Skin-whitening adverts ignite race row in India

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The Independent Online

The actors are beautiful, the sets are stylish and the message could not be clearer – the woman with the paler skin gets the man.

In recent weeks, Indians have been treated to an eye-catching television advert "mini-series" featuring three of Bollywood's hottest talents in a moody love-triangle. All in the name of skin-whitening cream.

The whitening market in India is worth millions of pounds, with men as well as women routinely buying bleaching lotions in an effort to "improve" their complexion. But the mini-series advert featuring Saif Ali Khan, Priyanka Chopra and Neha Dhupia has reopened a debate about India's obsession with pale skin and triggered an angry reaction from some who think the advert is discriminatory and outdated.

"It is strange. There is such a premium placed on pale skin," said Urvashi Butalia, a historian and director of Kali for Women, India's first feminist publishing house. "I am not sure where it comes from. It may have something to do with India's history of being colonised by various people and that there is a hangover of the idea that Aryan people are superior and Dravidian people – those who were already here – are inferior."

The new advert, being shown in mini-episodes, features Khan, with Dhupia as his girlfriend. But a chance encounter with an old sweetheart, played by Chopra, triggers the prospect of a possible revival of their relationship. For all the stolen glances and glossy production, there is nothing subtle about the advert; Dhupia's skin looks snow white while Chopra appears dusky.

The first instalment of the series of adverts

At the conclusion of the first episode, a lovelorn Chopra is seen gazing at an advert for a cream that promises to provide a "pinkish white glow" complexion. In case anyone did not get the point, the product is called White Beauty.

"Priyanka is said to be the epitome of dusky beauty and her dusky skin was said to be sexy, yet she became so cheap as to ridicule her own dark skin to make money," said one of the more printable comments on YouTube.

The cream is produced by Hindustan Unilever Ltd (HUL), the biggest consumer products company in India and a subsidiary of Unilever, based in London and Rotterdam. The company failed to respond to inquiries about the advert.

The desire for pale skin over dark is also highlighted by a new television drama, Bidaai. The show features two sisters, one adopted and dark-skinned and the other pale. There are no prizes for guessing which one is the first to snag a husband.

Not all women believe the promotion of paler skin is discriminatory or that the Unilever advert is patronising. "I don't think it's racist, I just think that everyone thinks they can look better," said Mallika Makhija, 18, a student. "People want to look good and there is this idea that a paler complexion is ideal."

Ms Makhija said she did not use a whitening cream but she estimated that 60 per cent of Indian women did.