Priyanka Chopra as Mary Kom: Is Bollywood being racist?

Priyanka Chopra as Mary Kom: Is Bollywood being racist?
Priyanka Chopra as Mary Kom: Is Bollywood being racist?
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The News Minute | July 17, 2014 | 12.10 pm IST

The release of the posters of a film on Mary Kom titled with her name has re-ignited the debate on representation and racism in Indian films.

A few days ago a freelance journalist Nishita Jha tweeted: “Is it worse that the Mary Kom biopic doesn't have a manipuri girl playing Kom, or that most people wouldn't watch the film if it did?”

Even when the choice of Priyanka Chopra to play Kom was announced a year ago, several people had raised this issue. Now that the posters are out, there is a lot of talk about how Priyanka Chopra has managed to pull it off.

A story in India Today compiled tweets and responses from Bollywood on how “ priyankachopra damnnn...nailed one's ever messing with this beauty from Bareilly after the way she packs a punch...#raging bulbul", and “Is there anything this girl cant pull off?” and more equally inane stuff.

Apart from reducing boxing to a punch and “looking” the part with the muscles to be a boxer, Chopra’s fan club within Bollywood appears to either be ignorant of or have forgotten that director Sanjay Leela Bhansali had an army of make-up artists to give Chopra a mongoloid appearance.

But is this just about “looking” the part? The insurgencies in the various regions of the north-east when they started out, were significantly premised on people in the eight north-eastern states being and feeling different from the rest of India. In short, they did not feel included within the Indian identity, whatever that might mean.

The question of representing someone else in the popular media has sparked off literary and cultural movements across the world. Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe wrote Things Fall Apart in response to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which he felt represented African peoples from a white perspective. Achebe was an inspiration to many African writers.

Hollywood too, has been accused of racism in the representation of black and native american people. The bulk of such mispresentation was said to be in the early years of the film industry in the United States, but it has not died out completely. A year ago when Lone Ranger was released, similar questions were asked about the casting of Johnny Depp as Tonto, and also the nature of Tonto's character. 

Jha’s tweet, about the possibility of people not watching a film with a north-eastern actor cast as Mary Kom, raises many questions for us, as a society.

Writing for Quartz, Aseem Chhabra says that casting someone like a Priyanka Chopra, smacks of the sort of racism Hollywood practised with films such as The Jazz Singer and The Party. Actor Al Jolson’s skin was painted to make him look like a black man, and so was Peter Sellers', to make him look and sound like an Indian.

He writes: “But many people have wondered why the story of Kom, a national hero in India, would not have worked at the box office with an Indian actress from country’s Northeast states or the Himalayan region? Someone should have tried harder. And so we present the potential actresses who the producers should not have passed over:”

He lists four actors with roots in north-east India, who would have more accurately been representative of the Manipuri boxing champion. He lists Gitanjali Thapa a Sikkim-based actor who has won a National Award; Bala Hijam from Manipur, who has acted in over 30 films including in Hindi and Malayalam languages; Masochon V Zimik, also from Manipur, who played Molly in Chak de India; and Karen Shenaz David, a Shillong origin actor who has worked in Hollywood films and television serials.

Obviously, the talent is there. So why is there no will?

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