"Goris in the Story," or White Women and Whitening Actresses in Bollywood

Could we highlight Katrina Kaif's lightness a bit more?
You've got to hand it to the man- making a professional academic career out of writing about Bollywood?  I think he's got at least one thing sorted out.  Manisha and I trekked to the Center for South Asian studies yesterday to catch Ajay Gehlawat talk about "goris in the story," or the complicated nature of whiteness in Bollywood (more appropriately known as "Hindi cinema.")  We went on a whirlwind tour of Bollywood from the 30's to the present, moving from white women included only as vamps in films to Indian heroines increasingly taking on the "external and internal" markers of whiteness, making white actresses increasingly, well, Kylie Minogue in Chiggy Wiggy.  And I was properly introduced, for the first time, to Helen.  (Whom I'd seen before and thought was suspiciously white, and well, she is.  And Burmese.)

Oh yes, that's Denise Richards in Bollywood
According to Gehlawat it's only in the 90's that we first start to see a shift in the sexual politics of race in Bollywood.  Somehow I find it a bit hard to believe there there wasn't much shift between the 70's and the 90's in Bollywood, but honestly, I haven't made as detailed a study of it as he has.  Regardless, in the 90's Bollywood Indian male desire for white women was no longer sublimated to item number girls seen as "bad women," but white women become almost legitimate objects of desire.  Gehlawat ties this shift to globalization and the increasing desire for that which is non-Indian.  Which unfortunately leads us to the dubious introduction of Denise Richards into Bollywood.  In Kambakkht Ishk she almost, incredibly, marries Akshay Kumar.  Who would have guessed? 

The third part of our triumvirate, green eyes and all
But guess who blows Denise Richards out of the water and wins Akshay's heart for her own?  No less than  Kareena Kapoor, one of our current triumvirate of light-skinned heroines (including Ash and Katrina).   Kareena, along with other top actresses in Bollywood, is increasingly adopting markers of whiteness in her movies.  Western clothing, traveling and living alone, working, drinking and smoking, consuming western material culture... those are the external markers of whiteness.  And those internal markers?  Independence, assertiveness, and acknowledgement of personal desire... which means white actresses are becoming simple foils (aka Denise) for our increasingly "gorized" Indian heroines.  In "Chhaliya Chhaliya" Gehlawat notes that Kapoor has fully adopted Richards' whiteness, bikini, black backup dancers making her look whiter, and all.

So is this bad, necessarily?  Liberated Bollywood actresses shown as intelligent, independent shapers of their own lives (along the lines of western feminism, at least)?  White women relegated to the sidelines, which is where they should be in a country of a billion people the vast majority of whom are not white?  But the problem is that in the adaptation of whiteness and white culture, ideas of blackness (or even brownness) haven't really been explored.  And then I was shocked and dismayed to see SRK in skin whitening ads.  Something has gone obviously very wrong.

Ah, be still my cringing heart.  Clearly if Indian women can be desirably white, Indian men can and should be whitened as well, literally and figuratively.  I'm not sure if it's a sign of progress that this is being shared across genders.  But the real question, as Manisha says, is "Where are the goras?"  And where are the goras?  We could come up a slim number of examples, most from Hollywood-Bollywood hybrids.  Indian men can legitimately desire white women, but Indian women aren't often portrayed as liking, let alone pairing, with white men.  The legacy of the British rule still looms large, apparently.  Indian heroines can look white and act white, but they can't pair white.  Have Bollywood actresses been liberated, or are they simply caught in pandering to Indian men's desire for white women?  And, in all of this dizzying whitening, exactly what's happened with the conception of brownness and blackness?  Not much, apparently.