Sunday, August 19, 2012

Bollywood Blackface

Unless you’re a wiki-whore, most Indians would be unaware of what Blackface is all about.
“Blackface is a form of theatrical makeup used in minstrel shows, and later vaudeville, in which performers create a stereotyped caricature of a black person.… White blackface performers in the past used burnt cork and later greasepaint or shoe polish to blacken their skin and exaggerate their lips, often wearing woolly wigs, gloves, tailcoats, or ragged clothes to complete the transformation."

Of course, anybody who watches TV sees Blackface in action pretty much every day with those fairness cream ads. The ‘before’ picture is invariably a blackened-up fair model who, post application of the cream, become quite the gori.

In itself, the act of Blackface in those ads are quite different from the original purpose of Blackface which was to ridicule a weak, racial minority. Of course, the fact that it ridicules the majority, i.e. brown skinned Indians doesn’t say much for our sense of self esteem but that’s another story.

Who the fuck buys the fact that Genelia D'Souza was this dark? She's an actress for god's sake. You see her on screen everyday

The 1983 Rajesh Khanna starrer Souten though can’t claim any such high ground.  The 80s were a horrible time for Bollywood. Tacky production values, ridiculous plot lines, bad music and clich├ęd lyrics—it was pretty grim. Souten lives up to everything expected from an 80s film with an extra cringe-inducing bonus—Blackface. In the movie, Rajesh Khanna’s character, a rags-to-riches shipping tycoon, has an assistant, Gopal, who is an "achhoot" played by Shreeram Lagoo (who was an Anna bhakt much before it became fashionable).

Having an ‘achhooth’ character though presents its own set of problems. "Achhoots" don’t look like the Rajesh Khanna’s of the world—tall, handsome and charming. So what is to be done?

Why this is Bollywood sirji. Our name is inspired from where? Hollywood! So where from will we take the inspiration? Yes, sir. The one and the same.

So they blackfaced poor Lagoo in order to make him a more "convincing" "achhoot". So when he is kicked around by Khanna’s wife while simultaneously bowing and scraping to her, everyone knows what’s happening and all is well with the world. Khanna being the hero of the fillum and all doth protest, but, you know, not too much. He does have marital problems with his wife (played by Tina Munim) but none of them have much to do with the fact that she is a FILTHY LITTLE BIGOT. Interestingly, Khanna has a little fling with Gopal’s daughter (Padmini Kolhapure). Of course, if the hero of the film is fucking you, Dalit you might be, but being a kali-kalooti is out of the question so she is spared her father’s sooty complexion.

Bollywood has had a very interesting relation with Indian society’s great other schism: religion. It has been extensively portrayed and while the portrayal has had its chinks at least there is one. Caste on the other hand can claim no such honour. Very rarely do we have Dalit characters in movies and if they are they are pathetic worms like Gopal in Souten surviving on the munificence of fair, upper caste types like Khanna. The post-Mandal phase of caste-based realization in politics seems to have skipped cinema altogether. This is somewhat unsurprising given that while each dalit has one vote, not many would be able to afford one ticket at a cinema hall for a new film. For all its mass-base, when it comes to caste,  it would seem, Bollywood still maintains quite a few elitist biases.

P.S: Someone asked me how and why I was watching Souten in the first place. The answer to that is that I was surfing and came across it on some channel and actually saw Lagoo in Blackface. After that I was hooked. Sadly, the execrable seems to have a very tight hold on me when it comes to TV at least.