When Chennai-based non-governmental group Women of Worth (WoW) asked Nandita Das if she would like to be the poster girl for their Dark Is Beautiful campaign, she promptly agreed. The actor, director and producer should know what it means to be dark-skinned in a country in which fairness creams outsell other cosmetic products.
Das has had her fair share of such remarks as, “How can you be so confident when you are so dark”, and “We know you don’t like light make-up, but please agree, you are playing an upper-middle class character.”
Posters for the campaign, which have been doing the rounds of social networking sites, exhort people to “Stay Unfair. Stay Beautiful”. A petition on the Website Change.org also asks the cosmetics company Emami to suspend its advertising campaign for the Fair and Handsome whitening cream. “Being dark-skinned has been an issue through my own experiences and interactions with people,” Das says. “I have been called dusky and earthy—people have to qualify my skin colour as if it were a defining aspect of me. I was privileged since my parents never instilled in me a complex or low self-esteem, but being dark can have a deep impact—it attacks your basic self-esteem and is so important for anything else you do in life.”
The campaign, which was kicked off in Chennai in partnership with the British Council in 2009, flowed out of WoW’s ongoing advocacy work with young women, many of whom spoke of being discriminated against on the basis of their skin colour, says the organization’s founder Kavitha Emmanuel. “We have always been on the lookout for women to speak on our behalf, and we decided to contact Nandita after we heard her speak about the issue in interviews.” Early support for the campaign also came from Tamil actor and television presenter Anu Hasan.
By lending her considerable weight to the campaign, Das hopes to address issues that have troubled her in the past and present. “Whether it’s an air hostess or a receptionist, public spaces are taken over by women who are fair,” she observes. “This reinforces the idea that skin needs be that colour.”
The bias towards fairness is widely prevalent, Das says, in dolls and fairy-tale books or songs about white-cheeked women and even vaginal whitening lotions. In the movies, dark-skinned actors are routinely recruited to play lower-caste and lower-class characters. “I remember calling up a maid agency once and they told me that they had a maid who was very good but did I mind that she was dark?” Das says.
“When I used to do my social work, I visited a remote village in Orissa that didn’t have enough food to eat, but had expired Fair and Lovely tubes.”
The campaign’s main target isn’t the skin whitening cream market, which makes unsubtle and highly dubious links between fair skin and achievement, beauty, social acceptance and desirability, or the cinema and television industries, which prefer actors to be light-skinned.
“At the heart of the campaign is our need to address attitudes in people,” Emmanuel says. “There’s no point in pinpointing any particular person or group—the bias is there in all of us.”