Brownfaced: Ariana Grande’s Vogue cover and Hrithik Roshan’s Super 30

Earlier this month we saw the release of Hrithik Roshan’s Super 30 and Ariana Grande’s Vogue cover shot by famous photographer Annie Leibovitz. These two pieces of pop culture produced in two different continents had one thing in common: the glaring use of the brown face.

Source: Reliance Entertainment

The only reason why Hrithik Roshan, who emulates a Greek God more than anyone else, was chosen to play Anand Kumar was because of his star power. The fact that immensely talented Pankaj Tripathi, who has a major resemblance to Anand Kumar and could speak better Bihari than Roshan’s cringe-worthy accent, played the role of an antagonist in the film is painful.  The fact that Roshan’s face could be painted brown and he was capable of uttering ka instead of kya was enough for him to play a Bihari character.

The way most of the mainstream Indian films show dark-skinned people is cartoonish (don’t they have the budget for Jimmy CoCo Spray Tan?). It is as if there is a dearth of dark-skinned actors that they have to artificially tan people. Dark-skinned models and actors suffer because they do not get enough roles, and then comes a story that centers around dark skin and voila the filmmakers cast light-skinned people and let the shoe polish do the acting.

Can a brown person be guilty of blackface? Well, I don’t know about the technicalities but we don’t need an example or explanation to know how India is obsessed with fair skin. Even within the brown people, colorism is rampant. In India, the problem of colorism has deep roots in the caste system. There is a notion that Savarnas are fair-skinned and Dalit-Bahujan-Adivasi people are dark-skinned.

In the film Bajrangi Bhaijan, actor Salman Khan’s character looks at Munni and assumes her caste. The dialogues in the film go like: “Kaise pata Brahman ki bachchi hai?’ ‘Itni gori jo hai, Brahman hi hogi”.  

Poster of Doosri Sita(1984)

There is also a pattern that can be seen with faux tanning an actor, in Doosri Sita (1974) Jaya Bachhan has brown makeup, in Udta Punjab (2016) Aalia Bhatt has faux tanning, and similarly, in Pyaas (1983) Zeenat Aman appears darker than she is. In none of the films, the storyline required the actors to be dark, but yet the actors were made to look otherwise. One thing was common in all these roles: they were based on economically and socially marginalized characters. Jaya Bachhan was prisoner, Alia Bhatt was a migrant laborer, and Zeenat Aman was a sweeper. And this is where the problem of colourism lies: poor, unfortunate, or undesirable people are represented with dark skin.

On the other side of the world, the hype and debate on blackface and brownface is more active than it is in our ‘Hindi Film Industry’.

This debate was revoked again when Vogue launched its latest cover that featured Ariana Grande. In the cover picture, Ariana looks like a brown girl. This is not the first time she has appeared darker than her natural colour.

Ariana Grande, Source: Tumblr

Ariana Grande has over time claimed to be racially ambiguous which is seen by her supporters as an entry pass to look like a WOC or black without facing any racial discrimination that comes with it. The thing is she can pass a white person just like singer Halsey. And since she can pass as white she also reaps all benefits of whiteness. Hence, it doesn’t matter if you are 1/5th Berber or 1/4th black if you are seen as a white person by the majority.

Source: Tumblr

Earlier when Grande released her immensely popular song titled 7 rings, Princess Nokia accused Grande of plagiarism. In a now-deleted tweet, she had said, “Ain’t that the Lil song I made about brown women and their hair? Hmmm… sounds about white.” Grande has also been accused of using African-American Vernacular English. Writer Emerald Pellot closes an article on Ariana Grande’s brown face with the lines,

“Most of us don’t get to pick and choose which parts of blackness we get to have — only white folks seem to have that luxury.”

Recently, writer Wanna Thompson made a Twitter thread that asked people to expose social media influencers who were faking their ethnic appearance. Her thread made some major discoveries.

In a statement given to Teen Vogue, Wanna Thompson said,  “I feel like white girls benefit from stealing looks and styles from black women all the time. I just noticed that they like to dip their foot into the pond without fully getting themselves wet and it’s like just enough to hang on to some sort of racial ambiguity without fully dealing with the consequences of blackness. Instagram is like a breeding ground for white women who can cosplay blackness while receiving attention from the very people who kind of hate black women.”

Kylie Jenner, Source: Heat Magazine

For the longest time white influencers, like Kardashians,  have stolen the aesthetic of black and Latinx community. With their deep tans, fuller lips, and cornrow hair Kylie Jenner has built an empire.  The problematic part about the Kardashians undergoing surgery or putting acrylic nails is when white girls adopt Latinx, African, or brown aesthetics they are choosing the beauty that comes with it and not the oppression. When white girls line their lips, fill their eyebrows like Chola girls they become fashionable but when Chola girls assert their cultural identity they become ghettoish. While people like Kardashians and Grande make money of this aesthetic, coloured people face consequences for the same.

I have no clue why white people think they look good with a tan. As some who is very insecure about her neck being darker than her face and does not feel comfortable in sleeveless clothes because of her dark armpits, I crave the even whiteness of Caucasians.  I do not have a scale or Brown Paper Bag Test to say what constitutes tanning and what constitutes blackfishing (or brown fishing), but when I see artists like Grande I feel a knot in my stomach and can’t help but roll my eyes at her.  It is also not necessary that other people of colour will feel this discomfort.

After all, Patti LaBelle called Ariana a “little white black girl”. Perhaps at the crux of this discomfit is the realization that some cultures and aesthetics can only find appreciation when they are associated with whiteness or eliteness.

Sometimes I also wonder if black and brown girls will find more acceptance after popular stars start looking like them. One example of this can be: when handicrafts are exhibited in exorbitant shops, they are deemed desirable but when they are sold by roadside vendors who probably made them then they seen less valuable. Similarly, when Kate Moss has uncombed hair, it becomes “heroin chic” but otherwise the same look will be deemed unkept. This observation can be too simplistic but as of now, it makes sense.

Niharika Dabral
Niharika Dabral

Niharika Dabral is an aspiring journalist.

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