Bollywood, Beauty and Colonial Mentality
“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. At least it used to be. Ideas of beauty used to be as varied as the number of individuals. Now it seems there is a concept of beauty which is fast becoming the de facto standard, especially for women.
This got me thinking. If the general tradition in the film industry (with some exceptions) is to cast actors and actresses who are considered “beautiful”, why does “beautiful” in the case of Bollywood mean fair complexion, and caucasian in appearance?
And does the appearance of Bollywood actors and actresses reflect the general attitude towards beauty in Indian society, i.e. fair skin, blue eyes mean beautiful. Dark skin, brown eyes means less so?
I did a basic experiment by way of research. I ran a search on Google for Bollywood Actress. Then ran a search for black model, Japanese model and Arabic model. If you run those searches you can see the results yourself.
There's a tendency for models to have fair skin and be more Caucasian in appearance even if they are from a background where people have darker skin tones.
Compare a Google "image" search of Indian women, to the image search for Bollywood actress. Or Arabic woman compared to Arabic model. Do the same for African women compared to African model.
With men the difference is even more apparent. Run a search for Indian male model, with young Indian man.
There's a difference between the appearance of “ordinary” people from any of these ethnic backgrounds and that of models, actors and actresses from these backgrounds.
Of course models and actors aren’t representative of ordinary people, that's why they're models and actors, but models and actors do represent an aesthetic ideal, which in turn reveals something of the underlying attitudes towards beauty in a society.
These comparisons show a tendency (with some exceptions) for models, actors and actresses to be fair skinned, regardless of their ethnic background.
Colonial Mentality and Beauty
People from an ethnic background with darker skin often show personal preference for fair skin, especially if the culture they are from has been subject to colonisation by people with fairer skin at some point in its history.
A sense of inferiority can develop in a colonised society to the point where the conventions, standards and values of the coloniser are considered “better” than those of the colonised. “Colonial mentality”, “culture cringe” and “culture alienation” are sociological terms that describe aspects of this phenomenon.
Individuals and institutions in that society can reject intellectual, artistic, scientific and other outputs of their own culture in favour of those from the coloniser, leading to the negation of local conventions by that of the other.
Beauty or an aesthetic ideal is tied up with those cultural conventions and values. So if local conventions are negated, ideas of beauty change accordingly. Mass communications media, popular culture, educational systems etc. all play a part in the negation of local conventions and values.
These cultural agents have been at work in India for hundreds of years, not least due to deliberate efforts from colonisers. British Member of Parliament Thomas Macaulay is famous for concluding in 1835 that "We must do our best to form... a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect."
That really does seemed to have worked. What we are seeing in the Bollywood aesthetic ideal is a particular concept of beauty based on European conventions and values which has been transported and transplanted through a process of cultural hegemony.
Whenever someone from an ethnic background whitens their skin, straightens their hair, has cosmetic surgery to obtain Caucasian facial features etc, they are literally buying-in to the standards, conventions and values of another culture. This attitude to one's own culture is not without controversy.
Bollywood veteran Shahrukh Khan was criticized after appearing in a commercial for a skin whitening product. The name of that product "Fair and Handsome" reveals something about underlying attitudes towards concepts of beauty and the politics of race in India.
It's a matter of opinion whether conforming to the conventions and values of another culture is good or bad, but according to Bollywood convention (read European convention) the woman in the picture from the search of Indian women above is not beautiful. Do you think that's true?
Economic prosperity might be fomenting a change in attitude. With new prosperity comes new found confidence and national pride. As a result western conventions adopted by Bollywood may lose popularity in favour of the more authentic aesthetic ideals of the type that are seen in other regional film production centres around Indian or the television industry (tellywood).
However, the potential for cross-over from Bollywood to international mainstream might be more attractive to Bollywood film makers than authenticity. Such cross-overs would be less likely if local conventions were adopted over western conventions. Indeed, that could alienate an international audience altogether. So for the time Bollywood will share the same aesthetic ideals as Hollywood/ "the west", at least until the potential new status of India as a political and economic super power is realised and reverses the effect of several hundred years of colonial rule and the resulting colonial mentality.
Got a different view? Let me know with a comment below.