Thoughts on colorism

Yesterday, in my Instagram story, I shared my feeling about the disturbing colorism of one of ‘Ponniyin Selvan’ first look posters. It shows the Chola princess Kundavai Pirattiyar played by Trisha, surrounded by a bunch of young girls who seem to be her small size ladies-in-waiting (female companions who are in the service of a royal person).

To be noted : even though the word ‘colorism’ doesn’t exist officially in many dictionaries, it was defined by Black author Alice Walker as « the prejudicial and preferential treatment of same-race people based solely on their color » in her essay, In Search of Our Mothers Gardens in 1983. It’s, in other words, a discrimination based on the skin tone in the same ethnic group.

As the other posters of the film, this one has a main purpose, to introduce a character by highlighting his/her specificity. Think about Adithya Karikalan (Vikram) or Arulmozhi Varman (Jayam Ravi) portrayed as warriors. In that sense, the choice made to portray Kundavai is to focus on the image of a beautiful, fair-skinned and confident princess. 

One could ask : why not, after all ?

Obviouly, this movie aims to be a faithful adaptation of Kalki’s ‘Ponniyin Selvan’, which itself is rooted in the history of the 10th and 11th centuries Chola dynasty. First, historically, it’s a known fact that Kundavai Pirattiyar was a bold woman who is believed to have been one of the shadow architects of Rajaraja Cholan’s power and empire. Secondly, Kalki’s novel is clearly about the joys and sorrows of the royal dynasty mainly and not the population over which they ruled. Thirdly, Kundavai is described for her beauty and her fair skin may be pointed out by Kalki as one of the traits of her beauty (I write « may » because I suppose so, I don’t remember all her descriptions in the novel). In short, if the director wanted to adapt the novel’s universe ‘as it is’, it’s not a surprising representation of Kundavai.

But it’s actually not (really) what is disturbing here. If Kundavai was portrayed alone, my colorism radar would not have turned on.

The problematic fact is the urge to portray the fair-skinned princess surrounded by dark-skinned girls. The problematic fact is that the chromatic and aesthetic composition of the poster is based on the obvious skin tone contrast between the princess whose light-skinned face appears in a halo of light and her little ladies who appear like a darker embroidery around her radiant presence. The problematic fact is that there has clearly been a work to enhance the poster’s tones which creates a striking difference between the fair Kundavai and the girls who are strangely so homogeneously dark-skinned.

Then, what is the purpose of this bunch of dark-skinned girls on a first look poster which doesn’t give any information on the plot, if not to highlight the fair-skinned princess’s beauty ? Does their presence have any other meaning than decorative ? 

Their skin color in this poster (and I guess, in the film) is not a random fact, it has been chosen by the film artistic team to create a certain representation of a female protagonist which itself is rooted in an obvious and quite long-standing colorism in Tamil popular culture, which itself is rooted in casteism and colonialism. Thus, this poster is not an exception in Tamil cinema. Think about all these song sequences where the light-skinned amidst a myriad of dark-skinned dancers. Think about this poster of the recent Jayam Ravi starrer ‘Bhoomi’. Etc. Etc.

In other words, skin color matters, in this poster, just as in Tamil cinema, and just as in Tamil society. The point here is not to tell that cinema has a social responsibility, nor that a simple movie poster could change centuries of misrepresentation. The point here is to understand that the aesthetic choices in the making of a film reflect certain representations and norms about beauty, power and hierarchy. Thus, behind aesthetics, there is politics.

Post scriptum / To be noted :

  • I grew up with Mani Ratnam cinema, I like most of his works and adore some of them, but I also think it’s necessary to have a critical distance especially with important filmmakers, and especially with important issues.
  • The point here is not to contradict the fact that Kundavai is portrayed as light-skinned in Kalki’s novel, and therefore, the film.
  • The point here is to analyze how this imagery is rooted on colorism which is not about each one’s skin tone but how the representation of different skin tones in popular culture is based on a hierarchy.
  • The point here is not evaluate if PS1 is faithful to Kalki’s oeuvre, to his description of characters or their physical attributes in the novel, it certainly sticks to the author vision very well but it’s not at all the subject of this post.
  • The point here is neither to suggest that the intention in this poster is to show the dark-skinned girls as monstrously ugly, they are also part of the aesthetics of the princess imagery.
  • BUT the point here is to question the purpose of their presence in this poster whose aim is to introduce the beauty of Kundavai. If the aim was narrative, therefore to suggest the relationship between Kundavai and her ladies, would these girls be shown so homogeneously dark-skinned ? If the aim was to show their beauty equally to the heroine’s, would we have this composition ? Here, the purpose of their presence is more aesthetic than narrative to enhance Kundavai’s beauty, by a colorist contrast.
  • Does their skin color matter so much ? Would it be different if these girls were light-skinned ? Yes and yes. Knowing the structural hierarchy between skin tones in Tamil society, and consequently in Tamil cinema. Yes, absolutely, their skin tones matters.
  • Is it impossible to show dark-skinned girls ? Not at all, colorism is about systematicity. If we were used to see dark-skinned girls alternatively as heroines and in the background, then, nothing would be problematic. But aren’t they almost systematically in the background ?