South Indian films often cast actresses from north India, with fairer skin tones than the actors’

In 2000, Tamil lyricist Pa. Vijay wrote a film song “Karuppudhaan enakku pidicha kalaru” (Black is my favorite color) that immediately struck a chord among Tamilians. The heroine of the film Vetri Kodi­kattu (‘Fly the victory flag’) sings about why she loves the hero even though he is dark-skinned. The song ends with this punch line: “Our superstar Rajinikanth is also black. Black is indeed beautiful.”

Seven years later, Pa. Vijay gave Rajinikanth the pinkest color—“a basket full of sunlight and moonlight has come toget­her for my white skin”. A computer graphics-corrected Raji­ni­kanth glittering pinkish white sings that “style is all about color” as he gyrates with Shriya Saran in the film Sivaji.

So which is the real Pa. Vijay? “Definitely the first one,” he says. “That song asks Tamilians to be proud of their dark skin, wear it confidently as a symbol of their identity and not see it as an insult. Those lines were written from the heart for my Tamil brethren.” The second song, he explains, was written for a scene to suit a particular context where the heroine rejects the hero for his dark skin, though she actually loves him, and the hero daydreams about having a fair complexion.

Vijay may be sure of his choice, but not all Tamilians are—many of them are torn between being born dark and yearning to look like the fair Rajinikanth of the Sivaji dream sequence.

A lighter skin tone continues to be a privileged visiting card in the job market, marriage scene and in the entertainment industry.

The dark-skinned suffer an unfair disadvantage prima facie.

Aarthi rues how she lost a front-office job to another girl who was fairer, but certainly did not “match my communication skills”. Though she was recruited for ­another post in the same organisation, she eventually came to occupy the front office as “my new manager looked for a pleasant communicator and not just someone who looked fair”.

In Tamil cinema, particularly, the preference for fair-skinned actresses is impossible to ignore. The state has exp­orted its fair ladies like Vyjayanthimala and Hema Mal­ini to Bollywood, but retains a fascination for fair-skinned beauties from the northern states. During the 1990s, Simran, a Punjabi, dominated the Tamil screen along with ­Khushboo, Nagma and her sister Jyothika. Since then, many more from the north, all fair-skinned, have stepped in—such as Tamannah, Kajal ­Aggarwal, Taapsee Pannu and Hansika Motwani.

The urge to look fair has only increased footfalls in beauty parlours and clinics of dermatologists and cosmetologists. “South Indians are great believers in whitening and brightening,” says co-founder of Naturals, the country’s largest beauty parlour chain. “Facials and other treatments that lighten the skin tone are instant sellers in our parlors. Women continue to dominate this segment, though more and more men are also going for facials now.”

On the flip side, the overuse of steroid-based creams to lighten skin tone has patients scurrying to dermatologists with exactly the opposite effects. “They end up with over-sensitive skin, rashes, pimples and even facial hair, which are unforeseen side-effects of steroid-based creams ordered online or handed out by unscrupulous beauticians,” says dermatologist Maya. “They have the exact opposite effect on some patients as they tan the moment they step out into the sun. Even the Japanese and Taiwanese, who are much fairer than South Indians, want to look fairer and are the largest market for fairness cream in East Asia.”

This premium on white skin could also be attributed to the political success of M.G. Ramachandran and J. Jayalalitha. “He resembles a rose” used to be the standard reference to MGR as he moved amidst a sea of dark-skinned admirers. “It is doubtful if a darker version of Jayalalitha would have been as successful,” late AIADMK MP Valampuri John used to quip. “Tamilians are suckers for fair skin, so they fell for Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi too.”

Though Karunanidhi and his son Stalin are definitely not dark-skinned by Dravidian standards, the DMK veteran once chided a photographer when he stopped clicking his pictures during a magazine interview. “Had it been Amma (Jayalalitha), you would never stop clicking as it is easy to shoot her white skin,” Karunanidhi had derided the lensman, who later observed: “That’s true as it is a photographer’s nightmare to find the right balance between the dark skin tones of Tamil leaders and their white shirts.” The curiosity that Jayalalitha’s niece Deepa recently evoked was her resemblance to her aunt not just in looks, but also in complexion, especially in comparison to a much darker Sasikala.

For Tamilians wary of describing themselves as dusky or dark, the term ‘wheatish’ comes in handy. It is almost a cliché in describing a bride’s complexion in matrimonial websites. “Girls with wheatish skin tones have been winning our Miss Chennai beauty pageants in recent years,” says pageant organiser Shobha. “Our winners since actress Trisha, who won our first show in 1999, have been relatively dusky. It shows our judges focus on other elements such as how a woman carries herself, her confidence and how she ­interacts. Fair complexion alone is no ticket to victory in a beauty event.” Interestingly, participants of the ‘Chennai Man’ contest were also found devoting more time to lightening their facial tone before the event.

But now the times are changing. In the entertainment ind­us­try, the space for performers with darker skin tone has ­increased, with actresses such as Amla Paul, Lakshmi ­Menon and ­Aishwarya Rajesh featuring in hit films. “The credit for choosing heroines only for their performance and not their skin tone should actually go to veteran director K. Bala­chander, who gave ample scope to dark-complexioned heroines such as Sreevidya, Premeela, Saritha and Sujatha.”

A Movement Against “Fair Skin Preferred” is Gathering Steam

In civil society, too, a movement against “fair skin preferred” is gathering steam.

Kavitha Emmanuel, Chennai-based dir­ector of ‘Women of Worth’, got Nandita Das to endorse her ‘Dark is Beautiful’ campaign, with the tagline “Stay Unf­air, Stay Beautiful”. Kavitha also led a protest in Bombay against Shahrukh Khan’s endorsement of Emami’s ‘Fair and Handsome’. “When we could not meet him, we met Emami chairman to lodge our protest against promoting fairness creams for men or women,” she says. Her group has been specifically targeting college students, urging them to not let their skin color affect their self-esteem.

“Technology, too, is indirectly promoting fair skin,” rues Kavitha, pointing to the Oppo mobile phone commercial that promotes it as a selfie expert. “The ad featuring Sonam Kapoor and Hrithik Roshan advocates tone bias by promoting its ‘selfie touch up’ software, which artificially lightens and brightens the model’s face.”

Dancer and choreographer Aparnaa, who refuses to accept shows if any client comes looking for dancers who are “tall and fair”, says, “This is a visual art and it should be about skills and presentability. Instead, they first tick the shape and color boxes. Even well-meaning persons come up with such preferences, perhaps due to social conditioning. Many of my relatives, too, are guilty of it; they used to say I may be dark, but ‘still’ have good features.”

The mantra “be dark and be successful” is slowly gaining ground, thanks to blogs and soc­ial media posts against the fairness craze. Dr Maya usually poses one question to her patients wishing to look fairer: “Will that make you more successful than Rajinikanth?”

Stardust On Dark Complexes

The celebrities who endorse fairness creams do not seem to look at the darker side of Indian social consciousness.

When Tannishtha Chatterjee walked out of a popular comedy show to protest against jokes on the color of her skin, the 36-year-old actr­ess found it hard to explain to the producers that her exit wasn’t for lack of sporting spirit. To her, the comments passed about her bore no humor. From Indian film scene, again, Nandita Das has pointed out that she is often ref­erred to as dusky. The actress is “not offended”, but she does want to know why the routine-like reference is necessary when fellow professionals seldom get hailed as “fair”.

More recently, Abhay Deol called out on social media Bollywood celebrities who end­orsed fairness products. Even as his Facebook posts went viral ruffling quite a few feathers, the 41-year-old actor-produ­cer is apprehensive about any long-term impact on Indian notions of beauty.

Who Is Endorsing What?

Yami Gautam Fair & Lovely

Sonam Kapoor L’oreal

Shahrukh Khan Fair and handsome

Shahid Kapoor Vaseline

Vidya Balan Dabur

Ileana D’cruz Ponds

Sonali Bendre Fem

Anushka Sharma Nivea

Deepika Padukone and John Abraham Garnier

And while the media has whole-hearte­dly picked up the issue, lauding Abhay for his actions, the industry continues to watch without really declaring their support. Soon after Abhay, known for doing films such as DevD, Shanghai and Zindagi Milegi Na Dobara, put out on twitter the posts naming stars such as Shahrukh Khan, Deepika Padukone, Sonam Kapoor, Shahid Kapoor, Vidya Balan and John Abraham, apart from a tepid retort by Sonam Kapoor, the industry remained silent.

However, some filmmakers and several sociologists, ad filmmakers and culture experts have raised the issue of impact of celebrity endorsements. “It is just not ethical. I have never done a fairness comme­rcial because it endorses something that is wrong,” says ad guru Prahlad Kakkar. “It is far more damaging to women than to men because men still get away with the power of their money or position. They hide their ugli­ness behind their wallets. Most women can’t do it.”

Some of those who have endorsed fairness products have, simultaneously, fought social taboo of some kind or the other. Deepika Padukone, for instance, has done a video on women’s rights to body, adding candidly that a personal bout of depression prompted her to work on similar sensitive issues. Sonam recently wrote a long article about why none should compare their ideas of beauty. Sonali Bendre, who once endo­rsed a fairness cream, came out in support of Tannishtha after the comedy show episode, but that was a one-off.

Celeb endorsements are far more damaging to women than they are to men, who can after all hide their ugliness behind their bloated wallets.

Sociologist Nandini Sardesai says celebrity endorsements further perpetuate stereotypes. “All matrimonial advertisements indicate a preference for the fair-skinned. You may see caste no bar but you won’t see colour no bar. Whenever a girl is born, often the first question is if she is fair,” she notes. “People don’t use logic while buying products that promise fair skin. The target group is people who have a complex.” Though society has undergone many changes, not all are for the better. Activists point to the unhe­althy connection between such products and success in life—even women’s choices such as marriage and job. Case in point is a Fair and Lovely ad where the model is told by her father to accept a marriage proposal and she finds the strength to say ‘no’ after she has become fair on application of the product.

“I am lucky that my parents didn’t instil any such kind of complex,” says Nandita, who has lent her support to campaigns such as ‘Dark is Beautiful’ and ‘Stay unfair, stay beautiful’. “I have seen hundreds of young girls lose confidence and self-esteem because of their skin colour. Too many young girls and now boys are losing confidence purely because of a prejudice. They are being made to feel unwo­rthy, inadequate, unacceptable. The ima­geries all around perpetuate and promote this stereotype. It must change.”

Filmmakers point that despite notions of fairness as beauty having existed for long, the earlier emphasis was not as rigid as it is today. Late actr­ess Smita Patil reportedly never allowed any makeup artist to change her dark skin tone in movies. Shyam Benegal who dir­ected her in several movies says, “It was never an issue. Beauty is not about colour at all. It is about features, character, personality and how you carry yourself. This not­ion perhaps was perpetuated by Europeans because Indian classical art did not make this distinction. At Ajanta Caves, the princess is dark and the servants are fair. We have all the shades among our people. Anyhow, it is totally absurd and ridiculous to judge on the basis of colour.”

While this may be true, it is only a handful of celebrities who are willing to stake the profits. Kangna Ranaut, for exa­mple, has openly said she has lost out on several advertisements (and consequently a lot of money) because she ref­uses to endorse fairness products. However, not many have spoken up in the past or now. Abhay says that he is making an appeal to those in positions of power to come forward to break the stereotype. Nandita makes a similar point.

“I do wish that people in influential posi­tions would use their power for the lar­ger good, to make people feel better about themselves and not to make them feel inadequate,” she says. “Finally, each one of us is guided by our own conscience and our inner sense of resp­onsibility. The responsibility is primarily on each individual and thereby society at large, but those who control its representations can be more responsible, so that they don’t perpetuate this complex and instead help break the stereotype.”

But, as Nandita herself notes, the ad world is guided by money. “They are only cashing on the aspirations of the consumer. The fashion and beauty industries that are catering to the ‘dark skin complex’ end up deepening the complex.” She goes on to say that society in its entir­ety is complicit in it. “Most young minds would be vulnerable to such ad images, but the monies are big and people lose perspective. That is why it is important to have public dialogues and debates around such a serious issue.

Tannishtha wants to break the notion that while Asians want to be fair, the white-skinned Westerners are pressured into acqui­ring a tan. “It is not the same thing. Tan in the western world is a sign of prosperity and affluence where you show off that you have been to an exotic vacation. It is not a preference over white skin,” she points out. “It is high time we Indians looked at the complexes of caste and class systems and made this fight against the bias into a movement.”

Paradoxical as it may sound, the onus of the movement, too, lies on women. Kakkar says women need to lead the anti-­fairness products drive from the front. “The only politician who saw women as a votebank is Nitish Kumar. Our netas must come together and make this an aggressive political movement,” he adds. “The Black Panthers movement (in the US) occupied a space and created the idea that black is beautiful—and people started following it. In a similar way, the movement needs to be forceful in India, where women must reject the idea of being judged and objectified.”

Ugly Fraud In Fairness Tube

In a country not comfortable with its own genes, fairness creams sell a lie to pander to a deep-seated self-loathing.

First things first, in black and white—and all the greys. The science is as dub­ious as the sociology. The Indian market is flooded with fairness products. If all of them had made the promised effect, we’d have become a country of Icelanders—close to realising again that old pop notion of the North Pole having been in India. “The truth should be out,” says Paras Jain, a ­Delhi law student, who is on the verge of securing a verdict that could forever change the way personal care products and fairness creams market themselves in India—even if attitudinal changes will take longer.
Depending on the verdict, the industry could still find grey areas to work around the law. But from an uncontrolled run, it has at least come to a pass where a willingness to question their claims—and the collective inferiority complex it panders to—is visible. Bollywood actor Abhay Deol unleashed a refreshing send-up of his colleagues just last week for endorsing fairness products. But the legal story began in 2013, when young Paras decided to take on the Rs 10,000-crore personal care giant, Emami Ltd. A two-and-a-half-year court battle awaited him, but he was firm on seeing it through.

How big is the fairness cream market in India? Rncos e-services pegs it at Rs 27,000 crore and Nielsen says it is growing at an annual clip of 18 percent.

Paras was goaded into this by his brother Nikhil’s experience with a product called Fair and Handsome. The fairness cream, which Nikhil believed would eventually make his skin tone ligh­ter with diligent use, hadn’t made a whit of a difference in years. For a looks-conscious young adult, this naturally was cause for a great deal of frustration. But Paras, who had just been initiated into the world of torts and the Consumer Protection Act, saw more than a random failure. For him, this was a “seriously unfair trade ­practice”. How is it, he muttered to himself, that cosmetic companies get away with “lies, damn lies”.

The budding lawyer decided to step into the courts even before he was a graduate. Since it didn’t require a lawyer to initiate a plea in a consumer court, Paras did the honours himself and sued Emami Ltd for selling a product (Fair and Handsome) that just wouldn’t do what it promised to. “The first thing that came to my mind is…this is unfair, this is cheating. Fairness creams don’t work,” he says. What’s worse, Emami Ltd claimed the product had a ‘technology’—which they called “American peptide”—that ensured it settled deep into the skin and made a person fair in four weeks flat.

The product he had taken on had created for itself a big brand cachet. In a now-withdrawn ad for Fair and Handsome, Bollywood star Shahrukh Khan is seen talking about how he toiled to make it big as a movie star. He then tosses a tube of Fair and Handsome to a dark-looking man, suggesting it would help him get ahead in life. In real life, thousands of Nikhils would have fallen for it. “I was keen on seeing how a judge would look at this. So I pleaded before the district consumer court that Emami had duped my brother with its product,” Paras said.

Things got interesting when Emami joined the case and claimed there was scientific evidence to demonstrate its product worked. It submitted tests from private labs and individual experts. But the verdict by the north Delhi district consumer court in 2015, not surprisingly, was damning. “It uses the word ‘gorapan’ in advertisement No. 1, which means ‘fair complexion’,” the court ruled. “This is in direct contrast with the defence taken by the OP (opposing party, i.e Emami Ltd) wherein it has claimed that the use of the product improves the health and quality of skin by providing protection and nourishment to the facial and neck skin which are more exposed to the vag­aries of nature: sunlight, dust, wind, etc.”

Then came the operative part of the damning verdict. “We are therefore of the considered opinion that the advertisements publis­hed by the OP as referred to above make a misrepresentation to the public at large about the effectiveness of the product to change the complexion of the skin from dark to wheatish or wheatish to fair.”

The consumer forum ordered Emami to pay damages of Rs 15 lakh, besides Rs 10,000 towards legal costs. Since the company’s lawyer had argued that the case may have been brought with an eye on lucrative compensation money, Paras said he did not want a paisa other than the cost of litigation of two years. The court then asked Emami to deposit the Rs 15 lakh in the state-run consumer welfare fund. It also asked Emami to withdraw all ads with the “fairness” hook. Emami, which has gone into appeal at the next level of consumer courts, did not respond to Outlook’s e-mail query.

Black Science?

All this while, scientific evidence has been in plenty short supply on whether fairness creams work at all—and if so, how. Globally, few studies have been carried out to discern if cosmetic non-prescription products can have an impact on skin tone. Not a very satisfactory situation from a consumer rights point of view because, as market research firm Euromonitor International says, the potential market is still very large as “products still have only a limited penetration”.

A May 2016 report by Euromonitor, titled ‘Beauty and Personal Care in India’, says demand is being driven by factors such as “rising disposable incomes, increasing product penetration, the growth of modern retailers, increasing awareness of beauty and personal care products, the rising aspirations of consumers, and strong economic growth”. As a result, it states, the industry’s constant value growth over the forecast period is expected to be higher than during the review period. Firms such as L’Oreal, Unilever, Lakme, Maybellene, Emami and Nivea control a majority of the sales pie.

According to the US FDA, existing ­studies haven’t ­conclusively established that ­hydroquinone can cause cancer in humans.

The science, however, is sketchy. “There is not much study possible anyway in the West because you can’t test their efficacy on people who are naturally fair. So, whatever study you have to do, you have to do on Asian skin types,” says Dr Monika Agarwal, who teaches pharmacology at New Delhi’s Maulana Azad Medical College.

Agarwal and her colleague Vandana Roy conducted a landmark clinical study to test the efficacy of fairness products. Their results were published in the peer-reviewed Indian Journal of Clinical Practice in 2012. Its objective was to ass­ess the composition, pharmacological basis of various constituents, cost and scientific evidence for claims made for the efficacy of three commonly used fairness creams. For reasons of objectiv­ity, the brands weren’t disclosed. The ­total number of individual constituents was 54; of these, 14 were common in all three creams, while seven more were common in two creams. The study recorded 22 pharmacological actions.

About 85 percent of the ingredients in fairness creams are sunscreens, moisturisers, skin softeners and emollients or opacifying agents. It is the opacifying agents in a fairness cream that make users appear instantly brighter. Only 15 percent of the constituents directly affected melanin synthesis—and on a temporary basis at that. This means their chemical activity has some short-term potential to suppress melanin, the pigment that makes people appear dark.

Law student Paras Jain took Emami to consumer court

According to the study, the most common constituents in fairness creams were stearic and palmitic acid, glycerine, tit­anium dioxide, tocopheryl acetate, octyl methoxy cinnamate, cetyl alcohol, dimethicon, phenoxyethanol, methylparaben, propylparaben, disodium EDTA, water and perfume. So what exactly are these? Stearic and palmitic acid are emollients or, simply, skin conditioners. Titanium dioxide is both a sunscreen and an opacifying agent. Tocopheryl acetate is a vitamin E derivative. Cetyl alcohol is also an opacifier. Dimethicone is a lubricant and conditioning agent.

The authors report that four ingredients act on melanin. These are niacinamide, a vitamin of the B group, apart from sodium ascorbyl phosphate (a water-soluble form of vitamin C), ascorbyl glucosidase (which releases vitamin C) and salicylic acid, which is present in a weak strength and helps melt the topmost layer of skin. Yet, the conclusions of the study on the effect on skin tone were quite simple and unambiguous. “They only make you look fairer for a very short duration by coating your skin and certainly don’t work significantly at an epithelial or cellular level,” says Agarwal.

Globally, hydroquinone is the only agent that is proven to work on melanin. “It’s a prescription-only product, meaning a doctor must write out the prescription for it. A clinical diagnosis of pigmentation must be made. It’s not a cosmetic,” says Dr Poornima Chawla, a dermatologist. While Europe has banned it for fears that it can be potentially cancer-causing, it is available for sale in US and India. The US Food and Drug Administration is of the view that existing studies haven’t conclusively established that hydroquinone can cause cancer in humans, although it has been shown to be carcinogenic in some rat species. So it has ordered a fresh long-term study before taking a call. Chawla says there’s no guarantee this prescription-­only drug isn’t sold without a doctor’s prescription when every other medicine is sold freely.

Deadly Obsession

It’s not just the science that’s troubling. A society ill at ease with its own genes means it is reflexively prone to valuing the fairer end of the spectrum in every field. The marriage market is almost organised, socially sanctified eugenics. Calendar div­inities, descended from Ravi Varma depictions, are uniformly rosy—even Krishna gets the whitening treatment these days. And popular films have almost uniformly been in denial of the magnetic att­raction of dark skin that was always acknowledged in traditional culture.

In fact, the candy shop pantheon of toffee-coloured heroines and heroes—the duskier ones painted over—are partly held responsible by critics for this aspiration. Popular cinema has long depicted, as film-maker Satyajit Ray once said, an “India that doesn’t exist”. But you can’t blame individual actors or actresses for being themselves on screen. Yet, tragically, even the biggest film stars have had no qualms going beyond that and ­appearing in ads that promote the idea that fairer skin gets you a headstart in life.

The effect all this constant incantation on popular media has can be quite devastating. A sense of rejection and negative prestige can stalk those who are made to feel inferior on ­account of skin tone. Darker-skinned women have often killed themselves. In 2014, police in Haryana said a woman from Gurgaon’s Jyoti Park locality hanged herself because her husband would abuse her for being dark. In West Bengal’s East Midnapore district, schoolteacher Brototi Das set herself on fire the same year, as her parents weren’t able to get her married because of her skin colour.

Children are the less-noticed victims. Raised on a cultu­ral belief that ‘wheatish’ is desirable, young people often have “shocking levels” of low self-esteem and undetected ­depression, says Kavitha Emmanuel, director of Women of Worth, the Chennai-based non-profit behind the ‘Dark is Beautiful’ campaign. Women of Worth is engaged in fighting this prejudice in a country that is by reflex, and often consciously, racist—a unique racism that is directed against oneself as much as the other.

Teenagers face taunts from within peer circles—school and neighbourhood friends—leaving them psychologically traumatised, her organisation found in a survey. Girls preparing for marriage devote a lot of time and resources to appear fair. One study, in the South Asia Gynaecological Review, found urban Indian women blocking off sun to avoid tanning were more likely to develop ostoeoporosis, or brittle bones. They are prone to have lower levels of vitamin D, needed for good bone health, for which sunlight is necessary.

It’s not just women who feel the need to be fair. Men have taken to grooming and beauty with a lot of gusto—and chasing fairness is part of that. “Interestingly, men who fall in the age-group of 18 to 25 spend more money on grooming and personal care products than women in India,” Assocham chief D.S. Rawat says. The cultural fixation, natura­lly, means big business. Fairness cream sales are growing at an annual clip of 18 per cent, according to a Nielsen report. The business is worth Rs 27,000 crore, according to Rncos ­e-services, a market research firm.

Pull out any living-room chest drawer in India and you could just find a twisted metal tube of a used-up fairness cream. The love affair is an old one. Hark back to 1978, when Hindustan Unilever launched Fair and Lovely in a country just past the seismic political events of Emergency rule and well before it was to embrace market economy. It has since metamorphosed into a talismanic product.

What is it about dark then? The old metaphors in India around dark could be fairly positive—unlike in English, a ‘dark cloud’ in any Indian language would betoken a thrilling sight. How could it not, in a sun-parched country? Was it a sense of inferiority brought on by the colonial encounter? Or did the miscegenation of centuries produce a hierarchy internally? “It’s an alien inv­asion…something external taking over…you know what I mean,” says sociologist Shiv Visvanathan, who studies culture and sexuality and believes Brahmin girls would often be dissuaded from having coffee for fear it would make them dark. “It’s a bottled utopia. A lot of these products are used by plantation workers. We think black is an inferior colour. Just look at the number of fair Punjabi actresses in south Indian cinema. All this beats me clean.”

Not everybody believes in this “bottled utopia”. But they are a tiny minority militating against an ingrained prejudice. When a news website published a story on Monisha Rajesh, author of the travelogue Around the World in 80 Trains, she wasn’t pleased at all. Rather, she was infuriated. The problem wasn’t bad press, but a badly done profile photograph. She looked lighter and “so green” in a strange sort of way. It was an airbrush overkill by the photo editor trying to make her look fair. “I need no favour with whitening,” she wrote. That wasn’t her. Monisha got the photograph replaced. She was happy ­being who she was: a naturally dark woman.