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The Tamil film industry's obsession with fair skin extends to the script, comic routines, and even the insults.
It was supposed to be an evening of fun and family entertainment. But halfway through the screening of the latest Tamil movie Singam 2, the heated exchange between the hero and villain had Bangalore-based lawyer Sindhu Shankar sitting up in her seat. When the villain, played by British actor of Ghanaian origin Danny Sapani, badmouths the Indian police, the heroic cop played by Suriya mouths the unmistakably racist slur, "African korangu", or monkey.
Shankar stared in horror as more such insults followed. The baddy is giving Suriya grief in South Africa too. In rage Suriya lets loose an enraged volley in which he calls Danny 'Afrikan mirugam (African animal)'. It isn't just the poor villain who is the butt of racist slurs. A sidekick who is very dark and sports sandal paste across his forehead gets it too. The man runs a teashop where a grimy boiler, also sporting three auspicious lines of sandalwood paste, is puffing away. Says Susai, the comedian played by Santhanam: "Kariyerrina boilerile chandana pottu vachirikke (You have drawn three lines of sandalwood paste across the blackened boiler). " "What?" asks the belligerent sidekick. "I didn't mean your face, I meant the boiler, " says Santhanam. But the the audience at the upmarket multiplex didn't seem bothered. "I am a Suriya fan and his movies are good family entertainers, but this was really offensive and nobody seemed to realise it, " she says.
The makers seem to have got the message enough to remove the offensive dialogue for the international audience after an adverse reaction. "We removed it for screenings abroad as we got a call from a friend saying it was unnecessary. We never wanted to hurt anyone. Our aim is only to entertain, " says filmmaker G Hari, who directed the film and its hit prequel. The Hindi version of Singam, starring Ajay Devgn, collected more than Rs 100 crore, and it is a foregone conclusion that this too will be remade.
As the chief aim is to entertain the 'mass' crowd at any cost, makers of blockbusters are only too eager to reinforce stereotypes and prejudices. "They use all tactics to get the audience on the side of the hero. In this case, the guys in the theatre are sure to applaud the scene. It is unfortunate that in the process we forget that we are offending sensibilities, " says Anu Hasan, Tamil actor and TV personality.
As for playing up dominant prejudices, directors and writers don't have to look far in Tamil Nadu. Though racism is still far away, the fixation with skin tone provides some easy laughs and stereotypes. "When a child is born, one of the first things asked in Tamil Nadu is the colour of the skin. Matrimonial sections are full of ads for fair women, " says film writer Theodore Bhaskaran. He says the colour fixation has a caste overtone with dark skin associated with lower caste people.
The filmmakers have found it useful to use this skin tone fixation while writing comedy tracks. The comedy stars of the 1990s, Senthil and Goundamani, have exhausted all the names in the animal planetinvariably suffixed with a 'karuppu' (black).
"The only person who could laugh about it and still be positive was superstar Rajinikanth, " says Kavitha Emmanuel, founder of Women of Worth network, which also has a 'Dark Is Beautiful' campaign. In Sivaji (2007), Rajini goes through various whitening beauty treatments so that the heroine accepts him. "He makes fun of the obsession with fair skin and asks the girl what the connection between skin colour and marriage is, " says Emmanuel.
According to actor and film historian Mohan Raman, the fair skin fixation is such that dark-skinned people were not shown on screen till the '70s. Or, if they were, the actors were covered in layers of pancake. The heroines get an additional dose of body makeup and are further 'lightened'.
Villains with relatively fair skin are also preferred in the industry. The only people who are 'acceptable' with darker skin tones are the evil guy's henchmen. And this trend was faithfully copied by the makers of Chennai Express as showcased in the movie's first set of posters. In them, Shah Rukh Khan and Deepika Padukone were flanked by half-naked men in lungis. "What do you expect from an SRK movie?" says Shankar, referring to Deepika's exaggerated 'Madrasi' accent in the trailer of Chennai Express and Shah Rukh's cringe-worthy portrayal of a curlyhaired Tamilian in Ra. One.
But that doesn't mean that viewers are past caring. "One would think that popular heroes and big directors are aware of what they are showing on screen. It doesn't hurt to be a little more responsible, " says Shankar.
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