In September, the film Khaali Peeli, featuring Ishaan Khatter and Ananya Panday released their self-proclaimed “item song”. It immediately sparked controversy and led to over one million downvotes on Youtube. The song, titled, ‘Beyonce Sharma Jayegi’ is the latest installment of Bollywood’s inherent racism. The lyrics,“tujhe dekh ke goriya, Beyoncé sharma jayegi” or loosely translated as “Beyonce will be ashamed when she sees you oh fair lady” is a true representation of the Indian mindset of beauty that can only be claimed by fair-skinned women. Beyonce is known for fighting towards equality of all genders, skin tones, and people. Her new visual album, ‘Black is King’ emphasizes finding beauty in black culture and the shade of one’s skin. The enjoinment of her name to this song is in stark opposition to what she believes and stands for.
The circumstances under which the song was released were sadly ironic. In light of the recent spike in cases of gun-violence specifically targeting African- Americans in the United States, and the consequent protests led by the Black Lives Matter, the song was truly in many ways- tone deaf. The movement called for a re- examination of systemic racism that pervades almost every corner of the American society. A key pillar of this movement was reclaiming that “Black is beauty” and involved African American women, embracing self-love in an environment that constantly represents only white women as romantic leads. Bollywood and Hollywood both are guilty of their discriminatory treatment towards minority communities. The song, in fact, depicts this biased treatment by its implication that a pop icon, an inspiration to black women, and an activist of beauty in all colours would be somehow “ashamed” when confronted by a “fair lady”.
Speaking of fair, this year also marked a historical turn in marketing and campaigning for the brand “Fair and Lovely” that had received well-deserved criticism about its cheap tactics that involved showing a woman transforming from a darker shade and being “ugly” to using the “Fair and Lovely” skin lightening cream and becoming much lighter and now beautiful. The company took its lead from US multinational Johnson and Johnson when it announced it would no longer produce or sell two of its creams which are popular in Asia and the Middle East in response to the death of George Floyd and the worldwide debate about racism it sparked. But this doesn’t detract from the product itself which remains a fairness cream. While packaging, labelling, and marketing have changed, the premise of the product still builds upon, perpetuates, and benefits from internalized racism and promotes anti-black sentiments amongst its consumers.
This “tradition” of shunning a darker shade of Indian women has had a long history in Bollywood songs with “Gori Gori”, “Gori Tere Pyaar Mai”,“Chura ke dil mera goriya chali” and many more. Perhaps this is what has started our obsession with skin lightening creams and a subscription to a fair idea of beauty. The extent to which the word “gori (fair)” has left its mark on Indian culture can be seen by the response given by Maqbool Khan, the director. He said, “The term ‘goriya’ (fair woman in Hindi) has been so often and traditionally used in Indian songs to address a girl, that it didn’t occur to any of us to interpret it in a literal manner.” Thus, by making both words synonymous with each other, we have managed to methodically strike dark-skinned females from our vocabulary and existence in the media. This can be termed as “brown racism” which refers to the prevalence of prejudice among the black-white spectrum of color classification.
What makes this song different?
However, what has changed between the“golden-era” times when such songs were absolved to when ‘Beyonce Sharma Jayegi’ sparked such outrage? Is it the present context that does not allow a culture to escape with such blatant racism? Is it that women have gained a voice to dissent against such subjugation? Has the world has come a long way or is that simply our hope and belief?
Maybe, we can hope to find an answer in the misplaced activism of our Bollywood celebrities. During the BLM protests, many raised a voice and drew to Twitter with the hashtag #blacklivesmatter. However, the same oppression when faced by people of their own country, such as the custodial death of Jeyaraj and Fenix, remained largely silent. Prominent examples include Priyanka Chopra, Sonam Kapoor Ahuja, and recently cricketer, K.L. Rahul. Some stars such as Chopra have themselves been guilty of peddling fairness creams to the Indian masses.
Thus, the dissent against this particular song is not because of the idea it perpetuates, it is due to invoking a comparison between Beyonce, a legend in the West. The hypocrisy of the Indian public is described here by its absent complaint against racist elements within its own country but raising its voice when the western narrative demands it. Maybe the reason for our limited outrage towards the song is its mention of a black activist and icon. Perhaps, without her name, the song would simply be added to the growing collection of racist, oppressive Bollywood songs. Brown groups have long been the objects of racism and of racial prejudice against whites. Yet oddly, they fail to recognise the problem of color prejudice in their own societies. Brown racism is thus, not without its intrinsic irony.
The path forward?
What does this convey to us about the present world we live in? What does this say about social movements that are never given enough attention due to their lack of palatability to the masses? When natural things like the colour of your skin become exclusionary – why do we shout about the ostracism of the West?
Our activist hypocrisy can be attributed to individuals wanting to gain popularity and attention by showcasing their support for social movements that dominate the political narrative. Our protest against ‘Beyonce Sharma Jayegi’ requires some serious introspection. Not because calling out cultural artists that influence society is wrong. But to examine the reason for our outrage specifically on this song over others. It is time to call for India to build its own narrative shaped by its own marginalised communities rather than co-opting the voices present in the West. People underrepresented by the media need an opportunity to speak, not to provide this platform to them only when it’s ‘popular’ to do so, but because it is the least we can do.
Niharika Mehrotra is a second-year undergraduate student pursuing a degree in Political Science from Ashoka University.