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When 'urban' and 'upmarket' mean having fair skin

Part 2 of our series talking to women about their experience of being dark-skinned in fairness-obsessed India. Model Nidhi Sunil, actors Anjali Patil and Khushbu Baid, and sportsperson Srishti Jupudi speak out against colourism

Nidhi Sunil, model, 33
Nidhi Sunil, model, 33 (Photo: Hashim Badani)

With the spotlight finally on the dark politics of the fairness industry, four women talk to Lounge about reclaiming their identity in an unfair world


Nidhi Sunil, model, 33

My nickname was kaalia the crow in high school, from classes VII to XII. That’s the worst time you can have that done to you.

Being dark in India means you constantly hear this narrative reinforced around you, unfortunately by people who are really close to you. That’s what’s so insidious about it. It’s your own parents, family, friends, aunts and uncles saying, “don’t go out into the sun", “keep your skin looking fair".

I remember going to a wedding when I was a little girl. My father’s side of the family is quite light- skinned, they are Kannadiga, my mum’s side of the family is very dark- skinned, they are Malayali. At my second cousin’s wedding on my father’s side, a distant aunt came up to my mother and said, “She’s very beautiful but unfortunately she didn’t get her father’s complexion."

You feel powerless. It’s like you have to keep swimming, but there are days when you are just depressed.

Then, of course, the media makes it worse by doing things like making ads that insist that you won’t get a great job if you are dark, you won’t achieve any of your life’s goals or you can’t have dreams and ambitions if you are dark.

As you grow older, you realize being dark-skinned is apparently not financially viable. The business of not being fair is really shitty.

I started understanding that once I started working as a model. The mainstream is formulaic—it’s very difficult to push people to break formula because the norm has worked for them all these years. I would book a lot of work that was very high fashion...a lot of editorials. But it took me the longest time to convince a really big sari catalogue to let me model saris and not have Brazilian women instead. They are not Indian! I was almost three and a half years into my career, had been on covers of Elle, Grazia and around seven big publications—and it was only then that I got sari catalogues.

Then, of course, there’s Bollywood. You are really great in front of the camera and that also translates to video and film. But you will never really be able to be successful in the film industry. It’s a foregone conclusion. Don’t even try to get cast for roles there. The only roles I would get cast for was indie films that didn’t have financial backing and they would fail.

It makes you feel inadequate. Like you don’t fit the bill or there’s no space for you.

The funny thing is, it’s all so unbelievable because you are constantly thinking, “Most of the country looks like me!"

Still, you have to unpack those things in any way you can—then arrive at a sense of self-worth that is not connected to the colour of your skin. Take back your own narrative, it’s what will really get you through - As told to Asmita Bakshi

Anjali Patil, Actor, 32
Anjali Patil, Actor, 32 (Photo: Nazia Khan)


Anjali Patil, Actor, 32

My first film was Delhi In A Day, where I played a maid. I then got a Telugu film, which focused on sex trafficking, and a Sri Lankan film, in which I was a minority Tamil. This was all very interesting.

Then I did Chakravyuh. I was playing a Naxal commander. From there on, things started to change. I slowly understood— with a big price of three-four years of extreme depression and having no work and being broke—how there’s a certain expectation, the biggest part of which is your appearance. And a big part of that is the colour of your skin.

(If you look like me), there are certain roles that are given to you again and again: of people from low-income groups. Eighty per cent of Indian women look like me. We are supposed to have this skin tone. I took pride in looking like an average Indian woman and portraying the roles offered to me. But when you don’t leave me any choice, that’s when I have a problem.

Big directors, who had the power to change the colour of the roles, they would talk to me and try and convince me to do certain roles.... It’s a very vicious and subtle dynamic of power and colour.

I started to get the whiff of not being considered for roles because I did Chakravyuh or Delhi In A Day. After Newton, I got so many roles of Adivasis. I used to walk out of offices, saying: “You want me to do a role which stereotypes this colour and this economic group. You are in a position to give me the protagonist who is ‘supposed to look fair’." The biggest heartbreak is when the directors I have grown up watching end up going to the people with the most Instagram followers and endorsements, the person who can “sell" things.

I have reservations talking about this because it’s suddenly cool to address the issue because Unilever (makers of Fair & Lovely) dropped the word fair. Why didn’t we speak about it before? Why didn’t we talk about certain actresses or actors tanning themselves and playing those roles? But we have to talk about it, with sensitivity, not for two-three weeks and then go back to the same habits.

It never got to the point that someone could suggest I lighten my skin. A lot of roles I got would require the dark skin tone. That was painful, too, when I realized there were certain roles that would never be offered to me because I don’t look “urban" enough. I used to read the term “unconventional beauty" and wonder what it meant.

In the beginning, there were make-up artists who would mess up with my skin tone, it would look chalky. I had no one to say, this is stupid, you don’t need any make-up. It took me 10 years to realize that.

My entire journey became about dissociating from the industry. I didn’t want to give it power over me. I quit acting for a long time. Now I am focusing on making documentaries. The first one is on the idea of beauty. —As told to Uday Bhatia

Srishti Jupudi, World championship badminton player, 19
Srishti Jupudi, World championship badminton player, 19 (Photo courtesy: Srishti Jupudi)


Srishti Jupudi, World championship badminton player, 19

Iwas bullied in school—always pushed aside. I still remember the group picture day vividly when I was placed at the back, even though I was one of the shortest in class. Being dark, I was made the subject of many jokes. I felt targeted; maybe it was supposed to be “in fun" but it took a toll on me. I began to dislike going to school. But then how does one stand up for oneself at such a young age?

At the age of 9, I was enrolled into a badminton summer camp. I got hooked to the sport and got into the professional arena at 11. My mother was an international badminton player and perhaps her passion percolated down to me.

I thought that in the sporting arena, I would only be judged on the basis of my skill and not on any other parameter. When I look back, that feels like one of the biggest reasons that I persisted with badminton. It’s not easy attaining excellence in a sport—it demands a synchronization of physical and mental strength. It hasn’t been a cakewalk for champions like P.V. Sindhu or my guru, Gopi Sir (Pullela Gopi Chand). They have sweated their blood. And I did the same. The rigorous effort led me to attain the honour of being selected to represent India at the BWF World Junior Championships held in Indonesia and Canada between 2017-18. I got to wear the Indian jersey yet again at several Grand Prix and the Asian Championship in Indonesia in 2018, and ranked India No.1 in 2018. But one thought kept niggling at me: “If I hadn’t achieved all this, would people still value me for who I was?"

In 2019, I took a break from badminton to pursue higher studies and other passions. This time out made me realize that you could both love something and be afraid of it at the same time—that was modelling for me. However, the preconceived perception of models in my mind gave rise to insecurities. At that time, I did not know that there was no such thing as being perfect. To my amazement, whenever I would travel across the globe for tournaments, I would be complimented for my skin tone. People in other countries would tell me that I was photogenic. And as I watched the shows at the New York Fashion Week and the Lakmé Fashion Week, I developed a fascination for the field. The realization set in that no matter what I did, I was never going to be enough for anybody. I only had to be enough for myself.

“Don’t go out in the sun too much or you will become dark", “Don’t go out at night or you won’t be seen"—these are vicious lies and jokes that have been peddled all our lives and it’s time to overcome these. Why do products market “fair and lovely" and sell the idea that fair skin is better than dark skin? I am dark, I am lovely—the skin is part of our body, and light or dark, it is beautiful.

I am more than my face. I am more than my skin and my height. And I am glad that I have crafted this path in life. I have my own identity and personality. And maybe one day my story could be the reason for other people to accept themselves for who they are. Through my experiences, I hope to take a stand. Everyone should be accepted the way they are. I guess being called a “black beauty" is a good thing after all. —As told to Avantika Bhuyan

Khushbu Baid, comedy writer and actor, 27
Khushbu Baid, comedy writer and actor, 27 (Photo courtesy: Behalya Naidu)


Khushbu Baid, comedy writer and actor, 27

Iam from Hyderabad, where most people are dark, so I never really experienced colourism. But my family is from the north. When I would go to meet my relatives, they would say things like “you keep getting darker by the year". I would think they are right. Maybe I should start using haldi ka lep (turmeric-based face-pack) too.

When you are growing up, you are learning from your elders. So you end up internalizing these things. Besides, for me, my weight was also a big issue. I have heard comments about my size every day of my life. Often, it seemed like a much bigger problem to deal with.

I was 23 when I moved to Mumbai and joined a drama school. One time, they asked us to stage a play on an extramarital affair. I played the wife. A thin, light-skinned girl played the woman my husband was cheating on me with. After watching us, the instructors asked me why it was that I didn’t play the girl the husband cheated with. Why did it have to be a conventionally attractive woman?

It’s us in the media who make the image of beauty. A Sonam Kapoor is shot in slow-motion, her hair flying behind her, looking beautiful. There are no slo-mo shots for a dark-skinned girl. They chose Bhumi Pednekar, a light-skinned girl, to play a dusky character in Bala. The make-up was such that she looks like she has bad skin. Arre, gora ho ya kala ho, glow to dikhao (Whether she’s fair or dark, at least show her glowing).

My year at the drama school changed my perspective on life. And on both my weight and complexion. These people were artists. They didn’t care how I looked. They only wanted you to go beyond your comfort zone.

Two years ago, I was asked to write a comedy sketch called Unfair Is Lovely for the YouTube channel Girliyapa. I would play the protagonist—a dark-skinned girl negotiating her way around society. I didn’t want to write it at first. It seemed like such an old, clichéd topic. But they insisted.

As I started researching for the script, I came across many horror stories. Girls would tell me how, when they were looking to get married, guys would reject them because of their dark complexion. Even if the man was the same colour as them. A friend, who is also dark-skinned, told me about her aunt asking her to change her clothes because they were white. She was 6 at the time. She remembered it 20 years later. Every time she meets the aunt now, she makes it a point to wear white.

It was difficult to write on such a sensitive topic, to make it funny and not preachy. It took me one and a half months to come up with the final script. We shot it in a day. I didn’t expect the response it would get. Today, we have 5.4 million views and thousands of comments from people saying they too have faced the same problem. There were some positive comments too, declarations like “We prefer chocolate shake over Milkybar".

I feel blessed that those I work with, those I have been in a relationship with, didn’t care about my skin tone at all. I am careful though—I need to know why a person wants to be with me. But every now and then, on the actors’ casting groups, someone circulates a message saying, “Looking for a girl, age 20-25, with fair, upmarket look." We have trained ourselves to think fair is upmarket, dusky isn’t.

When I graduated from my drama school, our teachers told us to be careful, that it’s going to be more difficult for us than the fair and lovelies out there. But if we don’t fight it out, it’s not going to change. With brands withdrawing skin-lightening creams, we have won 10% of the battle. The bigger one is still left. —As told to Omkar Khandekar

Read part 1 of this series, in which artist Mithu Sen, software developer and model Seema Hari, and writer Rosalyn D'Mello talk about their experiences, here

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