South Asian culture, where lighter skin is prized as a beautiful trait over darker tones.
Such attitudes may also explain anti-black sentiment within India, nationals of sub-Saharan African states living in India have long complained of discriminatory practices and negative portrayals.
But discriminatory practices in India are not based on skin colour alone. As critics of the Chopra and the other actors pointed out, India also has issues with the caste system, complaints of state-sanctioned discrimination against minorities, and also police violence.
In a number of movies, darker skinned characters are used either as comic relief or as people unworthy of the respect of those around them. In the 2008 movie Fashion, Chopra herself had no issue taking a role in which sleeping with a black man was framed as her character’s low point.