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Last Updated: Tuesday, 25 September 2007, 10:37 GMT 11:37 UK
Beyond the pale?
Shahrukh Khan and actor in advertisement
The skin-lightening industry is worth at least 100m in India

By Naresh Puri
BBC News

One of Bollywood's biggest film stars is being criticised by Asian campaigners for promoting a skin-lightening cream - a product that is now on the shelves of British shops.

The 40-second advertisement from India starts like so many others promoting razors or hair dye - but it's an ad with a very big difference.

There's a man who has no luck with the girls. He has markedly darker skin than his friends and the girl he is after. In a real song-and-dance Bollywood extravaganza, one of the biggest heart throbs of Indian cinema, Shahrukh Khan, hands over a cream to the hapless chap, along with some mild admonishment.
Shahrukh Khan in advertisement

Within a few weeks, the young man has turned much lighter-skinned and confident. As he strides down the road like a modern-day answer to John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, the girls start flocking to him and chanting: "Hi handsome, hi handsome." Khan comes back into view with the product, Fair and Handsome.

The skin-lightening cream for men, along with its more feminine counterparts, has found its way into Asian supermarkets and stores in the UK.

While Khan's advert has not been shown yet in the UK, it too has made its way to British consumers via YouTube. And the product's success or failure in the British market place may say something about the nature of beauty and the politics of race.

Kiran Kaur - a Sikh human rights activist in west London, one of the epicentres of Asian cultural life in the UK - says the arrival of Fair and Handsome, with a Bollywood name in tow, is a step back in time.

'Age-old prejudices'

"The ad simply reinforces the idea that you've got to be fair to be anything in life," says Kiran. "It says that if you're fair and good looking, you'll be a wonderful daughter-in-law or husband, your skin colour determines how successful you'll be in life. The ad reinforces age-old prejudices."

The skin-lightening industry is worth at least 100m in India and the Fair-and-Handsome-for-Men range is the latest product from one of the market's big players.

Man having face lightening cream applied

Manufacturers say they are responding to a demand, but in recent years protests in India have seen at least one advert taken off air. Other lightening products targeted at black women have been on sale for years, some of them containing chemicals banned for years from British goods.

Actress Rani Moorthy knows first hand about the prejudice suffered by Asians with darker skin. She is currently touring the UK with her play that focuses on skin colour, Shades of Brown.

"When I was a child my grandmother took me to one side and said make sure you're good at something, no man will ever marry you for your looks," she says.

"I knew this was because I was dark skinned. It was treated as a disease and every Friday I had to have oil baths in an attempt to lighten my skin".

'A huge star'

She feels a major Bollywood star backing a skin-lightening cream will intensify the prejudice that already exists within the South Asian community, in which the darker skinned can find themselves looked down upon - just as it still happens in parts of India today.

"Deep within this 5,000-year-old culture is the thought that high ideals, nobility and high caste are associated with fair skin," she says. "Dark skin is regarded as low status and low caste."

Skin lightening products

But what chance do voices like Rani's stand against the screen presence of Shahrukh Khan? Perhaps the best measure of Khan's influence on British Asians is to look at the success of his films.

Dil Se, released in 1998, was the first Bollywood movie to make it into the British box office Top 10.

The film's key clips, including an exhilarating dance upon a moving train, have totted up more than one million hits on YouTube. Khan, a big enough brand to be known just as SRK, is the equivalent of Tom Cruise - and then some.

His Fair-and-Handsome advert won't be missed by British Asians as they follow every Bollywood move, says Sunny Hundal, the editor of Asians in Media, a website that charts the rise of British Asian culture.


"Shahrukh Khan is a huge star in India and his endorsement will no doubt raise the profile of this product," he says. "Impressionable young men will get the idea that if they want to be attractive like him, they should also use it."

"The cult of media personality, especially cricket or Bollywood stars, is a much bigger phenomena in India and so brands are much more partial to celebrity endorsements.

Shahrukh Khan
Khan is Bollywood's 'Tom Cruise'
"But what SRK is essentially doing is confirming and promoting the condescending attitude that many Indians have towards dark-coloured skin. His endorsement is completely immoral."

Neither the manufacturers nor a spokesman for Khan would comment on his involvement in the campaign.

But Manish Shah, a distributor for Fair and Handsome says skin lightening creams are very important because "everybody wants to look really good".

"They're not bad for the skin," he says. "If people have an inferiority complex because of their skin colour, then this product will really help. It does what it says. It makes you fair and handsome. There's a lot of interest in this product and quite simply it makes people look really good."

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