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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