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FACE THE DIFFERENCE

Tilottama Tharoor
The reviews of the much-awaited Mary Kom film are decidedly mixed, including stinging swipes at its “inert” screenplay, “preposterously strident reenactment” and “mediocre melodrama”. However, several detractors of the film have commended Priyanka Chopra’s performance as Mary Kom, India’s great boxing champion. Priyanka is praised for conveying “a fierce combination of rage and vulnerability,” and, claims one critic, “she manages to make the audience forget that she simply isn’t the right face”. Without devaluing Chopra’s talent or dedication to her role, I do wish that she was the right face — the Manipuri face of the Mary Kom who fought so valiantly for her gold and made us Indians so proud. An actress from Mary Kom’s region, with her Northeastern features, would have been a tribute to the fine acting talent that flourishes in the Northeast, and would have encouraged us to have a more inclusive view of our Indianness.
The choice of Priyanka Chopra testifies to the conventions of popular Indian cinema, its notions of box- office appeal and marketing success. An imagined (and constructed) pan-Indianness and the dazzling glitter of stardom allow some to act and succeed in trans-regional films, assuming characters and languages not their own. When Rekha became the exquisite Umrao Jan, no one questioned the Tamilian’s presumption in a Lucknowi role, and despite her Bengali accent, the winsome Sharmila Tagore dimpled into a Kashmir-ki-kali. Though Aishwarya Rai’s embarrassing repetition of “ish” in Devdas undermined the Bengali authenticity it aspired to create! Even in biographical films, the Bengali Seema Biswas was a formidable Chhattisgarhi Phoolan Devi, and the Marathi actor, Sachin Khedekar, a convincing Bose in Shyam Benegal’s Netaji film.
We accepted them all, yet we exclude our Northeastern citizens from this pan-Indian collectivity and its cinematic norms. Danny Denzongpa and Mala Sinha are rare exceptions. The Mary Kom case strikes me as particularly egregious: when she won glory for India, we celebrated Mary Kom both as a Manipuri and Indian, yet her screen triumphs are without a Manipuri face. An article in Quartz magazine listed four actresses from the Northeast as viable contenders for the role, but the film-makers couldn’t visualize someone who looked like Mary Kom contributing to box-office success. Sadly, this was reiterated by a Manipuri actress, Lin Laishram, who auditioned for the role, but conceded in an interview that with her the film wouldn’t be “saleable and a hit”. Lin recounted that she auditions for ad films under the “foreigner” category, because “fairer skin and bigger eyes” qualify as “Indian”. What’s particularly distressing is her resigned admission: “It is India” which is “simply not prepared to accept someone like us on the big screen.”
We are familiar with (and guilty of) all kinds of prejudices and cultural chauvinisms in India that are not confined to the film industry. But the Northeast suffers a more systematic and pervasive discrimination and marginalization. At one extreme are the frequent violent attacks against students from the Northeast in places like Delhi, while the “chinky” slur is a commonplace insult. In both cases, the victims are regarded as inalienably different, as non-Indian and also inferior. This demeaning attitude is partly because they look different, but also because of our woeful ignorance about their identities and culture, and perhaps even a lurking fear of past insurgencies such as in Nagaland and Manipur. When the victims protest in the streets, they are compelled to hold up posters declaring “we are also Indians” — a sorry indictment of our pluralist pretensions.
Unfortunately, many of our social practices — both deliberate and unconscious — perpetuate the misconceptions and alienation. The Manipuri writer-activist, Binalakshmi Nepram, has argued in television debates that Indian history school text-books tend to neglect the Northeast; neither is its geography or culture sufficiently assimilated into children’s understanding of Indianness. When the police round up Tibetan refugees in anticipation of disruptive demonstrations in the capital, they often target Northeastern Indians, requiring them to prove their citizenship.
From the national TV channels’ coverage of the Lok Sabha elections this year, one could have safely concluded that the Northeast didn’t exist, or had any elections. The frenzied focus on the northern and western states accorded them mainstream significance — on some days it seemed that only Benaras or Rae Bareilly had polls. Occasional attention was tossed to the southern and eastern states — the Bharatiya Janata Party/Mamata slanging match in Bengal, the Jayalalithaa machinations in Tamil Nadu, Yeddyurappa’s vote-altering potential in Karnataka or the Telangana turbulence. But viewers were mostly kept oblivious of (and perhaps indifferent to) the Northeastern states’ electoral propensities and politics.
Certainly, Mary Kom being played by a Northeast actor wouldn’t by itself resolve this indifference and disdain towards the region. But it would have been salutary for all Indians to experience this extraordinary Manipuri athlete’s struggle and achievement through a face and presence visibly Manipuri and simultaneously Indian. She may look different from those with Priyanka Chopra’s Punjabi features; but privilege and normativeness would be dispersed. The accommodation of singularities and diversities is supposedly what we cherish about India. And there’s trenchant insight in this comment by a Manipuri actor: that he would have no objection to Priyanka Chopra playing Mary Kom, if someday a Manipuri could play Priyanka Chopra.