Ms. Representation: All is not fair in cinema
This weekly column is a rumination on how women are portrayed in cinema and this week the author writes about representation and colour bias, taking the example of Bala
In last week’s release, Bala, Bhumi Pednekar plays Lathika a strong-willed, independent lawyer who practices in Kanpur. Lathika doesn’t give two hoots about ‘log kya kahenge’. She believes women deserve to be respected and shouldn’t settle for anything else. More importantly, she strongly believes that the beauty standards women are subjected to are unfair. But Lathika had to suffer before she could wear her indifference as an armour. You see Lathika is shown to have dark skin. But guess what? Bhumi doesn't.
This irony is just impossible to escape from. Lathika doesn't allow fairness products in her office. She advises an older woman that she is perfectly fine the way she looks and that her extra weight isn't an excuse for her husband to cheat on her. Well-intentioned, of course, but it feels like a sham. Every time, Lathika says, ‘You’re good as you are’, or talks about fairness or society’s skewed beauty standards, all I could think about was how unfair it is that an actor with fair skin had to be darkened for this role. It's common knowledge that dusky women don’t get enough opportunities. And now, even roles tailor-made for them seem to be going to fair-skinned women.
This isn't a straightforward debate and I hear your questions. One of them usually goes: Isn’t acting supposed to be about transforming into someone else? Ask yourself though if there has there been a case where a dusky actress was asked to play a fair-skinned person just for one film, and went back to being her normal self? Dusky female actors have, in fact, opted to lighten their skin through treatments for longevity of their career. There’s no judgment here, by the way; this is just observation. When it’s hard for a dusky woman to be herself, is it fair that we give away tailormade parts to fairer women too? The problem here is the inherent bias of our industry. We can talk about the ethics of acting when there's a level-playing ground for everyone.
Here’s another question you could ask: Ayushmann Khurrana, who plays the lead in Bala, isn’t balding as well. How is it that while he can play that role, I only problematise Bhumi’s transformation? Ideally, a bald actor would play the role (It was done in the Kannada hit, Ondu Motteya Kathe). While it isn’t ideal that our cinema caters to a set template of beauty, hair loss or even weight loss is temporary in comparison. On baldness, we have Rajinikanth, Anupam Kher and many other actors who continue to get the opportunities they got, without hassle. On the other hand, we don’t see actors like Konkona Sen Sharma and Nandita Das—terrific talents—often on screen, do we?
The challenge here isn't similar to differently-abled characters as well. There's a genuine case of a lack of numbers when it comes to disabled actors. There’s also the issue of mental and physical exhaustion. But ask yourself: Is there such a dearth of dark-complexioned women that the casting team couldn't find one for this role?
Finally, you could also say that there’s a need to have a star headline the film. At the end of the day, cinema is a business and has to be profitable. The presence of a known actor means that the film reaches more people and hence, the risks are fairly balanced. That was the argument behind Hrithik Roshan’s Super 30. But Bala doesn’t even fall under that category. The film already has Ayushmann and Yami Gautam to take it to the public. And to be honest, the character hardly required someone of Bhumi’s prowess to pull it off. Nor did it have a metaphorical subtext like Nayanthara’s role in Airaa did. The most ‘extraordinary’ aspect of Bhumi's character was that she had to change her skin colour for it. The question still remains. Why?
For long, there has been conversation and debate about the representation (and also misrepresentation) of people who don’t get covered by the mainstream blanket. These stories weren’t getting the space they deserved. But now, that’s slowly changing. We are interested in the struggles of a prematurely balding man and his insecurities. We are also interested in the story of a dusky girl who grew to love herself after rising beyond conventional beauty standards. We want these stories, but can we stop turning these stories into products that can be sold. Repeat after me: Inclusion is a right, not a privilege.