The Whitewashing Of Bollywood: Why It Matters

Posted: May 2, 2015

Directors casting ‘white’ heroines in Bollywood as Indian women takes one step further our existing prejudice: That fairer is always better. 

I recently watched the Hindi movie Mickey Virus. I was getting a bit bored until the love interest made her predictable and inevitable appearance.

Now, normally I am curious to see who she is (if I don’t already know), what she’s wearing (I like fashion), and how the two characters make that initial connection.

As Mickey looked up and his eyes fell on his lovely future crush, something about her seemed a bit off to me.

She was dressed in a sari. Okay.
She sported long, dark hair. Yeah, so?
She was very fair-complexioned. Duh.

Then I saw it. Her face. It didn’t seem quite…Indian. Her eyes were light, sure, but so are Aishwarya’s. Something around her nose and jawline.

I did a quick Google search and found that the actress, whose name is Elli Avram, was a relative newcomer and was a European woman, Swedish and Greek, specifically. Not somebody from Europe of Indian descent. Not even half-Indian. Straight up white.

Why did I care so much? Because she was playing an Indian woman. With an Indian name–Kamayani George.

I wanted to scream at the director Saurabh Varma, “She may be a lovely person. She may even be a halfway decent actress. But do you really expect any self-respecting Indian to believe that she is anything but a European?”

Not only are fairness standards ridiculous enough within the Indian community, but now you need to cast those who are actually white? And then call them Indians?!

I would’ve added: “Do you know how insulting this is to Indian women everywhere, that our women are not good enough for a role in your movie? Not only are fairness standards ridiculous enough within the Indian community, but now you need to cast those who are actually white? And then call them Indians?!”

This is not a rant aimed specifically at Elli Avram, or others like her. They are only working in Bollywood because directors like Varma are casting them.

But, then I wondered, why? Why cast your net all the way to Europe or anywhere else, just to have a “beautiful Indian” woman fill the role? Don’t acting chops matter, or is it only about her looks? Incidentally, Avram’s acting was, in my opinion, just okay, which makes me believe her looks took precedence in the director’s choice of her.

In the 2009 movie Love Aaj Kal, the character Harleen Kaur was played by Brazilian model and newcomer Giselle Monteiro. According to the film’s director Imtiaz Ali, “Why a Brazilian girl to play an old-fashioned Punjabi girl? Well, I was auditioning girls from all over the country to play the Punjabi girl opposite the Sikh Saif. I couldn’t find the right girl to play the 1965 ki gali mein rehne wali ladki, purane zamane ki.” (this roughly translates as small town girl from an older time)

Apparently, Monteiro couldn’t dance or speak Hindi though.

Ali went on to say, “We wanted to put her through the paces with Sarojji (choreographer Saroj Khan), but it never happened. Sarojji didn’t have the time. For a foreigner to get the Indian ‘adaa’ right is very tough.

“We take for granted those nakhra-jhatka-matka, which we’ve seen our sisters perform at weddings. Indian girls have those ‘adaas’ without being trained. But for a foreigner it is tough,” said Ali.

Ali was even so anxious that Indian audiences would be put off his film knowing that one of the main characters was a non-Indian, that her name was not released, and the crew was told to refer to her as “Harleen”. During the end credits, her name was only shown as “Introducing Giselle Monteiro” until finally it was released to the media that Harleen had in fact, been played by a non-Indian.

It’s interesting to see the lengths that Ali went to in order to “desi-fy” Monteiro, someone with no prior ties to India or its culture. Why? He really couldn’t find anyone else at all suitable?

Art imitates life imitates art, as the saying goes. I had to ask myself: Why does the casting of non-Indian women bother me this much? Does it really matter? I think it does on some level.

In India, fairness standards are absurdly high, even though the vast majority of people are not fair-skinned. To cast a fair Indian woman is like telling the audience, “Of course our heroine must be beautiful. Part (or most) of that definition is that she be fair.” Gah, fine.

But to cast a fair—no, white—non-Indian with blue or green eyes whose only claim to Indian-ness is dark hair (for now), is like a slap in the face for any Indian female viewer. “This is the new and improved standard of beauty,” the director seems to be telling us. “And there is no way you can ever achieve it. What you are isn’t considered beautiful.”

I’m sure the men viewing these movies aren’t complaining though. But does anyone ever wonder why no foreign men have been cast as Indian heroes yet? Good question.

I wonder what would happen if a female director cast a non-Indian hero opposite a leading Bollywood lady? A handsome, light-eyed, dark-haired Caucasian man in a lead role, dressed in a sherwani and named, say, Raj Patel?

Incidentally I asked my husband that very question, and his answer was, “I wouldn’t watch the movie.”

Insulted? You bet. So are we.

Image courtesy movie promo posters

Jen has always enjoyed visual communications and writing ever since her school spelling bee days.

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Comments

3 Comments


  1. Pingback: What Kind of Representation?: Part II | Colorism

  2. Come on!, Avram is very dark when compared to Karishma and kareena or Neil nitin Mukesh, in fact Avram can’t be called white but brown or desi looking given the fact that she looked very dark next to divya khosla Kumar and zarine Khan

  3. How is Avram “very dark”? She has white skin, light green eyes, and European facial features, unlike most desis. Anyone can see that she is European, not Indian.

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