Film in Colour(s)

Screenshots from Uyare movie

R. Benedito Ferrão

When’s the last time you saw someone dark-skinned in a South Asian film? I don’t mean “dusky.” But really, really dark? To say that Indian subcontinental cinemas have a predilection for actors who are light of complexion is, well, hardly enlightening.

Such beauty standards are reinforced by the appearance of female and male Bollywood movie stars in commercials where they shill skin-lightening products. There’s no subtlety in the message here: one cannot be dark and lovely. To be as beautiful as the movie stars, these advertisements urge, one has to chemically (ouch!) transform something as fundamental as their skin colour.

Beauty standards apart, the very technology of film has itself been historically predisposed to whiteness as the norm. Kodak, which in the mid-twentieth century monopolized the sale of colour film in the United States, used what was known as the Shirley Card to decide on the right skin colour balance when developing film in labs. Named for an employee who served as its model, the woman on the card is a white brunette whose skin tone became the “normal” against which film was colour corrected. There was no equivalent system to determine if the skin tones of people of colour were properly represented photographically.

Though by the 1990s Kodak created a Shirley Card featuring Asian, Black, and Latina women, the upsurge of digital photography ensured that this more racially diverse yardstick fell by the wayside. “The result was film emulsion technology that still carried over the social bias of earlier photographic conventions,” Harvard’s Sarah Lewis writes in “The Racial Bias Built into Photography” for The New York Times (25 April 2019).

Though more research needs to be done on how skin colour standardization in photography was calibrated in other parts of the world, the global reach of Kodak likely proliferated the colour canon that company originated in the United States; other non-US film-producing companies may similarly have been partial to lighter skin tones as the default. These biases that normalized lighter skin hues as standard also informed moving film technology.

Lewis finds that though advancements in digital imaging are better suited to shooting diverse skin tones, television shows and films that feature darker skinned people employ a variety of lighting techniques to ensure accurate representation. As an example, she cites the work of Black American director Ava DuVernay, but also Insecure where, in addition to special lighting, the HBO show uses reflective moisturizer on its actors because “dark skin can absorb more light than fair skin.”

Developments in the more precise depiction of skin colour on film not only speak to the growing diversity of filmic storylines and cultural representation, but also its importance. “Why does inclusive representation matter so much?” Lewis queries; she concludes: “You can’t become what you can’t accurately see.”

In 2013, actor Nandita Das endorsed the “Dark is Beautiful” campaign which counters Bollywood’s over-representation of light-skinned talent. Taking issue with the equation of beauty and representation, Anjali Rajoria writes for Round Table India (21 August 2013), that while “Dark is Beautiful” may challenge industry bias, it perpetuates dominant notions that divide women based on looks, class, and caste. In turn, this leaves no room for something as challenging as the subject of acid attack victims, which is the basis of Uyare (2019), a Malayalam film at this 50th anniversary edition of the International Film Festival of India. By over-valuing the “commodity of ‘Beauty,’ we create a sense of insecurity in the women belonging to the out-group,” Rajoria avers.

Cinematic representation, then, is most effective when it captures the multiple shades of diverse lives. The beauty of such potential is more than skin deep.

This article is originally published in The Peacock (Issue-5), official daily newspaper of the International Film Festival of Goa, published by the Entertainment Society of Goa.

R. Benedito Ferrão, Assistant Professor of English and Asian & Pacific Islander American Studies is a recipient of the Fulbright-Nehru Academic and Professional Excellence Research Award (2019-20). He completed his Ph.D. at Birkbeck College, University of London, where he was a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar. An internationally published writer, his work appears in Outlook India, Media Diversified, The Good Men Project, and Mizna, among other publications and websites.

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