COLOUR OF PREJUDICE

When a TV roast became bullying about my skin tone: Tannishtha Chatterjee on battling colour bias

During ‘Comedy Nights Bachao Taaza’ on Colors, the actress was mocked for her skin tone and asked whether she had eaten dark jamuns.

Colour bias has followed the talented actress Tannishtha Chatterjee just as surely as fame. The star of Parched has had to repeatedly swat away questions on her skin tone in interviews and promotional events. But the September 25 episode of Comedy Nights Bachao Taaza on the Colors channel went too far. Chatterjee accompanied actress Radhika Apte and director Leena Yadav to the shoot of the show, which is trying out a Saturday Night Live-inspired format with multiple comedians and segments. Chatterjee, Apte and Yadav were supposed to be part of a roast, but as Chatterjee pointed out in a Facebook post, which has been reproduced verbatim with her permission, “I soon realised that the only quality they found worth roasting about in me was my skin tone.”

Something has shocked me out of my wits yesterday. I was invited as a guest to a popular comedy show called Comedy Night Bachao to promote my latest release Parched with my director Leena Yadav and my co-actor Radhika Apte. I was told that the flavor of the show is COMEDY and the purpose is to roast, humor, and offend. My perception of roast was formed by all the SNLs I watched over the years, and the commonly held perception that a roast is a celebratory humour at someone’s expense. It is a mock counter to a toast.

I was actually looking forward to be roasted.

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‘Parched’.

And then this show began. And this was an entirely novel understanding of roast that equates itself with bullying. And to my utmost horror, I soon realized that the only quality they found worth roasting about in me was my skin tone. It began with “Aap ko jamun bahut pasand hoga zaroor… kitna jamun khaya aapne bachpan se?” And went on in that direction… the only thing they could roast about a dark-skinned actress was of course her dark skin. They could identify me only with that. I could not believe I was sitting in a nationally televised comedy show in 2016 in Mumbai amid such regressive (I can’t call it humor), and blatantly racist content.

Though I was feeling suffocated, I decided to give it another chance, and sat through another equally offensive segment. Nothing changed. I could not sit there anymore. I had to leave. When I told the organisers what I felt, they said , “But we told you it is a roast!” I explained to them the common perception of roast and how it is different from bully. That there is no humor value in a joke about some ones physical attributes especially one that stems from deep prejudices. I don’t think they got it. Some friends also told me don’t take it so seriously, it’s just a comedy. I think that’s what the show also thinks. It’s all fun and games! Except there is nothing funny about this.

Tannishtha Chatterjee in the ‘Dark is Beautiful’ campaign.
Tannishtha Chatterjee in the ‘Dark is Beautiful’ campaign.

Precisely because in a country where we still sell Fair and Lovely/Handsome and show adverts, where people don’t get jobs because of their complexion, where every matrimonial advert demands a fair bride or groom and the colour bias is so strong, in a society which has a deep-seated problem with dark skin, which also has deep roots in our caste system , in a country where dark skin is marginalised, making fun of it is not roast. Even considering that dark skin is a joke comes from that very deep prejudice. And I tried to explain why this is not personal and it is a larger issue about what our mindset is. And why cracking jokes about deep biases in our society is irresponsible. And that it is not a question about apologising to me, but propagating this idea and continuing with this mindset in the name of comedy is what is hugely problematic, specially because it is a popular show on a national chanel. It has nothing to do with the show at a personal level.

But it leads to a larger debate. Why does skin tone still lend itself to jokes? How is it funny to call someone dark? I don’t get it.. In a India of 2016 I still have to be apologetic about my skin tone? What is this white-skin hangover? Where does all our pride as a nation go away when it comes to the acceptance that most of us have a darker skin tone? Once I was asked “ Your surname is Chatterjee? Oh you are Brahmin...What is your mothers surname? Maitra! Oh…. She is Brahmin too…” And then indirectly he hinted how is my skin tone still dark…?

This is so deep rooted and linked to our perceptions of caste, class and skin tone. Upper caste = Fair skin =touchable. Lower caste=dark skin=untouchable. Yes I have pronounced it. Probably most of us will not admit to our hatred for the dark skin also comes from our caste bias. I made a film called Parched. Why I am saying “I made” is because all of us who are a part of this film feel that this was not just a film for us. That its MY FILM. We wanted to express a lot of things about gender, body, skin , sexuality , caste etc through our stories. It has been a revelation that the journey just begins here as we realise through our promotional process that we are constantly subjected to exactly those issues from which this film was engendered. The list is long long and the biases are deep deep….The privilege that allows these are what we had hoped to challenge.

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Changing the conversation around mental health in rural India

Insights that emerged from discussions around mental health at a village this World Mental Health Day.

Questioning is the art of learning. For an illness as debilitating as depression, asking the right questions is an important step in social acceptance and understanding. How do I open-up about my depression to my parents? Can meditation be counted as a treatment for depression? Should heartbreak be considered as a trigger for deep depression? These were some of the questions addressed by a panel consisting of the trustees and the founder of The Live Love Lough Foundation (TLLLF), a platform that seeks to champion the cause of mental health. The panel discussion was a part of an event organised by TLLLF to commemorate World Mental Health Day.

According to a National Mental Health Survey of India 2015-16, conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), common mental disorders including depression, anxiety disorders and substance use disorders affect nearly 10% of the population, with 1 in 20 people in India suffering from depression. The survey reported a huge treatment gap, a problem that is spread far and wide across urban and rural parts of the country.

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During the visit, the TLLLF team met patients and their families to gain insights into the program’s effectiveness and impact. Basavaraja, a beneficiary of the program, spoke about the issues he faced because of his illness. He shared how people used to call him mad and would threaten to beat him up. Other patients expressed their difficulty in getting access to medical aid for which they had to travel to the next biggest city, Shivmoga which is about 2 hours away from Davangere. A marked difference from when TLLLF joined the project two years ago was the level of openness and awareness present amongst the villagers. Individuals and families were more expressive about their issues and challenges leading to a more evolved and helpful conversation.

The process of de-stigmatizing mental illnesses in a community and providing treatment to those who are suffering requires a strong nexus of partners to make progress in a holistic manner. Initially, getting different stakeholders together was difficult because of the lack of awareness and resources in the field of mental healthcare. But the project found its footing once it established a network of support from NIMHANS doctors who treated the patients at health camps, Primary Healthcare Centre doctors and the ASHA workers. On their visit, the TLLLF team along with APD and the project partners discussed the impact that was made by the program. Were beneficiaries able to access the free psychiatric drugs? Did the program help in reducing the distance patients had to travel to get treatment? During these discussions, the TLLLF team observed that even amongst the partners, there was an increased sense of support and responsiveness towards mental health aid.

The next leg of the visit took the TLLLF team to the village of Bilichodu where they met a support group that included 15 patients and caregivers. Ujjala Padukone, Deepika Padukone’s mother, being a caregiver herself, was also present in the discussion to share her experiences with the group and encouraged others to share their stories and concerns about their family members. While the discussion revolved around the importance of opening up and seeking help, the team brought about a forward-looking attitude within the group by discussing future possibilities in employment and livelihood options available for the patients.

As the TLLLF team honoured World Mental Health day, 2017 by visiting families, engaging with support groups and reviewing the successes and the challenges in rural mental healthcare, they noticed how the conversation, that was once difficult to start, now had characteristics of support, openness and a positive outlook towards the future. To continue this momentum, the organisation charted out the next steps that will further enrich the dialogue surrounding mental health, in both urban and rural areas. The steps include increasing research on mental health, enhancing the role of social media to drive awareness and decrease stigma and expanding their current programs. To know more, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of The Live Love Laugh Foundation and not by the Scroll editorial team.