Netflix Canada needs to pull plug on racist Bollywood films: Paradkar
Netflix shouldn’t wait for a PR disaster to try to change how we consume entertainment. It can start by not streaming bigoted Bollywood movies.
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Documentaries such as 13th, movies such as Beasts of No Nation, TV shows such as Narcos — Netflix is host to some mind-expanding infotainment, with shows that are centred on the voices of those whose stories are being told, their locales, their perspectives, their narratives.
Netflix is perceived as edgy, it appears to get “doing the right thing”; it dumped House of Cardsfaster than you could say, “Claire for president!” after allegations emerged about creepy Kevin’s sexual misconduct with young actors.
Plus, it didn’t back down from airing Dear White People, despite the outrage of those who deemed it racist for not centering on the feelings of white people.
So far, so good.
Why, then, why does it beam bigoted Bollywood movies into our homes?
Bollywood is not to be confused with Indian cinema — there are marvelous independent films in various languages. Bollywood refers to Hindi films by big studios, with big stars, big bucks, formulaic rom/com song-and-dance.
This genre of cinema also peddles sexist ideas, homophobia, colourism/shadeism and increasingly racism, specifically, anti-Black racism — all delivered as light-hearted fun. Never mind that it has an outsized influence on personal and social decisions such as whom to marry, whom to hire, whom to value, whom to discard.
I was looking for a break recently from bigotry, racism and sexism, the stressful discourse of which informs my work life.
Hoping to relax in the comfort of mind-numbing escapism, I perused Neflix’s “Recently Added” list and clicked on Ready, a 2011 film starring Salman Khan, the bad old boy of Bollywood still playing single young boy roles.
About five minutes in, a song-and-dance sequence called Character Dheela (“loose character”) begins. A light-skinned Indian actress dressed dominatrix style gets body surfed by suited men wearing top hats. A fully clothed Khan gets fawned over by scantily clad white girls.
This is a thing, by the way: white girls as extras in Bollywood films. Here they are, sultry dancers jerking to Indian beats, there they are, milling around in the background of a party scene, placed there just to up the glamour factor.
Fast forward about 15 minutes and the female lead, Asin, makes her first dramatic appearance. She is gorgeous (did I mention light-skinned?), dressed in bridal finery, and she’s running, scared, looking over her shoulder as she is chased by a group of men all cast in a greyish-blue light that made their dreadlocked silhouettes decidedly sinister.
I scan Netflix’s other options and choose Humko Deewana Kar Gaye (“You’ve left me lovestruck”), a 2006 film.
In the first 10 minutes, you see the requisite white party guest smiling vacantly at the Hindi dialogue around her, a dark-skinned supporting female lead — oops, the appropriate term is “dusky,” and a tired old homophobic joke, an innocent encounter that looks like two men making out followed by a stuttering, “It’s not what it looks like,” and the denial, “I’m not, I’m not…”
Then the protagonist, Akshay Kumar, lands in Canada in a big city full of white people. A random white girl shows up in a make-out scene in an elevator. In the course of a contrived love life, there is an old New York-style mugging scene. The muggers? You guessed it. Two Black men and a Black woman, who don’t sound Canadian. Immigrants then. Must be those immigrants.
At this point, my Netflix journey into Bollywood was starting to feel like work. So I started Googling newer films — surely in a digital world, anti-racism conversations travel globally? If they do, movie reviews of newer films reassure me they have bounced off Bollywood.
The sexualized white girl and the Black thug trope represent the toxic result of the subcontinent’s deep-seated colourism transcending racial boundaries. The fetish for light skin transported to a stereotype of loose white girl allows the Indian female to be sexy but not slutty. Using Black men to portray thugs versus the usual practice of employing villains who are dark skinned and even named Kaaliya at times (a play on “Blackie,”) deepens the revulsion for dark skin.
Urban India is in an adolescent phase of a sexual revolution, experimenting with different values to see what fits best. Certainly, its long repressed sexual attitudes can be traced to British colonialism, but the obsession with light skin well predates modern European colonialism.
A few years ago, I wrote a piece pairing visiting Bollywood celebrities with their equivalent Hollywood counterparts. It’s no coincidence that I could not pair any one to a Halle Berry or a Jada Pinkett Smith or even Mindy Kaling. That no actress in Bollywood looks like Mindy Kaling says a lot, and it’s not pleasant.
There is no escape — even in so-called escapist cinema.
Bollywood and its stars will have to weigh their role and responsibilities in promoting these oppressive ideologies for personal gain, whether in film or in ads for skin-lightening creams. Its audiences cover a wide geographical area from the Indian subcontinent to south-east Asia to the Middle East and east Africa.
It impacts us, too; there are a sizeable number of Bollywood-watchers in the country lapping up this brand of entertainment with little outrage.
If Netflix wants to sustainably change how we consume entertainment, it has to be serious about doing it in socially non-damaging ways — and not wait for a PR disaster to force it into doing so.
For starters, it needs to pull the plug on racist Bollywood films.