Kollywood and the Old Saying 'Maida Over Melanin'


I’m a young Tamil woman of lighter complexion. As a consequence, I’m repeatedly reminded that I have beautiful skin. Every time I heard this line I'd think to myself, 'No I don't. What are you on about?' unaware I was being 'complimented' on my complexion. Walking into stores in South India I was faced with sales assistants constantly telling me that any shade would suit me. They’d then walk over to my sister, who is darker skinned and much younger. They’d advise that certain colours would clash with her complexion. I didn't realise backhanded compliments were part of the job description. But then again are they to blame?

Lighter skin is glamorised across every Indian media outlet.

I’m still treated differently to my Tamil sisters. I’m often reminded by random aunties that I'm lucky to have been born fair skinned, as I'll have no issues when getting married. I'm only referring to women because Tamil girls are made to feel ashamed of their skin tone, more so than boys. As the old saying goes maida (wheat flour) is considered more beautiful than melanin. But never have I thought of my skin-tone as a shortcut to anything in life.

Kollywood (otherwise known as the Tamil Film Industry) is male dominated. This is slowly but surely changing. The increase in strong female roles in the last few years shows that actresses are being given equal if not more importance on screen. During the 70s and 80s, heroines were seen in substantial roles - roles the audience could relate to, where both actors and actresses, regardless of screen time, made an impact that is still praised to this day. However, over the years there has also been an increase in 'mass films' (a term often used to describe the typical commercial format of most Indian movies).

But there are so many unanswered questions. Why has it taken so long to re-introduce female oriented roles? Is it due to a lack of female directors? Why do some directors prioritise appearance and popularity over talent? Are actresses only offered stereotypical roles by their directors in fear of overshadowing their male co-stars?

Male actors are praised for their darker complexion whereas actresses with a lighter hue are worshipped.

Kollywood has a tendency to celebrate its actors for their macho physique but very rarely about the performances of heroines. I can probably count the number of Tamil actresses reigning the industry on one hand.

Aishwarya Rajessh, a Chennai born actress has said that what knocked her confidence initially was when she was warned by a well-known director that she would never be chosen to play the female lead over the heroine's friend. The notion that darker skinned actresses should only be seen in supporting roles is repulsive. Aishwarya, who rose to fame after winning a dance show, has worked incredibly hard to attain the position she currently holds. I'm hoping this will inspire aspiring young actresses to feel more confident about venturing into the industry.  People advised her not to accept the role of playing a mother of two young boys in the award-winning film, Kaaka Muttai for which she was later awarded a state award.

The lack of Tamil actresses within the industry is still an ongoing issue. Amy Jackson (Miss Liverpool) debuted in Madrasapattinam, portraying the role of a British girl during the colonial era. She was soon offered parts alongside some of the leading actors of the industry. Her next Tamil movie, 2.0, will see her perform with legendary actor Rajinikanth, the Superstar of India. It’s problematic when Tamil actresses are overlooked even when the character calls for an Indian girl to be cast. Individuals are socially aware and not afraid to express their opinions on social media, so the demand for relatable storylines and characters is high. This can ultimately decide the success of a movie at the box office. 

If more directors prioritised performance over appearance there would be more opportunities for Tamil actresses to receive the recognition they rightfully deserve. The mundane phase of actresses simply being chosen to fill the space of a love interest is gradually fading and directors are finally realising this and working towards meeting the standards of a long suffering audience.