Coursing through the fabric that Bollywood has woven for us, it becomes an almost impossible task to escape the trap-like romanticised setting of mustard fields and unbelievably translucent chiffon sarees draped on ‘perfect’ bodies that lull the common sense of the Indian audience and urges them to embark on a daydream with its silky caress.
Whilst majority of the Bollywood movies highlights the tale of North Indians (especially the Punjab-Delhi belt) and Mumbaikar’s, a severe stereotyping is done in the case of South Indians, who are often hauled into the scene for the sake of comic effect in most cases.
This particular map often tends to gloss over the fact that North-East India is also a part of the country and in the century plus years of Bollywood, the North-East has always come as a late afterthought in movies which sought to show the diversity of India.
Bollywood has carefully managed to keep passing that baton of carefully-curated stereotypes from the hands of one Johar to another Chopra to another Shetty. It is one never-ending cycle of perpetrating certain cliches that have successfully moulded the mindset of a significant half of the Indian populace as well as the select international audience who still tend to associate India with the jarringly colourful, loud, vibrant, superstitious, perpetually breaking into song and dance kind of majority. It has carved out for itself a world of expectations that does indeed paint a stark picture when placed against actual reality.
The Bollywood industry has long since learnt to train its eyes on an India that offers the picture of a map that begs to differ from the one we saw in our Geography books of yonder. In this map, some states hog the limelight in a tailor-cut fashion that has been the way since the annals of history.
If that is not the case, the plight and struggle and the stories from North East are kept tucked away in a far-flung corner, much like their geographical alienation in reality.
The only time in recorded Bollywood film history when Indians sat up and took notice of a North-Eastern woman was when Priyanka Chopra donned the gloves to play the role of seven-time World Champion MC Mary Kom.
The hype generated by the Sanjay Leela Bhansali produced and Omung Kumar directed movie was magnanimous mainly because of Priyanka Chopra being in it. There were a host of justified protests rippling from the North-East Indians who could never grasp the reason why a North Indian like Priyanka Chopra would be selected to play the role of Mary Kom.
There were a lot of eyebrows raised, and fingers pointed at Chopra, for she did not look the part of Chungneijang and the prosthetic department had a hard time trying to make her look more ‘North East Indian’.
The smooth and obvious solution would have been to cast an actress hailing from Manipur itself or at least the North East, but Bollywood is still governed by the mentality that a Priyanka Chopra-starrer will make a better revenue at the Box Office than one where a talented North-East Indian is cast, which would be staying true to the script.
It is indeed a sorry tale for the people hailing from the North Eastern states for their talent is often brushed under the carpet and covered up. The general excuse most filmmakers and casting directors come up with is, “They don’t look Indian enough…they don’t have big, beautiful eyes…”
Surprisingly enough, the North East has given us wonderful actresses like National Award-winning Geetanjali Thapa (Liar’s Dice) and Patralekha (Citylights) and even Masochon V Zimik of Chak De India! Fame, to mention a few.
All of these women could have shouldered the task of portraying the role of Mary in the movie yet Chopra was preferred because of her star factor. Lin Laishram, a model from Manipur, had auditioned for the titular role too, but somehow the fact that she isn’t really from the heartland of India played a part, and she had to settle for acting as Mary’s friend in the movie.
There have been several initiatives to showcase the pan-Indian diversity on the golden screen, the most notable effort being Uganda-born Shimit Amin’s 2007 celebrated film, ‘Chak De India!’ Soon after it’s release, there was an immediate interest boost in women’s hockey in the country, and the Shahrukh Khan-led film was the recipient of countless accolades. However, a re-watching of the movie will bring to the forefront the stereotypical portrayal of the players from the various parts of the country.
The character of Shukla Ji, an older adult, associated with the Indian Women’s Hockey team is used by Shimit Amin to portray the gross stereotyping that is done in the country.
Some 20 minutes into the film, we are introduced to the two players from North-East who have come to New Delhi to register for the National Camp. The camera finds no better way to roll but settles for satisfying the male gaze as they capture the attention of two men ogling lasciviously at the girls and suggesting to each other, “They must have been headed for the disco or nightclub. They must have taken a wrong turn and come here.”
Shukla Ji too, peering from behind his black-rimmed glasses has a tone of surprised pride as he says, “I am very impressed. Players have come from the easternmost regions of our country too! Why you are our guests here! Welcome!”
The struggle of the North-East Indians lies here. Although they boast of a sporting culture unseen in the significant half of India with several champions being produced over the years, yet there is a sense of marginalisation and demarcation that still pervades throughout the country.
Shimit Amin’s honest effort to portray this existing difference should be lauded but mid-way into the movie, you will fail to locate the two North-Eastern girls, Molly Zimik (Manipur) and Mary Ralte (Mizoram).
If you do spot them, they’ll be lurking beside the spotlight which has comfortably, like always found itself a string of North Indians to rest its light upon. Somehow despite everything, the North-Eastern players keep getting misrepresented on screen and the minimal time they have on it and the countable dialogues they get to word, it’s generally because the director wants to showcase a tale of prevailing racism in their case. Amin does cash in on this racism and male gaze in the all-important fight scene near the intermission of the movie.
The duo from North-East indeed plays a subtly pivotal role in forwarding the plot of the story as they get catcalled on an outing at McDonald’s which forms a major turning point in the movie and pulls the team together as one, as all the girls overlomaok their differences and fight off that lecherous gaze. However, Shimit Amin does not develop it any further and in his benchmark endeavour, ‘Chak De India!’, eventually falls prey to the malpractices of the Indian society and portrays diversity like the age-old books have taught him too.
In the movie ‘Mary Kom’ too, there was a section where MC Mary Kom faces harassment from the Selector after a match which saw an explicit display of partiality being shown in favor of a girl representing Haryana which leads Mary to call out the authorities for their unjust treatment. However, Mary Kom does enough to cause people to look up the story of ‘Magnificent Mary’ and get inspired, at the end of the day. The challenges thrown to the North Eastern sportsmen are well captured in the Omung Kumar movie which follows Mary Kom boxing her way past obstacles and asserting her identity as an Indian with every step.
North East India has been a proud producer of top-class athletes who has gone ahead and brought back laurels for the nation.
The success story doesn’t rest at a lone MC Mary Kom, it goes on to weightlifters Mirabai Chanu and Sanjita Chanu from Manipur, archer Jayanta Talukdar from Assam, and of course, the latest sensation Hima Das from Dhing, Assam.
The problem with India lies in the fact that the significant chunk of the audience devours stories of cricket and football with considerable more frequency and passion than the other sports which tend to function like underdogs in the country.
The loss over here isn’t of North East. No. The tragedy is the nations entirely. A nation which decidedly obsesses over select sports and consciously marginalizes the others, a nation which fails at incorporating real national integrity and in the garb of terming each other as ‘equal’, often ends up mentally drawing indelible lines of demarcation which only solidifies with the misrepresentations celebrated in commercial Indian cinema which is a major fodder of the populace.
The awareness needs to spread about North East’s impeccable sporting culture and the unmatched grit and enthusiasm the players possess. For as long as we keep promoting movies which do not represent the real side of North East, we are losing out as a country. Cinema, at the end of the day, is a major form of entertainment as well as a platform for spreading essential messages. The length of its immense impact and influence is unimaginable.
The onus is on us therefore to stop that canister stacked with stereotypes from getting passed down from one director to the other and instead hurl it away and hope it breaks for the greater good, sooner than later.
(This views expressed were done by the author in her capacity. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of the platform)