Bollywood, Skin Color and Sexism: The Role of the Film Industry in Emboldening and Contesting Stereotypes in India after Independence

By: Sudev Sheth, Geoffrey Jones, and Morgan Spencer

This working paper examines the social impact of the film industry in India during the first four decades after Indian Independence in 1947. Its shows that Bollywood, the mainstream cinema in India and the counterpart in scale to Hollywood in the United States, shared Hollywood’s privileging of paler skin over darker skin, and preference for presenting women in stereotypical ways lacking agency. Bollywood reflected views on skin color and gender long prevalent in Indian society, but this working paper shows that serendipitous developments helped shape what happened on screen. The dominance of Punjabi directors and actors, organized as multi-generational families, facilitated lighter skin tones becoming a prominent characteristic of stars. By constraining access to legal finance, pursuing selective censorship, and by denying Bollywood cinema the kind of financial and infrastructural support seen in other developing countries, the Indian government also incentivized directors and producers to adopt simplified story lines that appealed to predominately rural audiences, rather than contesting widely accepted views. Employing new evidence from oral histories of producers and actors, the paper suggests that cinema not only reflected, but emboldened societal attitudes regarding gender and skin color. The impact of such content was especially high as rural and often illiterate audiences lacked alternative sources of entertainment and information. It was left to parallel, and to some extent regional, cinemas in India to contest skin color and gender stereotypes entrenched in mainstream media. The cases of parallel cinema and Tamil cinema are examined, but their audiences were either constrained or – as in the case of Tamil cinema – subject to the isomorphic influence of Bollywood, which grew after policy liberalization in 1991.

Citation Sheth, Sudev, G. Jones, and Morgan Spencer. “Bollywood, Skin Color and Sexism: The Role of the Film Industry in Emboldening and Contesting Stereotypes in India after Independence.” Harvard Business School Working Paper, No. 21-077, January 2021.

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