By Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, January 27, 2008
MUMBAI T he TV ad shows an Indian movie star walking on a beach, flaunting his brand-name sunglasses and his six-pack abs. A white woman in a black bikini drops on the sand from nowhere, and then another woman drops down. Soon, a bevy of white models literally falls from the skies, and the movie star runs for cover.
A green-eyed model from Iceland puts her arms around him and whispers seductively, "The fall collection . . . baby."
The ad is for a sunglasses company, but its approach is hardly unique in the world of Indian advertising. These days, the faces of white women and men, mostly from Eastern Europe, stare out from billboards, from the facades of glitzy, glass-fronted malls and from fashion magazines. At an international automobile show this month in New Delhi, most of the models were white.
The presence of Caucasian models in Indian advertisements has grown in the past three years, industry analysts say. The trend reflects deep cultural preferences for fair skin in this predominantly brown-skinned nation of more than 1 billion people. But analysts say the fondness for "fair" is also fueled by a globalized economy that has drawn ever more models from Europe to cities such as Mumbai, India's cultural capital.
"Indians have a longing for that pure, beautiful white skin. It is too deep-rooted in our psyche," said Enakshi Chakraborty, who heads Eskimo India, a modeling agency that brings East European models here. "Advertisers for international as well as Indian brands call me and say, 'We are looking for a gori [Hindi for white] model with dark hair.' Some ask, 'Do you have white girls who are Indian-looking?' They want white girls who suit the Indian palate."
Indians' color fixation is also evident in classified newspaper ads and on Web sites that help arrange marriages. The descriptive terms used for skin color run the gamut: "very fair," "fair," "wheat-ish," "wheat-ish-medium," "wheat-ish-dark," "dark" and "very dark."
Family elders here commonly comment on a newborn baby's color, after checking out the gender. One of the best-selling skin creams in India is called Fair & Lovely. A men's version, Fair and Handsome, was launched last year.
"The Indian mind-set prefers light skin. My pictures are routinely Photoshopped to make me look a bit lighter -- a lot lighter, actually," Riya Ray, 23, a dark-skinned Indian model, said with a laugh. "But when I work in Britain and France, my color is praised as exotic. It is a two-way trend: Indian models are going abroad, and foreign models are coming here."
White models, who usually visit India on three-month work visas, earn $500 to $1,500 for a single shoot, a rate that is relatively low, largely because the models tend to come from developing European countries and are new to the international scene. Bollywood stars, cricketers and top Indian supermodels, on the other hand, command large sums from top brands.
Advertisers say that white female models appeal to them because they are typically less inhibited than their Indian counterparts when it comes to showing skin and posing in lingerie.
Tanya Bohinc, a 25-year-old Slovenian model, has lived in India for the past month, going on shoots for perfumes, clothing and hotel chains, while battling the rest of what India has to offer: omnipresent mosquitoes and spicy curries that wreak havoc with a sensitive stomach.
"I can sense the local fascination for my skin color here," said Bohinc, who has modeled in seven countries. "I think it has to do with the fact that the British ruled India for so long." Bohinc said she's been trying out for small roles in Bollywood films and learning Hindi lines. A growing number of Bollywood film choreographers are now hiring white dancers in song-and-dance scenes.
International fashion magazines in India, such as Cosmopolitan, Elle, Marie Claire and Vogue, regularly feature white women in their spreads. The fashion features editor of Vogue's Indian edition, Bandana Tiwari, calls the approach "going glocal," combining the words "global" and "local" to describe the new urban Indian consumer.
"When we put the white model in Indian clothes, it is a cultural exchange. It shows India's economic self-confidence," Tiwari said. "Of course, it also caters to the general feeling that 'fair' and 'beautiful' go together. For a rickshaw-puller who earns $2 a day, seeing a fair-skinned woman is an escape, a fantasy."
Some advertising insiders contend that the trend is partly an attempt to give products an international look. But this quest is limited to hiring Caucasians. Africans and East Asians rarely make an appearance.
"So many international brands are entering India, and they use white models to emphasize their foreignness. To compete, Indian companies also want to feature white faces," said Rohit Chawla, a fashion photographer and advertising filmmaker who has worked with white models. "The perception is, if you put a white face to your product, it is a quicker route to sales."
A popular footwear and clothing brand, Woodland, began working with white models for its Indian print ads two years ago. A company official cited both the marketing and cultural strategy behind the decision.
"We opened two stores in Dubai last year and are now looking at Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur. We now want to say we are a global brand," said Lokesh Mishra, general manager of marketing at Woodland Worldwide. "And we are also playing on the typical Indian mind-set that thinks if the white people are wearing our brand, then it must be good."