Johal & Sidhu: How Punjabi Music Videos Fail Brown Models
From the lack of on set professionalism to respectability politics, there are various pressures at play that push Punjabi women out of Punjabi music videos
Rumneek Johal and Monika Sidhu
January 11, 2022 | 6 min. read | Original Reporting
This article was written and published in collaboration with 5X Press
Something that has stood out over the past few years is the absence of Brown women in entertainment spaces that should be considered “for them.”
One notable example from last year was in July of 2021 when Punjabi singer AP Dhillon released the video to his single “Ma Belle.”
The song was a gentle and modern romantic ballad about Punjabi love but many felt the singer could have used the video to paint a more fitting projection of it. Since AP used a white model, many called on him to look to women within his own community.
Despite the fact that many Punjabi singers do use Punjabi models and dancers as their main love interests in videos, this instance incited strong discourse online.
Whether it’s been music videos from the early 2000’s or even more recent projects, it has become common to see non-Punjabi women take up this space.
This opened up a greater conversation about why Brown women are often excluded from what should be Punjabi spaces, and what factors lead to their absence.
Online discourse raised an interesting conundrum regarding the Punjabi music industry: how the parameters of respectability politics influence how Brown women are represented (or not represented) in Punjabi media.
Directors, producers, and artists shared with us that it is very difficult to get Punjabi models who are willing to be in music videos.
Joty Kay, a host, model, and radio personality, who has been involved in the Punjabi entertainment industry for five years, said much of the reason is the way that they will be perceived as “video girls.”
Joty said her own experiences doing music videos highlighted a much broader problem with the way Brown women are looked at and policed, and the double standards behind what gets them praise, and what gets them hate.
She shares her experience after she was featured in her first music video.
“After the music video came out, the amount of hate that I got was like, ‘she degraded herself.’ I got somebody [message] me saying, ‘I had a lot of respect for you, but now you're in a music video and I don't look at you the same,’” she said.
Perceptions within the community, the pervasiveness of patriarchy, and the male gaze make parents and families not want their daughters to be looked at “in that way.”
Joty added that this all comes down to the way that women are given responsibility for how men see them. Whether it is career choices or clothing choices, she said the blame is being misplaced. South Asian women, including Punjabis, have the concept of shame pushed from a young age and made to see themselves through the eyes of how men may perceive their life choices.
Jyothi Tatter, a filmmaker and creative director who has worked with artists such as Sidhu Moosewala, unpacked this a bit further, explaining how models are still doing a job, just like the artists whose videos they are in.
“If that's what her job entitles her to do, and she's okay with that, then there should be no shame in her doing it, right?” he said.
“It's unfair for the public to say anything about that because, at the end of the day, that's her job.”
And when we asked some other men who are involved in the industry about both the lack of women present in these spaces and why Punjabi women specifically may be hesitant to go before the camera, they posited a number of reasons that make non-Brown women “easier to work with.”
Brown women request a lot of red tape, our sources in the industry shared, as they are more likely to consider the thoughts and feelings of their family members, who look down upon this type of modeling, before agreeing to a contract.
“Generally there's a lot of [Punjabi models] out here, but the thing is their parents don't allow them,” said Gurjot Sandhu, a digital marketing and media producer from Alberta.
Sandhu recalls an instance in which some of his industry colleagues cast a Punjabi model for a music video. Shortly after the video was shot, the model’s parents told her she was not allowed to be in the video.
Those in charge of video talent then went to find a non-Punjabi model through a modeling agency, as they were hoping to not run into similar issues. The team then did a reshoot of the entire video.
But even when the models do not face barriers within their families, they do still face criticism once the video is released from the broader community.
Joty explained that hesitancy does not only come with being deemed a “video girl,” but as she recounts, it also comes with the on set environments that do not uphold a sense of professionalism.
Joty recalled one instance where she was on set with a prominent singer and director in the Punjabi music scene, and how she felt demeaned despite being there to do a job.
“When I was on set, the way they treated me was like I was easy just because I was doing this music video.”
She added that the singer sent one of his friends to her to ask for her number.
“And I didn't give it to them. And then they told me that they were gonna have a hotel party afterwards. And I was like, ‘why the hell would I go to a hotel party?’ I'm here to just do what I got to do.”
These environments are also not a one-off either.
Rapper Blitz has been in the industry since the early 2000s and attests to how the culture on the sets of music videos is not always comfortable for women.
“It's a frightening job for a girl,” he said.
While the artist or director may be fine to work with, there are often upwards of 20-30 people or more on set, and very few of them tend to be women.
“A lot of times these artists are unprofessional young guys so because of that they're calling their boys that have no reason to be on set; a lot of their boys are drinking in the background, a lot of their boys are smoking and they’re thinking it’s like a party environment.”
“Saying that Indian girls are a little harder to work with. Well, yeah, because of you guys,” she said.
“You're the reason why we're hard to work with, you're probably the same guy that would be talking shit about me from another music video.”
Joty said she feels that the voices of the rest of society should not be relevant to how Brown women conduct themselves, but it is the unfortunate reality.
Both Tatter and Sandhu touch on how Brown women specifically feel uncomfortable with many aspects of video shoots.
“It also goes down to professionalism. If you're going to shoot a video and if you're really into it, get your training, have these contracts, tell your producer, be like, okay, when I shoot these, I don't want anybody around me, it makes me uncomfortable,” said Sandhu.
Tatter said that because professional agencies don’t represent as many Brown women, this is also where the problem comes in.
“And most of the time at the agency, the girls are not Brown. So then the question is why aren't there models in these modeling agencies that are South Asian? Or there's not as many.”
Joty, however, wants fans of the Punjabi music industry to ask what is causing the absence of Brown women in these spaces in the first place, both in front of and behind the camera, and who is responsible for the environment - both on set, and on social media, that Brown women must endure just to exist.
“[They] don't want to deal with the mess that they created,” she said.
Rumneek Johal is a journalist, host, and Editor-in-Chief of 5X Press. She is also host of 5X's Youtube and IGTV show What's the Vibe breaking down hot topics inside Surrey and out. She is a graduate of The University of British Columbia's Masters of Journalism program, and has previously worked as a host/producer at Decomplicated, and as a writer at Daily Hive Vancouver and CBC Toronto. She thinks she's funny on twitter @rumneeek
Monika Sidhu is a journalist based out of Brampton. She covers topics of arts, culture, and social justice. More recently, she graduated with a Master of Media in Journalism and Communication from Western University. You can find her on Twitter at @MonikaSidhuu.
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