I am a third generation Indian-Chinese. Most of us were born and brought up in India, including my grandparents, and we are so integrated into the country that apart from our culture, food and extremely distinguishing features, I don't feel all that Chinese at all. I consider myself extremely Indian in my ways. My friends constantly tell me that I'm a curious mix of Jharkhand (where I was born) and a bit of everywhere I've lived since: Uttarakhand, Bangalore and now Mumbai. I picked up most of my Hindi and Urdu (and ghazals) from my dentist Dad, who was born in Patna, did his college in Manipal, and has lived in Dhanbad ever since. Mom was born in Bombay, moved to Dhanbad after their marriage and worked as a beautician. My nani is probably one of the few in the family who also speaks Chinese well. The rest of us speak little to no Chinese (like me!). I began as a Dentist, then switched careers to become a singer of Bollywood songs on Indian Idol, to anchoring TV shows and subsequently becoming an actor in films and web series.
As Indian-Chinese citizens, the worst blowback that the community has faced was during the Sino-Indian war of 1962. So much had been built up on the pursuit of India-China friendship that the sudden souring of relations between the two as well as India's humiliating defeat in the war led to a sudden hatred towards the community. They were branded as Chinese spies, rounded up and deported to Deoli (Rajasthan) where many were kept for up to 5 years. By the time they returned, their properties had been usurped, they had lost time and opportunity and had to start again from scratch. The Chinese communities in Kolkata and Assam suffered the most; heartbreakingly documented in books like The Deoliwallahs and Chinatown Days. This led to a wave of discontent and many left India, never to come back again; leaving the community a fraction of its once burgeoning numbers.
The elder folk, many of whom have migrated abroad since, remember the time well. Some are still trying to get an official apology from the government while most don't want to talk about it. They just want to purge the painful memory and move on.
I've been vocal about this part of our history ever since I got to know about it. The elder folk, many of whom have migrated abroad since, remember the time well. Some are still trying to get an official apology from the government while most don't want to talk about it. They just want to purge the painful memory and move on. But sometimes, it does come up in conversations with nani, or when the community gathers for a get-together. My side of the family didn't have to bear the brunt of the aftermath. Nani tells me how officials would have them keep a small bag packed with essentials at the ready, in case they were to be deported. Thankfully, that never happened. She holds a Chinese passport though, like many of her age – even though she was born and brought up in Maharashtra (owing to some citizenship debate post 1962). Back then, the Indian-Chinese were given the option to stay (adapt an Indian passport) or leave for China (accept a Chinese passport). In the ensuing chaos and confusion, many like her landed up with a Chinese passport even though they had no ties with China. When I have to go through the rigmarole of renewing her passport or visa, I wonder how did we even get embroiled in all this.
With this backstory, when I was approached to play Chinese officer Major Lin in a web series based on that very war, I wondered whether I should be doing it. In content that appeals to one's patriotism, the enemy is often portrayed as a heartless villain (as we have often seen in real life as well). It has taken my community a while to wash off the unfair stigma and discrimination, and with the current border flare-ups, playing such a character might have reinforced some prejudices. Saying yes was a dilemma, but as an actor I chose Lin for his humanity. This titular 'bad' guy has a definite set of ethics and code of conduct. He's here to win but not at the cost of his principles — unlike his subordinates who feel no remorse in killing and misusing their power and strength of numbers. It's a possible conflict in Lin's mind as well: his loyalty VS his humanity, and that interesting shade made me warm up to the character. I'm so glad viewers have appreciated my work on the show and put to rest all my apprehensions about accepting this role.
It has taken my community a while to wash off the unfair stigma and discrimination, and with the current border flare-ups, playing such a character might have reinforced some prejudices. Saying yes was a dilemma, but as an actor I chose Lin for his humanity
Interesting trivia: the Chinese officers were originally supposed to speak in Mandarin in the series; a language I was very excited to learn (later changed to Hindi to make it more accessible to viewers). This would have given Lin an interesting past — as a spy already embedded in India and being the only Chinese officer to know the local language, having studied Hindi and Urdu in Delhi. In fact, my audition scene itself had me thrilled for the show! When Abhay Deol's Major Suraj Singh marvels at Lin's Hindi, Lin counters him by saying "Shayad isi din ke liye." How I wish this interaction had stayed…
When Covid-19 broke out last year, it was a little like what '62 must have been all over again. My social media blew up with hateful abuses and threats. Cyber crime complaints and reporting didn't really help. Some on the streets even called me names. I may have had it easier by virtue of having been in the public eye for a long time, but others with oriental features (Indian-Chinese, North-Eastern, Ladakhi) faced similar or worse harassment in various parts of the country. Their businesses were hampered. 'Ban everything and everyone Chinese', someone said. In the offenders' minds, "sab ek hain, sab dushman hain" – all under the misplaced and racist assumption that we were responsible for the virus. I remember watching a video during the early days of Covid where a big chunk of the Kolkata-Chinese community, in anticipation of a backlash, hit the streets with banners that said "We are with India", "Don't hate us" etc. It was bittersweet, funny and ironic that it had to be done at all. On expected lines, a journalist covering the march tried his best to get sensational sound bites by asking misleading, incendiary questions. Thankfully, they did not take the toxic bait. I remember laughing at the ridiculousness of it all.
To change people's perception, you have to change their point of view, one day at a time. Casually racist people are not necessarily bad people. They need to be better informed… And for that, there needs to be an even better understanding of the vast diversity of India through more stories, books, movies; whatever works
And when the Indian and Chinese forces clashed at the border, the abuse went up a notch. Nani asked me to refrain from posting anything about it (even if it was to support the Indian Army), as we might be targeted nevertheless given the situation and atmosphere the media had created. We wondered if '62 style detentions would happen again if war were to break out. I laugh about it now, but I'm glad that the worst is over — both on the borders and within it. To change people's perception, you have to change their point of view, one day at a time. Casually racist people are not necessarily bad people. They need to be better informed, they can change if they want to. And for that, there needs to be an even better understanding of the vast diversity of India through more stories, books, movies; whatever works. We need to have more conversations about it. Inclusivity and acceptance of people of all hues, colours, religions and orientations needs to be out there in the public domain.
We're just a small community — happy hain aur apni duniya mein rehte hai. We are trying to maintain whatever's left of our culture, peacefully. My generation of Indian-Chinese might not know half our customs. As I'd mentioned before, mujhe toh language bhi nahi aati hai! And with so many cross-cultural marriages, by the time I have children, they will probably know even less.
As an actor I'm generally approached to play Chinese or North-eastern characters, for which I'm grateful as some great roles have happened that way (Badmaash Company, Detective Byomkesh Bakshy, Untag, 1962). However, I'm probably not the first person who comes to mind for ethnicity-agnostic characters. I would love to see that change. For example, if a story were to be set in my hometown Dhanbad, or any other place in India, would it be so far-fetched to cast me in it? After all, there are so many well integrated Indian-Chinese families all over the country who have lived here for eons and are very much part of the milieu. We need to see them as such, and not as an aberration or special circumstance recruits only. This is what must be normalised in our stories.
Having said that I have had the good fortune of playing at least a few characters, where ethnicity was not its sole defining factor. Like Jimmy the bike stuntman competing with Salman Khan in Bharat. Or Yudi in Love, Lust and Confusion, where the character does not advertise his ethnicity. My character in Man's World could have been anyone again— his name is Suhail. These were mostly cameos. Nishchay in Untag—my only lead role so far–had an interesting genesis. Originally not written for me, he was supposed to be a Punjabi-spouting North Indian chap. When I was brought on board, only minor tweaks had to be made by changing the surname of the character and adding a Northeastern father, which provided for a nice comic touch.
Acting happened to find me (rather than the other way round). Now I'm in love with the craft and hungry for more, but how many roles are out there for me? It's a question I ask myself often, as well as to casting directors and filmmakers–where do you see me in a story? I have rarely received a definite answer because perhaps they aren't sure either. I don't blame them, but at the same time I wish there were stories that were more inclusive or didn't always take ethnicity into consideration. I believe they exist, and that we will find our way to each other very soon.
As told to Sankhayan Ghosh