Gender and Transnational Visual Economies of Beauty in India
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter provides a critical treatment of whiteness against a transnational web of visual technologies as they permeate the fabric of everyday life in India. The tide in the semiotics of skin color in India's visual economy of mobile and cross-cutting magazine, television, Internet, and film images oscillate between the binaristic opposing poles of “whiteness/lightness/fairness is generally positive” and “blackness/darkness/brownness is generally negative.” In globalizing India's shifting ethnoscapes, fluctuations in skin color are also tied to the greater rate of traffic in white and Indian female bodies that are moving across borders through new channels of mediated culture. Finally, the cultural politics of the epidermis in India also haunts the visual field of postcolonial national state politics, an arena that presents opportunities for future work.
Pond’s Launches White Beauty Detox Range July 11, 2007, New Delhi
Dia Mirza, the beauty from Bollywood was recently in the capital to launch “White Beauty,” the new range of skin lightening products from the house of Pond’s.
Enriched with detoxifying vitamins, White Beauty is not only popular for whitening the skin, but to neutralize the effects of darkness causing elements in today’s harsh environment. The range consists of White Beauty Detox Cleanser, White Beauty Detox Toner, White Beauty Skin-Lightening Cream and White Beauty Detox Lotion, to give you the radiance you’ve always wanted.1
White = Beautiful/Recoverable Purity
Dark = Ugly/Accumulated Poison
Pond’s = Cure/Detoxifying Agent
Pond’s medicalized and mystical representation of the Indian female body in this news release as filled with dark poison that can be extracted in order to restore white purity belongs in a larger constellation of proliferating discourses on beauty in globalizing India. Extending Pond’s equation of whitening with purifying to Newsweek’s March 2006 cover portrait, a slim and light-skinned Padma Lakshmi (international supermodel and celebrity chef) captures the glowing purity of “The New India,” a promising emerging-market nation that is detoxifying itself of the poison of an undesirable socialist “third world” past. Bathed in golden yellow light, Padma Lakshmi’s Orientalized costume—deepred sequined fabric wrapped around her torso and floating high above her shoulder—and her hands folded in the signature Indian “namaste” gesture insert her light-skinned body within the semiotics of non-Western “brown” ethnic tradition. In contrast to her pale luminosity in Newsweek, the very same Padma Lakshmi displays a tanned and darker-skinned body on the cover of Nirvana, a fashion magazine for “affluent, dynamic, and upscale Indian-American women.”2 The aesthetics of global high fashion’s primitive “African queen”—black wooden bangles on her raised forearms, strips of cloth decorating her bare shoulders, (p.69)
The unstable epidermal surfaces of morphing white, light, fair, olive, dusky, tanned, wheatish brown, dark, and black bodies that populate India’s transforming semio-sphere of the past decade bear the forensic traces of competing and colluding signifying forces—racism, individualism, nationalism, cosmopolitanism, and commodity feminism.3 This chapter’s critique of beauty’s supple visual economy tracks the polysemic meanings of corporeal lightness and darkness that circulate in India’s recently altered public sphere, meanings that are always articulated within and against historical and transnational matrices of power. While foregrounding the orchestration of gendered meanings and subject positions that (p.70) unfolds in the cultural terrain of India, the chapter’s analytic circuit takes seriously Radha Hegde’s imperative in the introduction to deploy the transnational as a frame to engage the “dynamic interrelationality” of seemingly disparate media worlds and “capture the layering of social, political, economic, and mediated processes that exceed conventional boundaries.”4 The empirical and narrative architecture of the chapter thus works against methodological purity and conceptions of pristine or hermetic national spaces, media technologies, aesthetic genres, and gendered subjectivities.
Dipping into and migrating across economic, ethnographic, and visual-textual data, I trace the genealogy of beauty’s troubled relations with the epidermis in entangled geographic spaces that speak to each other, even as I stage India as the main protagonist. Cultural representations of the body in film, television, print, and online texts inhabit the media ecosystem I reconstruct here in order to deconstruct fantasies of the body’s mutability. I sometimes take unexpected detours that shadow ethnographic moments, as in the analytic route I follow from a young woman in India to stories of her celebrity idol, Michael Jackson. Mining visual configurations of femininity and masculinity and positioning them alongside unequal global material relations, the chapter juxtaposes, connects, and disconnects chains of epidermal significations, thus illuminating the “scattered hegemonies”5 that regulate cultural and economic imaginations of the body.
The Physiognomy of Transformation
Madhur Bhandarkar’s award-winning 2007 film Traffic Signal takes viewers into the intriguing underworld of poverty and profit that has sprung up along one of Mumbai’s busy streets. As scores of the city’s commuters are rendered immobile at one traffic signal, an itinerant workforce of poor street-side hawkers routinely descends upon this captive market to hawk flowers, clothing, candy, cigarettes, and other trinkets. Damber, a cheerful and dimpled young boy, who sells newspapers and magazines at this signal, longs to be light-skinned and spends most of his hard-earned money on skin-lightening creams.
Scene 1: Damber stands mesmerized in front of a billboard that advertises a tube of Fair Fast. He asks the dark-skinned male worker installing the billboard if the cream would really make his face lighter in four weeks. The worker shrugs and says, “Who knows? They say it will.”
Scene 2: Damber stops at a small store and asks if he can purchase a fairness cream. The amused storeowner hands over a small packet and asks the boy to give him Rs. 22.50.
Scene 3: Viewers see Damber’s glowing silhouette framed against complete darkness. (p.71) Squeezing the tube of Fair Fast, Damber applies the cream to his face and then rubs it in with a frenzied passion.
When projected onto the collective desires of Indian citizens witnessing their mobilization as consumers, Damber’s quest to alter his skin color turns into powerful psychic fuel for the global beauty industry’s engines. By the year 2000, fairness or skin-lightening cosmetics had surged far ahead of competing skin-care products to claim the largest market share in India’s beauty market.6 More recently, a 2007 New York Times report, which describes skin-lightening cosmetics as the “most popular product in India’s fast-growing skin care market,” notes that the “$318 million market for skin care has grown by 42.7 percent since 2001.”7 Spreading its tentacles across India’s deeply divided socioeconomic spectrum, the skin-lightening cosmetics industry targets low-income consumers whose lives resemble Traffic Signal’s Damber as well as the new Indian high-tech consumer class residing in exclusive gated communities.
Pigment and Profit, Magic and Makeovers
The fictional Fair Fast cream that Damber purchases in Traffic Signal has a dizzying array of siblings in India’s booming skin-lightening cosmetics sector that includes creams and lotions, massage oil, bleaches, talcum powders, face washes, face packs, body oils, under-eye cream, and exfoliators. Scores of Indian beauty companies as well as multinationals compete for the attention of Indian women who have joined the burgeoning workforce in the past decade. Facing increased domestic and international competition, reigning cosmetics leader Hindustan Lever has pursued a two-pronged strategy to retain its dominance. On the one hand, Lever launched its premium product line, Perfect Radiance, to appeal to the expanding demographic of professional upper- and upper-middle-class women consumers. On the other hand, the company also extended the dreams of its signature cream, Fair & Lovely, to poor women. Although Fair & Lovely’s standard tube, priced at Rs. 24, makes it affordable for lower-middle-class women, Lever’s introduction of small sachets priced at Rs. 10 and sold at small grocery stores and street-side stalls targets daily wage laborers and women working in the urban economy’s informal sector. Lever’s investment in these low-priced sachets has been hailed as innovative retailing that can mold uninitiated poor Asian and African citizens into new markets for “luxury” products such as cosmetics: “Smaller unit packages, enough for a single immediate use, enable poor consumers to buy a product they could otherwise not afford, thus unlocking their purchasing power.”8
Television commercials for cheaper skin-lightening cosmetics offer similar but more elaborate variations of such empirical maps of the body’s changing skin color. A concerned (and light-skinned) mother in a Tamil commercial for All Fair cream begs her sulky and desperate younger daughter to end her futile pursuit of light-skinned beauty. She tells the young woman to get advice from her pretty and “glowing” older sister. The protagonist borrows her sister’s All Fair cream, and then cascading close-up shots of the model’s face calibrate alterations in her skin color. Embedded simultaneously within discourses of narcissistic anxiety, patriarchal capitalist surveillance, and empowered consumer agency, these pedagogic images of the body’s visible transformation assume that new markets of uninitiated (p.73) working-class and poor Indian women need lessons on the labor and money they have to invest in order to earn returns on beauty. In contrast to these didactic stories of magical transformation, high-end skin-lightening-cream advertisements in magazines dispense with beauty demonstrations and instead showcase the product itself as an object of high art—magnified jars and tubes of Clinique, Perfect Radiance, and Avon’s PT White, set against pastel backgrounds, invite readers to self-consciously fetishize the pleasures of viewing the image itself as part of an upper-class lifestyle.
Tracking Agency, Traveling Colorism: The Epidermis as Transnational Tissue
I am sorting through a pile of skin-lightening cosmetics, taking inventory of prices and packaging, at the dinner table in my sister’s house in New Delhi, India. My six-year-old niece walks in and wants to help. She begins reading the names of the cosmetics but stops as she holds a sachet of Fair & Lovely and then calls out to her nanny, “Sushmita Didi, please come here. I have your cream.” Sushmita, a young woman who had migrated to Delhi from a village in Bihar, appears at the table and inquires, “Are you taking all these back with you?” My niece interjects and explains as she imitates what I had said to her mother a few days before, “Yes, this is all for a ‘project.’ It’s all going on the plane with her.” Sushmita looks at me and responds, “But these creams don’t work. I don’t think any of them really do.” Without disputing her claim, I ask Sushmita, “Why do you buy them?” Sushmita retorts with a smile, “Because I have some extra money now, and I think if there is even a small chance it may work, why not?” Affirming Sushmita’s negotiated (undecided and down-to-earth) response to the beauty that skin-lightening creams promise to excavate, Shanti, a municipal sweeper interviewed by Anita Anand in her book The Beauty Game, also expresses a similar nuanced pragmatism about Fair & Lovely: “I use it when I go out. People say, your face looks clean, your complexion looks bright (as we live with dirt).”9
After much giggling in response to my request, a group of women child-care workers living in the suburbs of Delhi agree to watch a television commercial for Fair & Lovely’s cheapest package, a sachet of cream that costs Rs. 5. The commercial’s unvarnished and none-too-subtle story, centering on arranged marriage, endows women’s light-skinned beauty the power to win a good husband. An anxious father in this commercial tells his wife that a sought-after groom with an excellent job has agreed to “view” their daughter, but this hard-to-please man had reportedly rejected three women already. When the father expresses concern over his daughter’s dark skin, the confident mother raises her right palm, with all five fingers distinctly separated, in front of her husband’s face as though to (p.74)
Women’s ambivalent responses to this commercial’s peddling of beauty as a route to conjugal bliss foregrounds the complexity of their agency, the fine line they walk between capitulation to and resistance against advertising’s patriarchal and formulaic tales of physical perfection, success, and happiness. Although the commercial’s linear cause-and-effect narrative constructs its viewing subjects—the (p.75) demographic of low-income women consumers—as simple-minded and credulous, these women’s skepticism toward instantaneous makeovers even as they patronize manufactured skin-lightening creams alongside traditional beauty rituals constrains scholars from pathologizing the links between poverty and capitalist beauty regimes’ racialized promises of upward mobility. As Ammina Mire reminds us, it is often the “terribly damaged” faces of poor African women that have become the visual signposts for warning the public about the dangers of skin whitening.10 These pathologized spectacles of African women’s suffering disavow the historical ways in which white women have been and continue to be sutured to the ideological fabric of skin whitening. While manufacturers of skin-bleaching solutions in the United States targeted racially white eastern and southern European women in the late nineteenth century, as Mire notes, today skin whitening has a lucrative life as an antiaging therapy that promises to bleach out dark discoloration in the aging skins of white women. Taking an inventory of Indian women’s flickering agency and skin whitening’s global incarnations does not diminish capitalism’s exploitation of social hierarchies, but it does point to beauty’s asymmetrical relations with differently raced bodies.
While Indian advertising sells the feminine body’s obedience to normative beauty, a global black male celebrity’s pale skin color provokes reflections on cross-cultural hierarchies of whiteness. I show one young Indian woman, a college-educated marketing executive, an advertisement for Emami’s Naturally Fair cream—this image displayed a female model whose cumulatively lightening face, encased in pearl-like bubbles, illustrated the cream’s power to imbue women with the “shimmering fairness of pearls in four weeks.” Aditi examines the model in the ad and says, “She’s so pale already, she does not need the cream! I prefer a light brown color like the actress Nandita Das. I buy this cream because it forms a good base to apply my face powder, not because it works.” Continuing her comments, she gets a bit emotional: “Several men rejected my mother because she’s dark-skinned. Finally, my father saw her beauty and grace, but she’s still angry. We don’t talk about this problem in our country enough. Look how much they criticized Michael Jackson in America. So many people thought he was strange.” Turning the tables on me, she begins to reel off a list of questions: “What do they say over there in America? Why do you think Americans said that Michael Jackson should not have pretended to be gora [white]?”
Traveling to America, as Aditi directed me, to follow her instructive citation of Michael Jackson’s epidermal troubles, we find that race, skin color, and beauty are woven into a much more politicized and historical fabric of civil-rights and post-civil-rights discourses. Whereas antiracist activism in the sixties challenged the equation of whiteness with ideal beauty (black is beautiful), a more recent stream of research has gone beyond the racism of the black/white divide to define (p.76) “colorism” as an insidious form of internal discrimination that penalizes darkskinned black men and women.11 Colorism enables the preferential treatment of light-skinned blacks both within and outside their community, and it presents even greater barriers for dark-skinned black women to overcome racism, sexism, and classism. Yet, complicating colorism’s uneven ideological patterning of skin color even further, charges (emanating from black nationalism) that light-skinned blacks are not authentic racial insiders also police the boundaries of affirmative racial identity. Debates over racism and colorism percolated into popular discourse and converged at the site of Michael Jackson’s pale skin, leaving their historical registers on audiences’ interpretations of his motives for whitening his body.
A January 2007 YouTube video narrative titled “Michael Jackson Face Transformation” bears a striking resemblance to the commercial “before and after” discourses of skin-lightening cosmetics that peddle images of Indian women shedding their dark skin.12 This video collage of the celebrity singer’s controversial metamorphosis—whitening along with changing facial features—showcases Jackson’s changing physiognomy and his evolution from childhood to adolescence to adulthood. As each of the celebrity’s darker faces melts progressively into the next lighter one (along with alterations from cosmetic surgery), viewers witness Jackson’s alleged exhibition of internalized racism. A provocative epilogue—“If this is what’s happening outside, what’s going on inside?”—featured at the end of the collage cues viewers to speculate on the racialized pathologies of skin lightening and cosmetic surgery.
Opposing such indictments of Jackson as a racial traitor, another YouTube video, posted a month later, attempts to clear the celebrity of all blame. Proposing knowledge and critical thinking as antidotes to prejudice, this producer’s sympathetic video testimony declares her mission to redeem Jackson: “Because prejudice is ignorance, no one asks what happened to him without judging him. … Knowledge grants us the possibility of love. … ‘Before you judge me, try hard to love me,’ Michael Jackson sings.”13 Articulating a postmodern argument on fluid and overlapping social identities to build homologies between the “deviant” Jackson and his “normal” critics and voyeurs, the video artist “Acucena” states that “everyone changes during their lives with or without surgery,” because manipulations of light, emotions, clothing, and photographic techniques generate multiple iterations of the same person. Toward the end of the video, this producer’s defense, soaked in the rhetoric of public-health campaigns and anticolonial race scholarship, exonerates Jackson of all charges of racial betrayal because he has a disease called vitiligo, which destroys the substance that gives color to the skin. Michael Jackson himself, when interviewed on The Oprah Winfrey Show in 2007, stated emphatically that he was very comfortable in his racial identity but suffered from an uncontrollable “skin disorder that destroys pigmentation.”14
(p.77) I am back at work in the United States. Aditi, the young woman in India who had inquired about Michael Jackson six months earlier, has sent me an e-mail message with the subject “Colorism in India.” She writes, “Radhika-aunty, please see this flyer for a discussion at my old college. We had invited many parents of small children too. Thank you for telling me about this word colorism and its history, makes it so much easier to publicize this event when I can call this problem something. Please also read the news report on protests against Fair & Lovely in India. (Michael Jackson is still the best!).”15 The text on Aditi’s flyer, printed against the background of a Fair & Lovely face wash advertisement showing a before (dark) and after (light) face reads, “Colorism, Why is fair the same as lovely and dark the same as ugly? Attend speech and discussions afterward.” A passenger with the name colorism, carrying historical baggage from America that could provoke debates on skin color, caste, colonialism, patriarchy, and consumer culture, had crossed several borders to land safely at one venue in India.
Technowhiteness Meets Ethnonationalist Brownness
Usha Zacharias writes that India’s transition from frugal socialism to expansive capitalism was predicated on the cultural production of a “consumer class that is in the permanent process of racial passage from brown to white, and which may be unwilling, or even helpless to reverse the material destiny of an upwardly mobile trajectory of signification.”16 Zooming her critical lenses onto Crown TV’s advertising image of Mona Lisa gracing a television screen that has a remote control’s operations superimposed on it, she argues that this iconic white woman metaphorically embodies “ideologies of cultural nationalism wrapped in whiteness.”17 If the mnemonics of a remote control pasted onto a legendary European beauty—Mona Lisa’s visage—captures the messy collisions between colonial pasts and global futures, contemporary visual configurations of Indian celebrity whiteness—Aishwarya Rai and Rajinikanth—offer distinct yet overlapping versions of the nomadic Indian body’s gendered and classed currency in transnational, national, and regional spaces.
The celebrity allure of legendary Indian beauty Aishwarya Rai (global supermodel, Bollywood actress, and former Miss World) in L’Oreal’s advertisement for the skin-lightening product White Perfect crystallizes the ongoing marriage of technocapitalist whiteness with ethnonationalist brownness. Rai’s “international face,” authorized by her ambiguous racial coding, graces a glossy two-page L’Oreal ad in the Indian women’s magazine Femina. Similar L’Oreal advertisements in Europe and Asia have transported the green-eyed and light-skinned Rai well beyond India to affix her seductive and amorphous ethnic appeal to a host of other L’Oreal products including hair color. In the Femina magazine ad (p.78) for L’Oreal’s White Perfect, Rai’s wide-eyed face, exuding the luster of her global currency, serves as a soft companion to a hypertechnomedicalized lexicon that legitimizes the product’s tested labor of skin whitening. The headlines ‘Dermoexpertise” and “Breakthrough Melanin-Block Technology” in the ad anchor a step-by-step outline of the luminosity that “L’Oreal patented-Mexoryl SX” and “L’Oreal patented-BHA” can induce in women’s faces with a 90 percent guarantee of effectiveness. Magnified pictures of the dermis and epidermis augment the scientific credibility of the product’s claims to destroy melanin and release whiteness from the recesses of consumers’ bodies. L’Oreal’s brand of technopharmaceutical whitened modernity flows through an archive of other such commercial discourses—Clinique’s Active White Light Powder, Elizabeth Arden’s Whitening Capsules, Avon’s PT White Fairness cream—to construct women’s dark skin as a disease that can be diagnosed and controlled.
Although imperceptible on the surface, Rai’s sterile technocelebrity whiteness in the multinational advertisement is sutured simultaneously to the bright postcolonial green, white, and orange colors (the colors of the Indian flag) of her ethnonational loyalties, her indisputably Indian essence. The supermodel’s alliances with her national citizenship emerge from her own public performances and from discourses of nationalism that authenticate her success not merely as a famed transnational celebrity figure but also as a global Indian whose beauty has conquered both domestic and foreign territories. Such cultural compositions of aseptic, imperial technoproficient whiteness alloyed with seemingly resistant postcolonial nonwhiteness index the reimagining of an Indian transnational modernity that has radiated from sites within and outside India in the midst of sweeping economic reforms. Unpacking representations of whiteness in the Chinese television film Sunset at Long Chao Li, Kathleen Erwin argues that technomediated images of white women in China—as in the crafting of Sunset’s Margie, a wealthy American woman whose devotion to her Chinese husband signals her submission to Chinese culture—do not merely signify Western imperialism; instead, they also bolster the Chinese nation’s claims to transcendence over Western domination.18 My case study of Aishwarya Rai’s whiteness/Indianness differs from Erwin’s analysis of a Chinese television hero’s relations with his white American wife; nevertheless, Rai’s celebrity profile bears similar inscriptions of nationalist modernity that can absorb the West in a new transnational economic order marked by Asia’s rapid ascendance.
The currency of former Miss World and Bollywood superstar Rai’s traveling whiteness, as evidenced by her passage into international/Hollywood cinema and global advertising (L’Oreal, Coca-Cola, and DeBeer), earned her a spot on CBS’s 60 Minutes and NBC’s Oprah Winfrey Show as the most beautiful woman in the world. Bob Simon’s interview for 60 Minutes, enacted through the erotics (p.79) of white, heterosexual male appreciation, portrays a cosmopolitan Rai, garbed in a two-piece suit with well-groomed shoulder-length hair, straddling the globe in her Westernized avatar even as she claims the resilience of her Indian traditions.19 Moving beyond oft-cited paradigms of fused East-West hybrid identity, Rai’s public performance, combined with 60 Minutes’ visual footage, fabricates a whitened Indian transnational modernity, a discourse of dominant Indianness that gets stored within a portable global epidermis.
Interviewing Rai on location in a studio in Mumbai, Simon begins the segment by installing his subject, a beautiful Indian woman with seventeen thousand fan websites and Julia Roberts’s endorsement, in a pantheon of classic global white celebrity beauty that includes Ingrid Bergman, Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, and Elizabeth Taylor. Sitting close to Rai within the intimate setting of a living room, Simon asks her, “Are men intimidated by you?” as the camera lingers on Rai’s well-groomed face. Rai then responds with her own question as she draws attention to Simon’s sexuality: “Are you?” Taken aback by the unexpected infusion of sexual chemistry in a televised journalistic interview, Simon says, “No, not really,” but when Rai interjects with “I guess not then” to indicate that she has no effect on men, Simon, no longer a seasoned professional, rushes to reassure her that he is indeed impressed. He gestures with one hand toward her face and body as he struggles to express his admiration, and Rai, taking charge of the interview again, points to Simon’s reddening face color with the accusation, “You’re blushing.” The interaction between Simon, the gora (generic Hindi term for a white male foreigner) journalist, and Rai, her beautiful light body encased in Western designer clothing, speaking English fluently, and flirting subtly with an older, authoritative white man, crystallizes this Indian celebrity’s proficiency in enacting upper-class whiteness. After the first quarter, however, in the remainder of the interview, viewers also witness the robust Indianness that fills Rai’s body, lying close to her thin outer armor of epidermal and performative whiteness. As Simon asserts, the Indian Rai, unlike some of her counterparts in Hollywood (symbols of degenerate white femininity), acts in “squeaky clean” Bollywood films and is “innocent, wholesome, and deeply religious.” He explains that Rai still lives with her parents even though she is thirty years old, because she believes in the sanctity of family. He then says that on Rai’s insistence, they visited a Ganesh temple in Mumbai. Visual footage of a pious and traditional national ambassador Rai worshiping at the altar—wearing Indian clothing, a bindi on her forehead, and hair braided with a string of jasmine flowers—ensures that Simon and his viewers are given glimpses of the global Indian celebrity’s deep allegiance to her Hindu Indianness. Describing the crowds of fans who had gathered to watch Rai, Simon lets audiences know that “Rai attracted more worshipers than Ganesh” and that people had lined up to see her as though she were a goddess herself.
(p.80) Rai’s brand of whitened transnational Indian modernity is manifested with equal strength on The Oprah Winfrey Show, where she is again presented as a “global goddess” whose “international face” sells a range of commodities.20 After affirming Rai’s beauty with a collage of still-photo displays, Oprah tells her largely white female studio audience that “Ash,” as she is known in India, is a wholesome woman who “like most single Indian women follows tradition and lives at home with her parents.” When questioned about the recent escalation in the commerce of skin lightening in India, where “Indians spend over a hundred million dollars on skin lightening cosmetics,” Rai, classified as among the most light-skinned celebrities in India, repudiates colorism and calls for a celebration of the diverse plurality of Indian men and women’s bodies. In the second half of this interview, Rai dresses Oprah in a sari, the quintessential symbol of Indian tradition, and finally a sari-clad Oprah sashaying onstage declares that the lovely “red carpet” sari makes her feel sensual. These interviews are drenched in the colonial discourses of Orientalism; however, they also project an image of the successful whitened Indian female celebrity who has managed to exceed Western standards of beauty while she also protects her Indianness from the contaminating influences of Western commodity and entertainment culture. Such television performances that showcase Rai’s fidelity to Indian traditions and her physical desirability in the West construct technovisual articulations of whiteness within the ethnonational spaces of Indian transnational modernity.
Digital Whiteness and Divine Masculine Modernity
If Aishwarya Rai’s cosmopolitan currency enjoys a good conversion rate in the West, particularly in Europe and the United States, another Indian male celebrity’s spectacular performance in the Tamil blockbuster film Sivaji—The Boss radiates a masculine technowhiteness that shores up vernacular regional patriotism. Press releases and news stories on Sivaji—The Boss, reputed to be the highest budget Indian film of the past two decades, enumerate the production costs for the film, ranging from expenses incurred for high-end artistic talent and hair to “break-through technology … that has rewritten the rules of celluloid history.”21 Publicity discourses on the film also valorize the cutting-edge digital technology and painstaking technical labor that enabled the hero Sivaji’s (well-known actor Rajinikanth) dramatic change in skin color from a wheatish-brown Indian complexion to a Caucasian skin tone and color for the famed song-and-dance sequence “Oru Koodai Sunlight” (One Basket of Sunlight). Taking up the theme of a divided globalizing nation in which poor citizens continue to struggle for basic amenities amid the sweep of middle-class economic prosperity, Sivaji—The Boss narrates a familiar tale of the accomplished and patriotic global Indian male, (p.81) who returns to his homeland—and his ethnic Tamil community—to implement a noble program of social and economic justice. Sivaji—The Boss is only one film among scores of Kollywood films, the prolific South Indian Tamil film industry (parallel to Mumbai’s Bollywood films) based in the Kodambakkam district of Chennai, in which Rajinikanth has acted. Unlike the seemingly polished Aishwarya Rai, whose linguistic and bodily ethnowhiteness enables her to occupy a spectrum of national and Euro-American spaces, Rajiniknath’s earthy performances have earned him a firm foothold in a more bounded but equally profitable regional, classed, and diasporic Tamil space. Hailed as the authentic vernacular hero of poor and working-class male audiences, Rajinikanth, whose Tamil films are popular in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Japan, has earned the reputation of being South India’s greatest star.
Mapping colorism’s discriminatory practices onto the male rather than the female body, the film initially creates a comic narrative of epidermal suffering that undermines the far greater penalties that Indian women have incurred for violating normative beauty conventions. On Sivaji’s return to his home state from the United States, he discovers that his parents are determined to find a bride for their eligible son. Rejecting all the inappropriately Westernized (immodest, immoral, and secular) women who offer themselves to him, Sivaji instead covets the wholesome and religious light-skinned Tamil woman he spots at an old temple in the city. After a series of events, including troubling episodes of blatant colorism in which he recoils at the sight of two dark-skinned prospective brides, Sivaji gets engaged to the beautiful object of his desire, Tamil Selvi. Even though Tamil Selvi loves Sivaji, she decides to distance herself from him because an astrologer informs her that their doomed union would result in Sivaji’s death. When Sivaji visits Tamil Selvi, she lays her hand next to his hand as she draws attention to his dark skin color, and then she announces that they can no longer be engaged because she finds his dark skin repulsive. In the ensuing scenes that feature canned background laughter, viewers follow Sivaji’s tragic theatrical quest to lighten his skin color—he covers his entire body with Fair & Lovely cream, immerses himself in tubs of clay, and then tries his mother’s messy and painful home remedies. In the midst of this patriarchal parody of feminine skin lightening, Sivaji enters an extravagantly surreal realm of technofantasy—the “Sunlight” song-and-dance sequence—where he turns into a white male, thus signifying the “infinite possibilities of transformation and mobility to the socially ascending postcolonial viewer.”22
Publicity stories on Sivaji’s transformation juxtapose the magical powers of Western technomodernity or “digital skin grafting” with the seductive possibilities of a transgressive marriage between authentic white European femininity and the fake technowhitened surface of the Tamil male body.23 A graphic artist (p.82) in one news story explains that the film’s deployment of high-end digital technology methods to whiten Rajinikanth required twenty-five dedicated CG technicians. This artist claims that simple digital color correction of the hero’s skin could not achieve the authentic whiteness that the film’s director had demanded of his technicians. He then clarifies that a complicated series of photographic and digital techniques were deployed to graft the skin color of a real white woman—London-based Jacky—onto Rajinikanth: “After the final edit all the 630 hero shots and 630 girl [Jacky] shots were scanned in 4K resolution. Each of the 9000 scanned frames was rotoscoped to separate body parts (face, hands, legs, etc.). The white lady’s skin was mapped onto the Superstar’s image using Eyeon ‘Digital Fusion’ software.”24 Illustrating the technological transposition of white European femininity onto Sivaji’s body, several fan websites post side-by-side images of actor Rajinikanth and a white woman whose body language imitates the actor’s poses in frozen stills captured from the movie during the song “Oru Koodai Sunlight.”
Surrounded by the off-screen publicity aura of technological innovation, the “Oru Koodai Sunlight” song-and-dance performance showcases the homespun, provincial hero’s mutation into a slick global avatar. Rajinikanth’s theatrical masquerade as a whitened Sivaji with glistening blond hair unlocks the porous Tamil nation’s abilities to absorb European racial whiteness, multicolored visions of ethnoracial diversity, and sexualized discourses of territorial conquest. In contrast to the film’s introductory song, set in the pastoral utopia of a lush green village, Sivaji’s energetic dance as a white man in “Oru Koodai Sunlight” takes viewers in and out of hypermodern, avant-garde architectural spaces that simulate the towering constructions of New York, Sydney, Hong Kong, and Dubai. The choreography of white Sivaji’s dance with a white Tamil Selvi, who worships his body’s exuberant calisthenics, and a multicultural supporting ensemble of Black and Latina dancers enacts the reimagination of the virile Tamil nation’s transcendence over Western domination. The lyrics of the chorus—“a basket of sunlight and a basket of moonlight were mixed to produce a white Tamilian”—that accompany this spectacular visual rendition of epidermal mutation project Sivaji’s persona as a potent reincarnation of Tamil whiteness. The film returns to the symbolic hues of patriotic technowhiteness when the formerly white Tamil hero, standing atop a building in New York, uses his laptop computer to convert all the illegitimate “black money” circulating in India into legitimate “white money.” Sivaji’s whitened currency fulfills the utopian vision of a bygone postcolonial era of Nehruvian socialist modernity. Signaling a triumphant Tamil masculinity’s conquest of geographic, digital, and racialized territories, Sivaji’s gleaming clinics and schools empower poor citizens left behind by the failed Indian state and a selfish Indian consumer elite.
I am visiting a close friend in Hyderabad in South India. She has taped a Fair & Lovely commercial for me, one whose blatant colorism has made her quite angry. In contrast to Sivaji’s recuperation of the nation’s potential greatness, this commercial’s double-edged discourse on arranged marriage casts the nation as both an agent of women’s patriarchal oppression and a source of their empowerment. Wedding technowhiteness with ethnoreligious imagery, the commercial proposes that market nationalism can liberate women from a primitive patriarchy’s humiliating practices of colorism. A young female model hiding behind a pillar surveys a depressing scene in the courtyard of her home. Her father appears relieved that he may have finally found an eligible groom for his dark-skinned daughter, but a picture of the unattractive groom’s acne-scarred face with a large nose tells a more pessimistic story. In a spirited act of resistance, the young woman, who decides to take charge of her destiny, turns the yellowing pages of an ancient Ayurvedic text that contains long-forgotten remedies for skin lightening. In the next few scenes, viewers witness a technoreligious nationalist spectacle of traditional Indian science’s authentic skin-lightening power. As melodious devotional music invokes religious sentimentality, an intricately carved mortar and pestle appears, and saffron, rose petals, turmeric, and sandalwood begin to rain down from the skies into the mortar. After the woman uses Fair & Lovely’s Ayurvedic cream, she walks through a shopping mall, where an attractive young man, thoroughly distracted by her light-skinned beauty, bumps into her. When the woman and the man smile at each other, the happy father exclaims, “The perfect match has been made!”
The fluctuating meanings of the epidermis in globalizing India do not imply a free-floating universe in which whiteness and nonwhiteness always share parallel and equally affirmative spheres of meaning. The tide in the semiotics of skin color in India’s visual economy of mobile and cross-cutting magazine, television, Internet, and film images ebbs and flows between the binaristic opposing poles of “whiteness/lightness/fairness is generally positive” and “blackness/darkness/brownness is generally negative.” My own childhood recollections of the sociolinguistic architecture of skin color in the Tamil language spoken within the social circles of family and friends highlights the stigma associated with dark skin. The varied terminology for skin color in Tamil included (in translation) “rosy,” “red,” “little color,” “lots of color,” “no color,” “shining,” and the occasional “black” or “lots of black,” which unlike the other words were often whispered in public or uttered within tightly knit groups of women. Yet I also heard my light-skinned grandmother, fiercely protective of her dark-skinned granddaughters, insist that light (p.84) skin color without any grace, charm, or intelligence could not make any woman beautiful. Her comment, while reassuring when I was a small child, also made me wonder why she felt the need to defend our dark skin tone in these particular ways.
In globalizing India’s shifting ethnoscapes, fluctuations in skin color are also tied to the greater velocity of the traffic in white and Indian female bodies that are moving across borders through new channels of mediated culture. A Washington Post report documents the recent dramatic increase in Caucasian female models in advertisements for products and services, originating from India, that are seeking to establish themselves as global brands.25 White models wearing Indian clothes in these advertisements embody both the demands of “glocality” and the desire for an equal cultural exchange in which “India’s economic self-confidence” becomes visible.26 Revealing the uneven cleavages that litter the epidermal fields of whiteness and brownness, the reporter notes that eastern European models in India whose faces “stare out from billboards, from the facades of glitzy glass-fronted malls, and from fashion magazines” earn far less than the local Indian advertising celebrities, namely, cricket and Bollywood superstars and Indian supermodels.27 At the same time as India begins to emulate postwar Japan’s fascination with white models, dark-skinned Indian models whose bodies are Photoshopped to become lighter in the Indian advertising industry earn praise for their natural body color as exotic when they work for clients in Europe. Across the border in China, the recent barrage of tanned white male bodies in the media has led to the trend of tanning among the upper-class Chinese male elite in a country where skin-lightening cosmetics make up half the cosmetics market.28
Finally, the cultural politics of the epidermis in India also haunts the visual field of postcolonial national state politics, an arena that presents ripe opportunities for future work. The Italian politician Sonia Gandhi, president of the Indian National Congress party and wife of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi (son of Indira Gandhi and grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru), offers a compelling case study of white femininity’s accommodation to the demands of authentic political identity in a non-Western postcolonial nation. Sonia Gandhi’s Italian-Indianness has had to grapple with the pressures of dynastic rule in a democracy, the legacy of anticolonial activism, the burdens of being a public daughter-in-law and wife, and the maternal desire to preserve power for her children. Sonia Gandhi’s practices of ethnic disguise—covering her foreign whiteness in the sartorial modesty of saris and learning to speak Hindi—along with this chapter’s discussions of advertising, ethnographic data, and celebrity discourses illustrate the densely textured historical complexion of the fluctuating epidermis, an organ whose coloration and discoloration in the global representational realm waxes and wanes in tandem with constructs of nation, gender, ethnicity, class, sexuality, and race.
The author is indebted to Sunitha Chitrapu, Sara Friedman, and Radha Hegde for their insightful contributions to this chapter. She thanks Kavitha Cardoza and Purnima Bose for their support, and she is grateful to her family members—Nivedita Raju and Bala Raju—for their hospitality in India.
(2.) “Fashion Portal,” Nirvana Woman website, http://www.nirvanawoman.net/html/fashion_portal.php (accessed August 4, 2008).
(3.) For a full explanation of forensic analysis, see John Hartley, Popular Reality: Journalism, Modernity, Popular Culture (New York: St. Martin’s, 1996).
(5.) This term is borrowed from Inderpal Grewal and Caren Kaplan, Scattered Hegemonies: Postmodernity and Transnational Feminist Practices (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994).
(6.) Nirmala Sinha, “Skin Care: Fair and Growing,” India Today (December 6, 2000): 48.
(7.) Heather Timmons, “Telling India’s Modern Women They Have Power, Even over Their Skin Tone,” New York Times (May 30, 2007), http://www.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.htmlires=9C02EEDB1430F933A05756C0A9619C8B63&sec=&spon=&pagewanted=all (accessed October 31, 2007).
(8.) Allen L. Hammond and C. K. Prahalad, “Selling to the Poor,” Foreign Policy (May–June 2004), http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2004/05/01/selling_to_the_poor (accessed May 31, 2007).
(9.) Anita Anand, The Beauty Game (New Delhi: Penguin Books, 2002), 149.
(11.) For example, see T. Banks, “Colorism: A Darker Shade of Pale,” UCLA Law Review 47, no. 6 (2000): 1705–1746; A. Celious and D. Oyserman, “Race from the Inside: An Emerging Heterogeneous Race Model,” Journal of Social Science 57, no. 1 (2001): 149–165; J. Falconer and H. Neville, “African-American College Women’s Body Image: An Examination of Body Mass, African Self-Consciousness, and Skin Color Satisfaction,” Psychology of Women Quarterly 24, no. 3 (2000): 236–243; Margaret Hunter, “If You’re Light, You’re Alright: Light Skin Color as Social Capital for Women of Color,” Gender and Society 16, no. 2 (2002): 175–193.
(13.) Acucena, “Michael Jackson-Documentary: ‘Changes,’” YouTube (February 20, 2007), http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uNUfIuOXLLE&feature=related (accessed October 8, 2008).
(15.) Aditi Mishra, “Colorism in India,” e-mail communication (July 18, 2007).
(16.) Usha Zacharias, “The Smile of Mona Lisa: Postcolonial Desires, Nationalist Families, and the Birth of Television in India,” Critical Studies in Media Communication 20, no. 4 (2003): 389.
(p.86) (18.) Kathleen Erwin, “White Women, Male Desires: A Televisual Fantasy of the Transnational Chinese Family,” in Mayfair Mei-Hiu Yang, ed., Spaces of Their Own: Women’s Public Sphere in Transnational China (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), 232–257.
(19.) ChocolateDove71, “Aishwarya Rai 60 Minutes Interview Part 1,” YouTube (February 21, 2008), http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aUfElxbqPgE&feature=related (accessed August 28, 2008).
(20.) “Aishwarya Interview with Oprah Winfrey,” Google Videos (December 28, 2006), http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-2278044500626117388&q=Oprah+Winfrey# (accessed August 28, 2008).
(23.) Dyankayn, “Digital Skin Grafting,” Vfxtalk.com (June 25, 2007), http://www.vfxtalk.com/forum/sitemap/digital-skin-grafting (accessed September 2, 2008).
(25.) Rama Lakshmi, “In India’s Huge Marketplace, Advertisers Find Fair Skin Sells,” Washingtonpost.com (January 27, 2008), http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/01/26/AR2008012601057.html (accessed August 22, 2008).
(28.) Quentin Sommerville, “China’s Changing Skin Colour,” BBC.com (February 13, 2007), http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/6357439.stm (accessed August 23, 2007).