Letter From Bombay: Could You Please Make Me a Shade Lighter?

How Indians came to view fair skin as an ideal--and a business opportunity

Up close, Rajashree Thakur makes a terrible ugly duckling. Her face is a flawless ocher, punctuated by ebony eyes and framed by jet black hair, and in the light of the setting sun, she glows. Thakur plays the lead in India's new hit soap Saat Phere ("seven circles around the fire," a Hindu marriage ritual), which, between riveting digressions into the lives, loves and secrets of a Rajasthani family, is the tragedy of Saloni, too unfortunate-looking for love. "It's not that Saloni isn't beautiful," clarifies Thakur, a former model. "It's that she's dark. Because of her complexion, her family thinks no...

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