Ms. Representation: All is not fair in cinema

In last week’s release, Bala, Bhumi Pednekar plays Lathika a strong-willed, independent lawyer who practices in Kanpur. Lathika doesn’t give two hoots about ‘log kya kahenge’. She believes women deserve to be respected and shouldn’t settle for anything else. More importantly, she strongly believes that the beauty standards women are subjected to are unfair. But Lathika had to suffer before she could wear her indifference as an armour. You see Lathika is shown to have dark skin. But guess what? Bhumi doesn’t.

This irony is just impossible to escape from. Lathika doesn’t allow fairness products in her office. She advises an older woman that she is perfectly fine the way she looks and that her extra weight isn’t an excuse for her husband to cheat on her. Well-intentioned, of course, but it feels like a sham. Every time, Lathika says, ‘You’re good as you are’, or talks about fairness or society’s skewed beauty standards, all I could think about was how unfair it is that an actor with fair skin had to be darkened for this role. It’s common knowledge that dusky women don’t get enough opportunities. And now, even roles tailor-made for them seem to be going to fair-skinned women.

This isn’t a straightforward debate and I hear your questions. One of them usually goes: Isn’t acting supposed to be about transforming into someone else? Ask yourself though if there has there been a case where a dusky actress was asked to play a fair-skinned person just for one film, and went back to being her normal self? Dusky female actors have, in fact, opted to lighten their skin through treatments for longevity of their career. There’s no judgment here, by the way; this is just observation. When it’s hard for a dusky woman to be herself, is it fair that we give away tailormade parts to fairer women too? The problem here is the inherent bias of our industry. We can talk about the ethics of acting when there’s a level-playing ground for everyone.

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