Back in 2013, almost a year prior to the release of Omung Kumar’s Mary Kom, when it was announced that Priyanka Chopra would be playing the title role, there was an air of confusion. These were still early days, when news like this wouldn’t instantly become a national trend, and concepts like ‘cultural appropriation’ and ‘whitewashing’ still hadn’t entered our lexicon. Initially, most people were excited about MC Mary Kom’s life story being adapted for the big screen, and some were even more excited that a star like Priyanka Chopra would play her. After that began the discourse behind the inherent racism of the choice. On the one hand, a North Indian actor playing a Manipuri boxer makes the movie more ‘saleable’. On the other, having a local actor play the part significantly reduces the reach. While many struggled with the Catch 22 situation of having to choose between the two, almost everyone agreed that it was a problematic step forward.
Almost a decade later, when the trailer for Anubhav Sinha’s Anek dropped, most quarters of the audience were relieved to see Andrea Kevichüsa playing the leading lady opposite Ayushmann Khurrana. While it seemed on the surface like mainstream Bollywood had evolved, a closer look showed it had not. “I think Anubhav Sinha mentioned in an interview that they found Andrea (Kevichüsa) through a Google search. How is this a diligent way of casting? There are so many actors in the North East, who have studied in NSD and spent years training for a role like this. And then they go with a beauty queen from Nagaland,” says director Bhaskar Hazarika. A fiercely independent filmmaker, who drew provocative parallels between food and society’s “conventional” morals in Aamis, Hazarika said he wasn’t enthused about watching Anek after seeing the trailer. “Everything looked so fake, and I know this as someone who has his foot in mainstream Hindi & Assamese cinema. This doesn’t work anymore, people are smarter than you give them credit for. It’s not a surprise that Anek has tanked,” he adds.
What Hollywood does to India, Bollywood is doing to the North East,” says Bhaskar Hazarika, the director of Aamis.
Anek opened to largely negative reviews about two weeks ago. And unlike Sinha’s last few films, the negative word of mouth for this one contributed to a bad box office haul. Ambitiously mounted as the first mainstream Hindi film to directly engage with the unrest amongst rebel groups and Indian armed forces in the North East, Anek makes a series of confounding choices. First of all, to refer to the entire region as North East, probably to avoid facing the wrath of a particular state, tribe or militant group. While the choice isn’t nearly as bright as the makers think, it seems almost comical when cars’ number plates begin with “NE”.
In a film, where Sinha is trying to shine a light on the culture of the seven sisters, the makers inadvertently end up displaying the same ignorance of lumping all states together, something they’re expressly trying to ‘educate’ the audience not to do. “I didn’t think the film worked either as an exploration of issues, nor even as an action-thriller it was meant to be,” says actor/director Kenny Basumatary, who made the martial arts comedy Local Kung Fu (2013), a film he famously made for less than one lac rupees. Basumatary says he was surprised by Anek’s generic approach, considering Sinha had earlier made Article 15, a film he thought sensitively dealt with the issue of caste in rural India.
Anek is only the latest film/show to be set in the North East in the last decade or so, with varying degrees of interest in engaging with the North eastern culture. Shortly after Mary Kom was Shujaat Saudagar’s rather forgettable Rock On 2. Set in Shillong (Meghalaya) for most of its 143-minute runtime, the film doesn’t have a single local character as a part of the film’s principal cast. “It’s apparent what is happening here. What Hollywood does to India, Bollywood is doing to the North East. This is how cultures move I guess, nothing can be done about this,” says Hazarika. Rock On 2 and Vishwesh Krishnamoorthy’s 99 Songs (produced by AR Rahman no less) perfected mainland India’s gaze towards the North East, where mainlanders go for their sabbaticals, vacations and to have a gala time at hipster music festivals. Nothing more.
Director Nicholas Kharkongor, who made Axone (2019) – a film about a bunch of North Eastern youngsters living in Delhi – believes there is no such thing as a ‘misstep’ about a Hindi film set in a North Eastern state, because it still serves as a medium for North East to enter mainstream pop culture. However, Kharkongor also believes that some films tend to come to the North East for wrong reasons – “They just want the quaintness of a North Eastern town, without having to engage with the region otherwise. They simply want the place to be a backdrop.” According to filmmaker Pradip Kurbah, whose film Market (2019) won the Kim Ji Seok Award at the 2019 Busan Film Festival, this is not the first time Bollywood is disrespecting a shooting location. “It’s a lot like how Bollywood used to shoot in Kashmir in the 70s and 80s, without necessarily dealing with the on-ground issues. It’s great that Rock On 2 was shot here in Shillong, but apart from that the film has no connection to the place,” Kurbah says.
Amit Kumar and Anupama Minz’s The Last Hour, an eight-part web series for Amazon Prime, is set in a fictitious town called Mancheng (a stand-in for the most beautiful parts of Sikkim). Even though the show hires the likes of Karma Takapa and Robin Tamang to play the leads in the show, and surrounds them with a supporting cast of Hindi film actors including Sanjay Kapoor and Shahana Goswami, the show starts off awkwardly as North East characters speak to each other in broken, accented Hindi. It requires a real suspension of disbelief on the viewer’s part to get through the first episode. Why would two local characters in (possibly) Sikkim, talk to each other in Hindi? Of course, it’s been done to reach out to an audience accustomed to shows from the Hindi heartland, and one that would prefer not to read subtitles. Even in Anek, Andrea Kevichüsa’s character speaks in broken Hindi, using the wrong gender in an effort to possibly(?) sound cute, like – “main khelunga aur jeetunga”. It ends up infantilising the character.
The language is an obstacle for making a film set in the North East to appear ‘authentic’, and there are varying opinions on what needs to be done. Kurbah still remembers how he was put off hearing Priyanka Chopra’s facade to speak in broken Hindi like a local Manipuri girl. Hazarika mentions that he can’t understand the reluctance towards subtitles in mainstream Hindi films. “Either that or write the character in a way it is apparent why they speak in broken Hindi. You have to work a little harder on scripting and building the story’s universe,” he adds.
Basumatary empathises with the economic implication that subtitles bring to a film. “Since it costs a shitload of money to make a film, you have to increase the odds in your favour to the extent that you’re not compromising on some things,” says Basumatary. He mentions how he couldn’t understand some of Kevichüsa’s dialogues in Hindi, and that in Sinha’s place he would have preferred someone to dub over Kevichüsa’s lines. It’s not something most purists would agree with, but like Basumatary puts it – “it will be easier for the audience if the film’s characters speak in Hindi throughout.” He says that a percentage of the problem could also be solved by a filmmaker’s conviction like in Tom Cruise’s Valkyrie (2008), a mainstream Hollywood film set in 1940s Germany, where everyone is talking in English.
Kharkongor believes that if a film was set in Arunachal Pradesh, then Hindi wouldn’t sound false, because that is the state’s lingua franca. He also proposes a theory about how the audience doesn’t question the casting of a familiar face, like Danny Denzongpa or Kalki Koechlin: Denzongpa has played a North Indian and even a Chambal dacoit, while Koechlin is now comfortably accepted as an upper class resident of Mumbai or Delhi. Kharkongor believes that the more acceptance actors from the North East get from the Hindi cinema audience, it will give a freer range for casting directors to choose actors from diverse ethnicities in India, instead of sticking to the small group of Indians represented in a majority of the movies we produce.
Kurbah, who made his award-winning 2019 film, Market, after three years of research (despite being a local), believes that Hindi films simply need to do more. “You can’t depend on Google or simply come here for a 10-day recce and zero in on a location. Anek filmed in Bara Bazaar, where I also shot my film, but the difference was they simply saw it as a location, and not as character” Kurbah says.
Hazarika observes that it is a mainstream film industry’s mercantile attitude towards filmmaking that gets in the way of a decent film, especially if it’s set in the North East. “The impulse should be to tell a story, and not be ‘Chalo, ek film North East pe banata hoon’ and work backwards from there. You have to read books around the place, watch the works of local filmmakers like Pradip Kurbah or Dominic Sangma. If your approach is rigorous, it shows in the way the characters talk and in the manner you shoot the film. It cannot be described. You can’t do chaalu kaam, as someone in Mumbai would say,” he says with a laugh.
All these filmmakers, quoted above, work on oppressive budgets, limited resources, and punishing conditions. And they still somehow manage to dig their heels into the respective stories they’re telling. Maybe, there’s a lesson over here for mainstream filmmakers to set aside their tourist gaze, and do more with their (relatively) boundless resources.
In all the darkness that is mainstream cinema’s apathy towards films set in the North East or including North East actors into the mainframe of Hindi cinema, there’s one bright spot called Chum Darang. Playing the character of Rimjhim, Bhumi Pednekar’s love interest in Badhaai Do (2022), Darang’s ethnicity is inconsequential to the rest of the plot, just the way it should be in an ideal world. Basumatary remembers a similar experience when he walked into the audition for Shanghai (2012), held by Atul Mongia. Not only did he get the part of an A.S.P (Assistant Superintendent of Police), but the surname of his character was changed from a generic North Indian surname to an Assamese one, to be consistent with Basumatary’s looks . “Some people have this sense. Hope their tribe increases,” says Basumatary while signing off.