If the latest Filmfare magazine cover shoot featuring Bollywood's latest star-kid Sara Ali Khan and a Masai tribesman in full traditional costume made you furrow your brows and ask "Why though?", you are not alone.
While Indians are the first to scream 'racism' when on the receiving end of it we can be disturbingly thick-skinned when it comes to recognising it in ourselves. Our racist mentalities can perhaps be best observed in Bollywood films that have continuously displayed an obsession with fair skin.
And for further proof of this depraved denial of our own racism, here's another look at the frankly bizarre and racist photoshoot that Filmfare did with sara Ali Khan.
The images were released by Filmare and also shared by Khan herself on social media. But the first Filmfare cover of the star-kid may not have gone quite as planned. As soon as the images appeared, people started noting the complete redundancy of the man accompanying the actor in some of the photos.
The shoot was done in Kenya and keeping true to the local favour, the photographer Rohan Shrestha made some local Masai tribesmen and women participate in it too.
If looks could kill... #SaraAliKhan is an absolute stunner in this new still from our latest cover shoot.
Watch this space for more exclusive pictures from the shoot. pic.twitter.com/HezQdrRuqA
— Filmfare (@filmfare) February 26, 2019
The only problem is, the photos posted on social media made the local Masais mere props, rendered visually intense by the colours and clothes they wear and their striking features. There was no rhyme or reason to why a particular Masai man was jumping behind a cane-weidling Sara Ali Khan in an adventurous, snake-print gown.
As soon as the photo came out, people pointed out the obvious racism. Using cultural motifs to make photos and other works of art visually rich and layered is not new. Neither is appropriating cultural artifacts and symbols to lend a touch of the exotic to a product. And photographs carry probably the worst of the latter, much like the Filmfare photoshoot.
Did someone actually approve this for publishing? In 2019? Shouldn’t you know better? People & cultures are not props for you to appropriate. Disgusted.— SparkleMcSnowflake❄️ (@Anjaani07) February 27, 2019
Africans are not props! Ok— Javeria Siddique (@javerias) February 27, 2019
What is the concept of this shoot? People of other cultures and ethnicities are not props— silhan (@whitelily22) February 26, 2019
The problem with the carefully curated and colour corrected images is not the use of locals per se but the dehumanising way in which they have been used. In the photos, Khan as the subject fails to assimilate herself with the background. She fails to look like a part of the culture or geography.
When the Masai tribesman jumps behind a scowling Khan, he loses character as a human being who is more than a calendar motif. He is reduced to a shawl clad piece of exotica, added to a photo to bring out the sharp contrast of the background with the actual subject.
To put it more simply, the use of the Masai folk in the photo reminds one of the effects created by tribal wall hangings in an otherwise Victorian room. It reeks of visual imperialism in photography. What's worse is this kind of appropriation is called out time and again and yet artists continue to use these tactics to increase the cultural shock value of their art.
Many in the West have started apologising for such oversights. Think Gigi Hadid's apology for appropriation of Italian skin tones for a Vogue shoot or Vogue apologising for giving Kendall Jenner an afro in a recent cover. Model Karli Klauss had also apologised after outrage following her Oriental Geisha-themes shoot for Vogue, which seems to be a common offender in the cultural insensitivity category. But closer home, artists like Daboo Ratnani unabashedly use cultural symbols as props, like in the recent Shraddha Kapoor photoshoot in which the actor was photographed in Indian headgear.
However, not all in Hollywood or the West apologise, either.
In today's day and time with so much conversation about sensitivity, diversity, and appropriation, it is in somewhat of a poor taste for those involved in the shoot to feign ignorance toward these issues.