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Home >Lounge >Features >Seeing brown, singing gori: Hindi film music's colour problem

By the afternoon of 7 September, Khaali Peeli was in trouble. The film's first music video had just dropped, a dance number called Beyonce Sharma Jaayegi, composed by Vishal-Shekhar and picturized on Ishaan Khatter and Ananya Panday. The refrain went: “Tu jab kamar yeh hilayegi/Tujhe dekh ke goriya, Beyoncé sharma jaayegi (when you shake your hips/watching you, even Beyoncé will blush)".

Without the comparison to Beyoncé, it’s possible the goriya (fair-complexioned woman) that precedes it might have flown under the radar, like the thousands of other goris and goriyas in Hindi film songs in the last 80 or so years. But lyricists Kumaar and Raj Shekhar made the mistake of name-checking the most famous singer in the world—someone who’s celebrated dark skin in her music and art. Suddenly, Indian Twitter was screaming racism. The face-saving also left something to be desired—six days later, the song was retitled Beyonse Sharma Jaayegi, which only brought on more ridicule. Finally, it was changed to Duniya Sharma Jaayegi and the original video removed from YouTube. Director Maqbool Khan said, "We assure you that the lyric in question was never intended racially. In fact, the term 'goriya' has been so often and traditionally used in Indian songs to address a girl, that it didn’t occur to any of us to interpret it in the literal manner."

That Hindi cinema has a colour bias is not even up for debate. Darker-skinned actors continue to be rare—a Radhika Apte here, a Nawazuddin Siddiqui there. Worse, fairer actors are often darkened when they’re playing roles associated with a lower economic class or oppressed caste. The fascination with white skin dates almost to the beginning of cinema in the country. In Mother Maiden Mistress: Women In Hindi Cinema,1950-2010, Bhawana Somaaya, Jigna Kothari and Supriya Madangarli write that, in the 1920s, “It was white-skinned actresses... who were more popular and in demand, with advertisements of plays often highlighting the presence of a ‘Gori Miss’ (white lady) or ‘houris’ (fairies) from paradise."

Hindi film music has, often unwittingly, perpetuated this colour bias. The word gori and its variants appear in countless tracks over the years, from folk numbers to item songs. The list is endless: Gori Zara Hans De Tu (Asli Naqli, 1962), Go Go Go Go Gori (Baadal, 1985), Chura Ke Dil Mera Goriya Chali (Main Khiladi Tu Anari, 1994), Gore Gore Mukhde Pe (Suhaag, 1994), Gori Gori (Main Hoon Na, 2004) and hundreds more have the word in their title, thousands have it in the lyrics, and there are cross-language variations like Chittiyaan Kalaiyaan—literally, ‘white wrists’ (Roy, 2015). “I don’t think the usage of gori and goriya is intentionally a racist slur," lyricist-screenwriter Kausar Munir told me over the phone. “There’s a long tradition in our Hindi-Urdu poetry of using these to praise a woman’s beauty. Having said that, that doesn’t make it right, especially in the modern age."

Sometimes there’s a poetry to the use of the word that merits its inclusion, like with Gulzar’s Mora gora ang lai le/ Mohe shaam rang dai de/ Chhup jaaungi raat hi mein, from Bandini (1963). Most of the time, though, it’s dropped in as an unthinking term for a beautiful woman. Munir calls it a default setting and gives another example: sanam. “It actually means statue," she says. “But it has developed the connotation of 'beloved'."

Lyricist-screenwriter Varun Grover says that history, caste, poetics and gender are “interlocked in various proportions in this innocuous-sounding word". “In many Hindi songs, gori is not even an adjective anymore but a proper noun (goriya chura na mera jiya) which could just be a mindless (but in-meter) replacement for any other term of endearment like jaaniya, sajna, piya, saiyyaan etc. It's a blind spot aided by culture and cliché." This is the problem in a nutshell—the word continues to extract a heavy toll in society but is largely shorn of its original meaning when placed in songs, which encourages its widespread usage.

Most actresses in Hindi cinema are on the fair-to-‘wheatish’ spectrum, but even when they aren’t, they’re apt to get addressed as gori. A much-quoted instance of this is Yeh Kaali Kaali Aankhein from Baazigar (1993), in which Shah Rukh Khan sings “yeh gore gore gaal (these fair, fair cheeks)" to Kajol, a relatively dark-complexioned actor. The same can be seen in Chitchor (1976), with Amol Palekar singing “gori tera gaon bada pyara" to the dusky Zarina Wahab. And in Lagaan (2001), Aamir Khan stretches goriya over three elongated syllables singing to Gracy Singh, who, ironically, is jealous because he’s spending time with the 'gori mem' who’s teaching the villagers cricket.

Sometimes the problem is in the visuals, not the words. Hum Bewafa from Shalimar (1978) had extras dressed up as tribal people, faces darkened, in skimpy clothes, shouting “jhingalala". So many have tried to block out from their happy memories of Mr. India (1987) the sight of dancers in blackface in Hawa Hawaii. The popular Amitabh Bachchan number from Laawaris (1981), Mere Angne Mein, is a fascinating example of Hindi cinema’s ease of othering dark skin. In the comic song, Bachchan suggests the virtues, in turn, of a tall, short, dark and fair wife. He appears as the wives himself, in drag—all except for the gori one, for which the camera settles on actual women. Drag and blackface for the kaali biwi are fine but poking fun at fair complexions is apparently a bridge too far.

Gore Gore O Banke Chhore, from Samadhi (1950), applied the fair-skin standard to the man. But heroes rarely had to be gora, and Hindi heroines almost always had to be gori. There’s a mythological underpinning to this. In most tellings, Radha is fair and Krishna is dark. In fact, shyam (dark-hued) is another name for the god, and is imbued with appropriately desirable qualities. The charming Shyam Rang Ranga Re in Apne Paraye (1980), picturized on Amol Palekar and sung by Yesudas, is from the perspective of someone intoxicated by Krishna’s dark hue, “as Meera was, as Radha was".

Shyam also turns up in the Bumbro number from Mission Kashmir (2000). A reworking of a popular Kashmiri song, in it the groom, or bumbro (bumblebee), is 'shyam rang'—though some versions have it as shaam (evening) rang, also meaning dark-hued—while the palms of the bride's hands are gori. A more emphatic placement of darker shades in song is Kaala Re, a moody track from Gangs of Wasseypur (2012) written by Grover. Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s gangster is in the coal business and everything about him is kaala—his clothes, his words, his heart and his skin. The word is sung 43 times, as if to make up for the paucity of black in Bollywood lyrics. Grover said he “just wrote a song celebrating a man who did illegal stuff in a coal-town". “Not all art is subversive by design," he added. Six years after Wasseypur, the Tamil film Kaala used the colour to celebrate Dalit-Bahujan identity and subvert notions of purity associated with white.

While no one's writing lyrics like "hum kaale hain to kya hua dilwale hain (so what if I'm black, I have a large heart)" anymore, it will be a while before gori leaves Hindi film music. The debate stirred up by Beyonce Sharma Jayegi might be a good conversation-starter, Munir feels. “We can’t put everybody (who’s used gori) from time immemorial in the katghara (witness box)," she says. "But in today’s day and age we have enough knowledge to, if nothing else, just be careful." There is, however, one usage of gori we can get behind. In Aao Gori Aao Shyama, from Tansen (1943), a woman calls her grazing cattle home at dusk. Charmingly, Gori and Shyama turn out to be a white cow and a black one.

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