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Black Lives Matter. Bollywood Missed the Message.

Updated: Aug 26, 2021

On March 28, 2021, a 43-year-old Nigerian national, Leohand Lyeanyi, died while in police custody in New Delhi. Six months later, unsurprisingly, the autopsy and the cause of death are still unknown. Protestors from the African community took to the streets and claimed racist attacks and harassment by police is not uncommon for them.

Racism against Black people in India is a clear problem and one can argue that racist portrayals of Black people in Hindi cinema only exacerbates the problem.

Prior to the pandemic, India was selling over two billion Hindi movie tickets annually. It produces over 1,000 films a year and in 2016, became the largest producer of films worldwide. It has a vast global reach, second only to Hollywood. Black representation in its films has an impact on viewers. Unfortunately, that representation is often diminishing, racist or stereotypical. Characters are either depicted in a negative light, served up as exotic props in the background, particularly in the largely popular song and dance sequences, or included for comedic effect, such as in the 2021 film, Time to Dance.

Time to Dance is based around protagonists, Rishabh and Isha, played by newcomers Sooraj Pancholi and Isabelle Kaif, who vie to win London’s renowned ballroom and Latin dance competition. Well regarded comedy actor, Rajpal Yadav, plays the role of Sada, Rishabh’s sidekick-cum-mentor. Sada has his own sidekick-slash-friend, Richard, who is played by Zimbabwean actor and comedian, Munashe Chirisa.

According to a Let’s Talk Diaspora interview, Chirisa was told his role was of a silent character who is unfamiliar with ballroom dancing, similar to the film’s expected audience. “[The] audience doesn’t talk, they watch. You are reacting and watching,” Chirisa recalls being told by the director. He understood that he would be a vehicle to share information with the viewers. In the movie, Richard does appear in more than one scene, a rarity in Hindi films, but he consistently comes off as a goofy, naive, uninformed man who is unable to speak and also appears physically disabled. Sada does indeed explain the concept of ballroom dancing to Richard, which simultaneously informs the audience, but not without throwing an unnecessary insult his way. Loosely translated from Hindi, during the competition Sada asks Richard, “Do you even understand what ballroom dancing is or, like a fool, do you still believe it’s a British folk dance?” In the film’s all-White and Indian caste, Richard is the only character portrayed as an uneducated man.

There is also the scene in the 2000 comedy film, Hadh Kar Di Aapne, where leading actor, Govinda gets conned into going into the wrong woman’s bedroom, a Black woman from Hawaii. The woman is seen dancing and talking to herself in a foreign language while the leading actress, Rani Mukherji, sets up her prank. She leads the woman’s husband, a tall man in blackface, to barge into the room. Drama ensues when he finds another man with his wife. In the scene, the Black couple is portrayed as being primitive, unruly and violent. When Govinda’s character crawls out of the bedroom badly bruised, he makes a snide comment about the couple’s “African jungle” origins. He refers to the man as a “black bull” and the wife as a “baboon and black pepper.” Adding on, “By getting caught up in the fair-skinned girl’s fiasco, I was beaten so badly by two Black people.” The couple’s blackness is brought up several times. Although made out to be funny and therefore, acceptable, the scene is blatantly racist. Many Indians in India do not encounter Black people often and watching racist scenes, like this one, on the big screen only deepens learned stereotypes and biases about the community.

Violence towards Black people in the country is on the rise. In 2014, three students from Gabon and Burkina Faso were thrashed by a mob at a New Delhi metro station, after being accused of harassing Indian women. In 2016, Masonda Ketanda Oliver, was beaten to death by a group of men who were trying to hail the same rickshaw ride as him. That same year, a mob in Bangalore dragged a Tanzanian student out from her vehicle, stripped her and set her car on fire, after a Sudanese man whom she had never met was implicated in a fatal road accident. The list of incidents grows. Violent mob attacks against African people took place in 2017 due to accusations of cannibalism being spread. At the time, The Association of African Students in India (AASI) asked its members to stay under self-imposed house arrest. Students were told it was unsafe to be outside.

According to AASI figures, in 2017, there were about 25,000 African students enrolled in 500 Indian universities, both public and private. Sudan and Nigeria were among the top five countries. That year, foreign students in India spent $479 million in the country. The following year, India launched its “Study in India'' initiative. The government’s aim was to attract more international enrollment to generate greater revenue and become a global hub for education. The initiative includes certain benefits such as various fee waivers, simplified visa processing and additional scholarships for foreign students.

African students come to India with the hopes of a quality education, but upon arrival the sobering reality of exclusionary treatment due to race and skin tone becomes apparent.

Michel Lamou, 21, is a Computer Science student based in Bangalore. As a Black man from Guinea, he tries hard not to call attention to himself. “The scary thing is when you see drunken Indians, they might easily attack you for no reason, whether it’s in Bangalore, Delhi, or Mumbai.” He’s familiar with the mob mentality and for this reason, tries to avoid local night scenes. Still, the precautions he takes are not always enough.

“It happened a few months ago," he recalls. “I was riding on a bike with a friend when some men just started following us. We tried to get home as soon as possible. When we got home, they attacked us.” Hearing the brawl, neighbors came to their rescue and together, managed to fend off the drunk men. While his phone and bike were damaged, Lamou managed to walk away with just a few scrapes. But he knows it could have been much worse had his neighbors not intervened. Lamou filed a police report through the help of his college but later cancelled the report after receiving an apology from the culprits. “They were elders, and in my three years in India, this was the first time something like this had happened, so I decided to let it go,” he explained.

Amadou Gueamou, 23, is the president of the Guinean Students in India Association. He often helps students dealing with similar situations. He says with such cases, oftentimes the situation is settled outside of court. When he speaks to incoming students he advises them: “Please respect the rules here. Try to be on your best behavior as you can easily get beaten up.” he says.

For years, big stars like Hrithik Roshan, Sonam Kapoor and Shah Rukh Khan and others have imposed the lighter skin is better ideology in family living rooms nationwide through skin lightening cream TV commercials. The same message is splashed loudly on billboards for all to see across the country. After recent pressure from the public and since the Black Lives Matter movement, many celebrities came forward to apologize for their part in helping to promote a lighter skin color.

Shortly after this, another B-town controversy arose. The Hindi film song titled Beyonce Sharma Jayegi '' was released on September 7th, 2020, for the film Khaali Peeli. Part of the main chorus in the song goes, “tujhe dekh ke goriya Beyonce sharma jayegi,” meaning, “when she sees you, oh fair one/ Beyonce will be put to shame.” The song, which led to over one million dislikes on Youtube, created an outrage with listeners who claimed the lyrics, which compared an Indian character, played by newcomer actress, Ananya Pandey, to African-American global icon, Beyonce, had racist undertones.

The fact that the song was vetted by teams before allowing its release, despite international headlines emerging about Black Lives Matter protests after the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police, highlights both a disregard for the Black community and a lack of accountability being held for the type of messaging the film was churning out.

Songs play a major role in Hindi movies as they help move the plot forward, emphasize a desired mood, and add entertainment value. Some film buffs will go to the theatre just to watch a film’s songs. These songs account for over 80% of India’s music industry revenue. Among the country’s online streamers, new and older Hindi film songs are two out of three of its top streaming genres amongst users.

Sadly, lyrics glorifying lighter or white skin tones are prevalent and the songs themselves can be catchy, which furthers the subliminal message that people with dark skin are less desirable. Growing up, my parents always had Hindi movies or music playing in the background. While it led to my developing a great fondness for Hindi films, as a young girl living in a predominantly white town, that messaging did very little for my self-esteem. I yearned to look like someone other than myself.

So why is the Hindi film industry still resisting diversity?

Regardless of whether it is due to the deep-rooted caste system woven into the fabric of India’s culture, or the impact lasting effects of 200 years of British colonization, 2020 created an environment for people to step back, reflect on personal pre-existing biases, and become aware of the racial inequality that exists in our communities. Audiences are expecting more from the industry when it comes to race, diversity and inclusion. Digital platforms like Netflix and Amazon have taken the leap in making diverse representation a priority in India. Whether an intentional and conscious approach on their part, it is also time for the Hindi film fraternity to acknowledge the power and responsibility it holds in ending decades of stereotyping and marginalization of Black people.

Written by: Bhavna Patel

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