The Indian actor Priyanka Chopra Jonas has spoken of how Bollywood’s enduring obsession with fair skin was one of the reasons she left the industry to try her luck in Hollywood eight years ago.
Chopra, 40, is a former Miss World and was at the pinnacle of her fame in India when she abruptly announced the move to the US.
She had previously declined to explain her reasons for leaving, but recently spoke to Dax Shepard on the podcast Armchair Expert about how she was tired of the politics and of certain cliques who had to be “grovelled” to.
She told how actors such as her who were classified as “dusky” were treated. “I was lightened up in many movies. Through makeup and then blasting lighting. There was a song which I still remember. It was called Chitti Dudh Kudi which means a girl who is as white as milk and I ain’t that but I was playing her and I was really lightened up in the movie,” she said.
She said fair-skinned female actors stood a better chance of being chosen and of doing well while even a star such as her faced discrimination. “If you were darker – I’m not even that dark – for darker girls it was: ‘Let’s lighten you up.’
Chopra, who is married to the American singer and actor Nick Jonas, expressed regret over having appeared in an ad for a fairness cream early in her career. In the ad she played a dark-skinned flower seller who has a crush on a young man who ignores her. The moment she applies the fairness – or skin-lightening – cream, he shows an interest in her.
Chopra said she now felt such ads were damaging to the self-esteem of Indians with dark skin and that she had agreed to it because big beauty brands provided visibility and income for female stars. “A beauty brand is a really big part of an actress’s trajectory,” she said.
For Indian actors, moving to Hollywood is fraught with risks, but Chopra has enjoyed success, appearing in several US TV series such as Quantico and starring in the film The White Tiger.
She has continued to maintain a huge fan following in India and her comments have received wide coverage. They are not, however, likely to change much, either in the industry or in wider society where light skin continues to be seen as more desirable.
A 2019 World Health Organization report revealed that skin-lightening products accounted for more than half of India’s skincare market. A year later, the Black Lives Matter movement triggered a global social media backlash against beauty brands that devalued dark skin. It prompted Johnson & Johnson to announce it was going to stop selling its Neutrogena Fine Fairness and Clean & Clear Fairness creams.
Unilever opted for rebranding, deleting words such as fair and white but retaining the same product; its Fair & Lovely cream is now Glow & Lovely. Others have chosen to use the word “bright”, while hoping to convey the same message.
Social commentators have dismissed such changes and said they would not change Indians’ reality because the companies were responding to emotions triggered in the west by the Black Lives Matter movement rather than any change of heart originating in India.