Karthik Subbaraj’s Jigarthanda DoubleX, went where few films dared to go. It took us several decades back in time to depict Tamil cinema of the 1970s, with its political influences laid bare. But it doesn’t just stop there. Even if mentioned only in passing, DoubleX is arguably one of the first films to question a deep-rooted issue in the industry. “Colour ah irundha enna maari hero aagirukalaam, so sad karuppa irukaarae (If you were fair, you could’ve become a hero like me, It’s sad you're brown-skinned).” This dialogue is what triggers Raghava Lawrence’s Alliyus Caesar, a gangster in the film, to run in pursuit of becoming the first brown-skinned hero in Tamil cinema.
The film’s setting, the 1970s, is also when Tamil cinema’s real brown-skinned superstar, Rajinikanth, got his debut, at a time when films were dominated by light-skinned actors such as Sivakumar and Kamal Haasan. “When I used to face issues because of my colour, my father would tell me even our superstar is brown-skinned, so I shouldn’t worry,” says director Sarjun KM, who has directed films such as Lakshmi (2017) and Airaa (2019). Rajinikanth’s stardom arguably also opened the doors for many such actors that came after him— Vijayakanth, Murali, Dhanush, Vishal, Vijay Sethupathi and Manikandan, to name a few. But can the same be said for actresses?
In fact, we have had many brown-skinned women leading films in the 70s and 80s than in the decades that followed. While a lot has indeed in the past few years, a recent incident at the press meet of DoubleX, raised a few questions. A journalist told Subbaraj that even if the leading actress Nimisha Sajayan doesn’t look "very beautiful", she acted really well. Subbaraj rightly called out the reporter saying it was a wrong perception. "How can you say she is not beautiful?" he said. But this isn't an isolated incident. Be it within the industry, during press meets or on social media, actresses have faced many trolls or comments because of body shaming and colourism. A couple of months back, when actors Ashok Selvan and Keerthi Pandian tied the knot, the latter was trolled for her complexion on social media. The actress has also been vocal about the rejections she has faced.
Even as the word “Karuppu” slowly came to be celebrated as a symbol of virility among the male stars — “Karuppa kalaiya iruppom," sings Vijay in 'Verithanam' (Bigil, 2019), while Sivakarthikeyan sings, 'Karuthavanlaam Galeejaam' in Velaikkaran (2017) — things haven’t changed much for the women. “While it wasn’t easy for male actors either, the journey has been harder for women,” Sarjun says.
Director Halitha Shameem points out that undercurrents of colourism can still be found in the industry, even if it’s been eradicated for one gender. “For instance, around 15 years back, I heard a fair-skinned hero tell another person, “Elaarum Dhanush maari vandhira koodaadhu, avan nejamaave hero material ah irukanum.” The mindset was that there could be one Dhanush who said I can act and enter the industry, but not all heroes should be like that. Things slowly changed after actors like Vidharth, Vijay Sethupathi, Manikandan and others came into the picture.” Today, while women are expected to be fair-skinned, the men in the industry enjoy the luxury of being able to own their Dravidian colour. Culture and film journalist Kavitha Muralidharan says, “The complexion of brown-skinned actors is seen as a sign of macho masculinity today. Aanmai kaana niramaagavum karuppu paarka paduthu.”
From audience expectations to the kind of female roles that are written, a lot of factors contribute to why women have not been able to break the barriers of colourism like men, the most important of which is the image of a conventionally beautiful heroine. Film critic Sowmya Rajendran points out, “The demographic of people going to watch films is young and male. For them, it is satisfying to see men who look like them and represent them on screen. Whereas, they have to be aspirational when it comes to women. They want these representational men to get women who they feel are out of reach in real life.” Halitha, too, agrees. “Viewers want heroines to be extraordinary. They want them to be like angels who jumped from heaven.”
She further adds, “It was different in the 70s and 80s because Balu Mahendra sir celebrated women of different complexions.” There were several noted actresses like Saritha, Sujatha, and Sreevidya during that period. Even in the era that followed, we had successful brown actresses like Radikaa and Roja. “But today, actresses like Priyamani haven’t enjoyed a long run in Tamil. And among such actresses, Aishwarya Rajesh is wonderful and has accomplished so much. It’s only now that actresses like Rashmika Mandanna are shining. A few years back, we had only fair-skinned actresses whose complexions were often described as milky white.” Sarjun attributes the obsession with fair skin to Westernisation. “But I think we have crossed that phase now.”
Aishwarya Rajesh doesn’t believe that audiences look forward to watching actors of a particular skin tone. Instead, she believes their views are changed by the kind of actors they constantly see on screen. “When Sonia Agarwal wore the white salwar in 7G Rainbow Colony (2004), everyone was obsessed with that dress and started buying it. The same happened when Trisha’s yellow kurti in 96 went viral. So, it is what we show in the film that people get influenced by. When you look back, people really liked actresses like Vanisri and Roja. There were many brown-skinned heroines and they used to do glamour as well. But at some point, maybe 10 years back, films increasingly featured fair-skinned women, often from the North. So, what we feed is what we get back.”
While the intentions may be right in a few instances, films often fall prey to external pressures. In an interview with The News Minute, Pa Ranjith revealed that he wanted to cast a brown-skinned woman for Madras (2014) but was pressured by the producer to do otherwise. Halitha also faced a similar situation during Sillu Karupatti — her producer wasn’t very pleased with casting Nivedhithaa Sathish. “I want to cast brown-skinned people because they look like the people we see around us. In fact, for female actors, being dusky is an added advantage. Their face and skin will respond superbly to the light. But on the business side, such things always happen. People often have certain criteria for how a heroine should look. This used to be very bad 15 years ago. If Pa Ranjith couldn't convince a producer in his second film, you could imagine how it is for others. But on the bright side, he cast brown-skinned women in his later movies. Even Subbaraj roped in Lakshmi Menon for Jigarthanda (2014) and Nimisha Sajayan for DoubleX.”
At one point, everyone was obsessed with casting and seeing a North Indian heroine on the big screen, says Aishwarya, who faced rejections at the time. “Only a few directors like Manikandan, Seenu Ramasamy and Vetrimaaran sir wanted to rope in actors who could realistically represent characters.” She further adds that there is a mix of both fair and brown-skinned women living in a state like Tamil Nadu. “There are many girls who are fair-skinned even in the south. But there was pressure among the dusky-skinned women to catch up with their fairer counterparts to sustain themselves in the industry.” But we’ve overcome that phase and broken barriers, she asserts. “Hasn’t Roja’s ‘Karu Karu Karupaayi’ hit 6 or 7 million views after Leo? People still love her.”
There have also been instances of brownfacing, which is thought to chip away at the cause. But Sarjun, who directed Airaa, tells us that directors choose to do a few things to bring out the best on the screen. “We could argue that one should rope in brown-skinned actors to play brown-skinned characters on screen. That’s absolutely right. In fact, I tested people for the character (Bhavani, played by Nayanthara with a brown face in the film). But cinema is a form of art. For instance, Kamal Haasan plays a man of small stature in Apoorva Sagodharargal (1989). We could argue why he didn’t cast someone more appropriate for the role. When it comes to talent, I don’t think it’s wrong for people to do makeovers and perform, as long as they’re convincing on screen.”
Even if we’ve come a long way, subtle instances of colourism are everywhere, Halitha says, drawing attention to an early Ponniyin Selvan poster featuring Trisha surrounded by a group of brown-skinned girls. “I am a fan of Mani (Mani Ratnam) sir but it (the poster) was sad. These things can no longer be done because people today are raising their voice against such things.” The poster attracted backlash on Twitter at the time, but Sarjun, who was the post-production head of Ponniyin Selvan, clarifies that their intention wasn’t to discriminate. “In fact, only when people started pointing it out, we thought of such an aspect. Only then I realised we should think of such angles as well.”
Colourism has always reared its ugliest head in Tamil comedy tracks. The infamous “angavai, sangavai” comedy in Sivaji: The Boss (2007), the joke surrounding the unmarried sister in Nanban (2012) and most of Goundamani’s jokes, who himself is brown-skinned, have propagated the racist stereotypes against women in films. Sample this: In Magudam (1992), Senthil tricks Goundamani into marrying his dark sister. When Goundamani finds out his ruse, he says, “Intha karumatha naa kalyaanam panikanuma? Antha moonja paarunga aiya hotel la vadai sudara satti mathiriyae iruku.”
There have been a lot of songs where the woman is singing paeans of the man’s dark skin, Halitha says. Some of these include “Karupputhan enakku pidicha colouru” from Vetri Kodi Kattu (2000) and 'Karuppu Perazhaga' from Kanchana (2011) “But I can’t seem to remember any song where it’s the opposite.” In fact, women are found to be celebrated for their “fairness” in a few songs. “Adi vellaavi vechuthaan veluthaaingala,” goes a line from ‘Yaathe Yaathe’ in Aadukalam (2011). There are lines like “Aval appadi ondrum color illai, Aanal adhu oru kurai illai” from Angadi Theru (2010), which equate "colour" to "fairness", a colloquial term in Tamil. One of the few exceptions that come to mind is the song “Adi karuppu nerathazhagi” from Komban (2015), where a brown-skinned woman is praised.
In general, when people describe brown-skinned individuals, they say, “Karupa irundhaalum kalai ah iruka, dark but beautiful, etc.” Sowmya points out how even Rajinikanth had to face this. “A lot has been made about his colour. In 'Thillana Thillana' a song from Muthu (1995), for instance, there are lines that go like, “When there are so many white men, why did you accept me? (Sivappaana aangal ingae sila kodi undu. Karuppaana ennai kandu kan vaithadhenna?)”. So, it’s not like he was just accepted for his skin tone and we’re not going to comment about it. It was made like a thing: Though he is dark, he is a hero. That ‘Though’ itself is problematic.”
We all can collectively agree that there is a dearth of strong roles written for women that give them the scope to perform. Kavitha says, “In most films, heroines are only expected to dress up, appear in a few scenes, dance and go away. We don’t have a lot of roles written for women. It has changed a bit in the last ten years because of the new crop of directors like Ranjith. That wasn’t the case ten years back. It doesn’t do justice as no actress would want to just change four clothes and dance around the trees.”
Earlier, heroines did have many strong roles written for them. But most of those stories were also romantic comedies and family dramas. In the past decade or so, romcoms have become a rarity in mainstream Tamil cinema. Even in other commercial action entertainers, the love track is often sidelined. Sowmya says, “When it became about North Indian, Hindi-speaking women coming to Tamil Nadu, the role itself began to shrink because they didn’t know the local language. I think in Tamil cinema, the women’s role itself has become so decorative that they want someone who looks decorative. When they finally have a part where they need a good actor, they don’t have enough well-known women to do that role. In a multi-starrer like Ponniyin Selvan, if Mani Ratnam wanted to rope in a Tamil-speaking woman who also has a star value, who is there? I guess it has now become like a chicken and egg problem.”
We were all once stuck to the image of “white skin is beautiful” and we never questioned anything, Sarjun reminds. But that’s not the case today. The backlash to a brand like “Fair and Lovely” is proof. “Things are slowly changing and I think we need to give that space for it to change. When you and I don’t have to do an interview again in 10-15 years in time, it means the change has happened.” Halitha is hopeful, too. “If we were speaking a few years back, I would’ve been so frustrated, because we only had fair-skinned actresses back then. Now, a lot has changed. This gives us hope that things will get even better.”