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Brown Face: Hollywood playing Desi

February 14, 2010

A small bit of unfortunate news that I received a few days ago has led me to an interesting  perspective of Des: through the eyes of Hollywood.

The news was that the actress Jean Simmons died in her Hollywood home on the 23 January this year. And what is the desi connection? Jean Simmons is one among a list of illustrious Hollywood actors who have portrayed Desi characters. Ms. Simmons acted as a Nepali girl called Kanchi in the 1947 film Black Narcissus.

The film itself isn’t very exciting. A group of nuns, headed by Deborah Kerr, comes to set up a convent and school in a Himalayan Kingdom. The local king offers them the building where his ancestors had their Harem: thus setting up a nice stage for the nuns to play out their own psychological and sexual repressions. The art direction and costumes in the film are exceptionally authentic, though. Jean Simmons’ role is a small one, and she has next to no dialogue. This may be a very good reason why she manages to be convincing.

I wish that were true of others in the category. Alec Guinness, as a Hindu Professor in A Passage to India (1984), is positively offensive in some scenes, with his head shaking and exaggerated accent. And then there is Bhowani Junction (1956). The film is crammed with non-Indian actors playing Indian characters. Other than Ava Gardner, who manages to be acceptable as an Anglo-Indian, the rest of the cast is hopelessly stereotyped. I had never until now realized that there also existed BrownFace: our very own Desi version of BlackFace.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 20, 2010 5:45 pm

    what’s BrownFace??

    • Avinash permalink*
      February 22, 2010 7:36 am

      Brown face is my own word, a desi version of Black face or Yellow face. Black face is when white actors would wear make up to act black on screen: and these portrayals, more often than not were stereotyped and offensive. Yellow face is the same phenomenon for Chinese and other East Asian people.

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