Continued mis/underrepresentation of northeasterners in Bollywood paints a depressing picture
Stereotypes and undercooked knowledge of one's culture can lead to misrepresentation in popular media and we need an authentic voice to set the story straight. But are we ready to extend the microphone to everyone? We haven't been when it comes to northeast Indians and mainstream Hindi cinema. Brutal honesty from Manipuri actress Lin Laishram has now started an important (delayed) discussion. Let's explore.
What did Laishram say? The 35-year-old actress was part of the 2014 sports biography Mary Kom that saw global star Priyanka Chopra essay the titular role. While Laishram acknowledges Chopra's dedication to embodying the esteemed Manipuri boxer, she rightfully noted: "A girl from Manipur or the northeast could have been surely cast." Because it is not about the hard work but the correct representation.
The country has refused to accept northeasterners as Indians—their stereotypical, onscreen representation is a mere reflection of that. As Laishram noted during a recent interview, Danny Denzongpa was, for long, the only actor from the northeastern states in mainstream cinema. "But we couldn't relate to him either because he spoke fluent Hindi which most of us didn't," she said. Is the scenario changing now?
There are surely more northeastern actors getting non-stereotypical roles in the industry today. Be it Laishram in Axone, Karma Takapa in Amazon Prime Video series The Last Hour, or Andrea Tariang in Pink. As Axone director Nicholas Kharkongor puts it: "Unlike in the past, these stories [set in the northeast] are not only shot in these states but also have characters from the region."
In the sea of underrepresentation, these steps are but drops. Bollywood, the driving force of Indian cinema, is determinedly north Indian in its approach. Mainlanders like south Indians and Bengalis also face compartmentalized depiction. Laishram also talked about Tamil characters playing Tamil roles in the recently-released The Family Man-2. If such representation is made the norm and not the exception, then we'll have marched forward.
Makers might have apprehensions about a film not working if it isn't headed by a star. Hence, "If we want to see more representation, it's the directors and producers from the region who have to take the initiative," Village Rockstar-helmer Rima Das told a portal. And the OTT boom has, however, helped promote inclusivity by proving Indians have the "appetite for diverse language content."