The comes from bollywood rom-com Khaali Peeli, starring actors Ishaan Khatter and Ananya Panday, won’t be released until October 2, but one of the songs from the musical is already famous – for all the wrong reasons.
After a outcry on social media to the lyrics of a song perceived to be based on colorism – prejudice or discrimination against people with darker skin – the filmmakers announced that they would change the song slightly. The lyrics in question, which roughly translated as “just looking at you, oh beautiful lady, Beyoncé will feel shy”, will be replaced with “the world will be shy after seeing you” dropping the “beautiful lady” and mentioning Beyoncé.
“We made the film to entertain the audience and not to offend or hurt anyone,” Maqbool Khan, director, said. “Since our lyrical arrangement didn’t go well with a few people, we thought why not keep the essence the same while changing the song a bit.”
Additionally, the song title changed from “Beyoncé Sharma Jayegi” to “Duniya Sharma Jaayegi” (meaning “the world will feel shy”, instead of “Beyoncé will feel shy”). Previously, the song title was simply changed to “Beyonse Sharma JayegiChanging the spelling of Beyoncé’s name for legal reasons. But if the original lyrics used the Hindi word Goriya, which translates to “blonde or fair-skinned woman,” the filmmakers and lyricist said it wasn’t meant to be taken at face value. “The term ‘goriya’ has been used so often and traditionally in Indian songs to address a girl,” said Khan, “that none of us have thought of interpreting it literally.”
Although his stated intention does not match the reception of the lyrics, Khan’s statement goes to a deeper truth: the idea of a “beautiful woman” as a replacement for a beautiful woman dates back centuries in southern culture. -Asian, as it does in many others. But just over the past year, colourism in South Asian culture has come under fire in several ways. In recent months, instances such as Bollywood stars have been promoting skin whitening creams while defending Black Lives Matter and the statements of occasional colorists on the reality show. Indian matchmaking gave rise to a passionate discourse on the subject, which at times led to change. Radhika Parameswaran, professor at the Media School at Indiana University, Bloomington, spoke to TIME about this background.
TIME: What are the different ways colorism manifests itself in Bollywood?
Parameswaran: One of the greatest visual reminders and symbols of colourism is who gets cast. In Bollywood, the prevalence of the star system is huge – movie stars make the movie. They become national idols and people are their fans. Not that you don’t have these kind of visual cultures and fans in the United States, but in India there is a large population that cannot read or write; movies transcend these literacy barriers, and in a southern country the role movies can play is enormous. The movie stars who were idealized in Bollywood, especially when it comes to women, have very, very fair skin, and it continues today. The environments they find themselves in are generally very lavish, so fair-skinned beauty is tied to issues with class and upward mobility.
What is the underlying message you get from the lyrics “just looking at yourself, oh beautiful lady, Beyoncé will feel shy”?
This is the hero addressing the heroine saying, not only are you white and beautiful, but you would shame a transnational beauty star, claiming that fair skinned Indian beauty is even more powerful than a celebrity force from America. On a more complicated note, it’s both nationalist and colourist. It suggests some sort of resistance to American supremacy, but on the other hand, it doesn’t remove the problem of local skin-colored hierarchies.
If colorism has such a deep history in Bollywood, why do you think this particular moment caused such an uproar?
There are several reasons. The first is that there has been an activist movement against colourism that has grown over the last ten years, I would say, more and more amplified. Barkha Dutt, the famous Indian journalist, hosted a program called We the people. She had two episodes years ago that were about colorism and racism, and that discussion made the national scene. Nandita Das, a celebrity example, spoke out against colorism. Valued women is a grassroots charity that has tried to penetrate schools and the lives of ordinary people, simply engaging the public in this pedagogy of how to get rid of colorism. There are also ordinary people who laugh at lightening ads by creating parodies. So there has been a societal challenge to colorism from various points of view and various agents.
Then you have Black Lives Matter, which went to india in a way it might not have been 20 years ago thanks to social media and the Indian diaspora. All of this combined, it’s even surprising that this song was composed, performed and made public. It’s quite shocking that these filmmakers didn’t realize this.
In general, what is the role of the diaspora in the debate on colourism?
I think the diaspora has been quite active. In India, colourism, even 10 years ago, was easily erased because “of course fair skin is beautiful”. There was an undisputed strength to this assertion. It just has not been contested. And there is also the connection with the caste, so it was all taken literally.
The diaspora grew up in a different environment where discrimination is spoken of, it does not go away – but it has been evoked through the language of race. I also think that the diaspora, who may have gone to school and participated in other types of experiences in institutions, where they may have been a minority and faced racism, are very quick to see and understand in a way that perhaps in India took some time for people to confront and understand.
How does colorism move from the screen to people’s everyday lives?
Media messages are not like a hypodermic needle, where you inject it into people’s bodies, and that’s just part of it. I think it’s a more subtle process and depends on the class, the education, all of those factors. This does not mean that the lower classes and the less educated people are more susceptible and practice more colourism, it is not that simple. I think in some ways the upper classes can do more. But still, it shapes the standards of the company. Women in particular continue to be measured against these standards. Can there be cracks in the standards? Of course, but it will be unusual.
The filmmakers decided to completely change the lyrics. Is it rare for negative reactions to cause such a change?
In some films there is nothing to do. The movie came out, it came out, like Bala, which was a story starring a dark-skinned heroine, but the cast of the actor was light-skinned and wore a brown face. But I’m doing this is going to be more trending, especially with the skin color issues. This type of colourism will be called into question.
Do you think this continued challenge to colourism will lead to a deeper change?
Here is the thing. It is one thing to lose the language of “goriya” and the reference to Beyoncé. But does that mean the heroines are going to start to have dark skin? No. In terms of casting and representation, it’s going to take a long time for that to change. Changing a word is pretty easy to do and cosmetic, and makes film producers appear socially responsible, but changing the appearance of heroines will not be immediate.
This incident occurs shortly after Fair & Lovely Skin Whitening Cream changed his name to Glow & Lovely, although he kept his product the same, again following a social media spinoff related to Bollywood. Do you think companies will start to make changes even before controversy arises?
I think they will tend to wait for the first outcry. Bollywood is a mass and popular industry, so they’re going to rely on what they think are mass and popular tastes, and I’m sure they’re going to wonder if any protests from what they see as a small population elite who may not even go to their movies are worth it. If a film is to be shown in the heart of Hindi and in all kinds of rural areas and small towns, to what extent will this kind of issue be contested? those the spaces? We have to ask ourselves who has access to the Internet in English, given India’s vast class divisions and rural-urban divisions? Is this a small minority talking to itself? In [that] case Bollywood is going to make cosmetic changes, and I don’t think they’re really going to be careful about it.
–With the report of Arpita Aneja
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