50 shades darker

Updated: 24 November, 2019 07:55 IST | Shweta Shiware | Mumbai

The stupidity of not casting a dark-hued actor to play a character campaigning forself-acceptance is telling of Bollywood's smug chauvinism

Nidhi Sunil Pic/ Isabelli Lombardini
Nidhi Sunil Pic/ Isabelli Lombardini

The irony isn't lost on Kerala-born, now New York-based model and actor Nidhi Sunil, who like Latika is a trained lawyer, ambitious, and harbours a feminist point of view. She is also dark skinned. The character played by Bhumi Pednekar in the latest Bollywood grosser Bala, advocates self-acceptance, often recounting haunting memories of being called "kaali" as a 10-year-old. A propos, Sunil, 31, remembered the tag "kaalia" from high school in a personal piece she wrote for Dazed Beauty this August.

Sunil has starred in Ishaan Nair's Kaash, presented by actor Irrfan Khan, directors Mira Nair and Shimit Amin, but the 2015 film is yet to find a commercial release in India. She has repeatedly spoken of being turned away by model management firms and agents since she began her career in 2011. "I was told that I had been 'the darkest girl ever cast' as a brand ambassador by a major hair-care brand in India," she says candidly, adding that things are improving slowly in the Indian fashion collective. "The industry is much more welcoming of girls like me," she thinks, alluding to a hit Bollywood film that's doing disservice to the change.

Bala is naïve in its casting; Bhumi Pednekar knocks the ball out of the park with a capable performance as Latika, but she's the cosmetically-styled keynote that simply does not fit. That's where the problem begins, as does the irritation of an evolved viewer.

Not only is she painted five shades darker with inconsistent makeup and floats in pearly white salwar-kurtas, the shifting shades of foundation in Don't Be Shy Again magically bring her closer to her original light-brown skin tone.

Nidhi Sunil, model and actor

I think the team [Bala] may have had good intentions but it's clear they've coasted on the subject of colourism without understanding what the subject means to the millions of dark-skinned girls who are told, 'they are less than' because of their skin. Films have the power to change people's mindsets, and by actively casting a lighter skin actor over someone who regularly lives with the experience of having dark skin, is an opportunity lost for us as a community to see our truth on screen. It was no secret that your skin colour decided if your career would transition into films or not. I've worked with the Indian editions of Vogue, GQ, Harper's Bazaar, Elle, and featured in campaigns for Manish Malhotra, Manish Arora, etc. I have moved my base to New York after acquiring management here.

Clint Fernandes, makeup and hair artist


Latika's makeup is downright terrible! The selection of foundation is wrong; the product base could have been better emulsified into the skin. It looks unnatural. Bhumi is beautiful and talented; I wonder why she insists on being typecast in colourism doublespeak; Lust Stories is another case in point. It's clearly a case of favouritism. She happens to be a saleable actor right now. Camps supersede script prerequisites. Earlier, in two out of 10 projects, clients would want me to make models look fairer. Things have got better in the last three years.

Hvovi Bhagwagar, psychotherapist


I watched Bala with my son. It was entertaining, but the message of self-love didn't sit well with me. He pointed out the last straw in colour inconsistency as the climax song-and-dance played on screen, where Bhumi wears a colour closer to her natural skin tone, mocking the intelligence of the audience. Colour favouritism is a real issue. I have clients approach me because they are bullied in classrooms and online platforms for their colour. 'Why didn't you add a lighter filter to your photograph?' is now commonplace in cyber-bullying. A worried mother visited me recently to discuss how she caught her daughter, in second grade, rub talcum powder on her face to 'look pretty like a Barbie'. There's immense pressure to have flawless light skin and you'd be surprised how many intelligent, affluent men and women are using skin-lightening supplements.

Payal Khandwala, designer


Bala's poignant message of self-acceptance slips through the cracks. Bollywood is after all, a business, where the end goal is to make money. Change must start at the top. Influential actors and filmmakers have to push the conversation around diversity and acceptance. If they had signed a dark-skinned actor—we have quite a few—to play the part, she would've brought a distinct edge to the performance. That would have been a significantly bolder statement to make. What message are we sending women who have fought colour bias and found inaccurate representation in media or films? It's shameful.

Personally, I think my signature solid, jewel tones look beautiful on dark Indian skin, and I gravitate towards casting appropriate models for my campaigns. My enthusiasm though doesn't always find appreciation.

Ethical Fashion - Inspired by all the news around sustainability

Good things in green packaging


Simran Lal believes a company can embrace conscious living by starting with its packaging. India generates 9.46 million tonnes of plastic waste annually, of which 43 per cent is produced by single-use packaging. UPS estimates that if you wound the length of bubble wrap sheets produced each year, it would stretch around the equator 10 times. Lal and Raul Rai are the co-founders of Nicobar, a brand of contemporary décor, fashion and travel accessories. "We have traded physical receipts for electronic ones, use seed and elephant poo paper for product tags, and the jewellery pouches are designed from biodegradable raw fabrics," informs Rai.

The brand celebrated its third birthday by making a meaningful change—an 85 per cent reduction in plastic packaging. Air and foam pouches and bubble wrap have been replaced with recycled crumpled brown paper, egg trays and corrugated sheets. "Crumpling paper creates insulation, offering a cushioning similar to bubble wrap. We rent a German machine at our unit to do this. It's not cheap, but it's our way to ease the burden on a stressed planet."

Simran Lal and Raul Rai
Simran Lal and Raul Rai

Lal is closely tracking mushroom-based packaging, a new biodegradable alternative for paper and plastic. "Paper does cut trees at the end of the day, so we have to constantly keep looking for eco-friendlier substitutes." The mushroom-based packaging has already taken off in Europe, and uses agricultural byproducts like hemp, which are pressed into desirable packaging shapes, then seeded with mushroom spores that sprout mycelium (roots). As it spreads around the structure, it also binds together to form a durable packaging material, which is treated with heat to kill spores to arrest further fungus growth.

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First Published: 24 November, 2019 07:55 IST

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