Imagine if in the name of greater commercial viability, a white actress more popular than Chopra were cast to essay the character Chopraplays in Quantico.

Priyanka Chopra in Quantico The incomplete debate of Mary Kom movieImage: Mary Kom and Quantico FB page
Voices Identity politics Saturday, October 03, 2015 - 13:18

By Richard Kamei

India and the United States of America are known for being accommodating of people from diverse backgrounds. But in reality, the notion that the two countries are accommodating is fictitious, as is illustrated by their film industries, where instances of assimilation and appropriation are real and political by nature.

People living on the margins of society are at the receiving end of this reality which has been perpetuated by the market and its demands. The film industries of these two countries pretend inclusiveness and progressiveness when they are actually taking away the space meant for people from marginalised sections.

It is here that the trajectory of Priyanka Chopra’s acting career – between her role in the film ‘Mary Kom’ and her latest stint in American drama series ‘Quantico’ – needs to be discussed, because it informs us of the degree of sincerity in portraying and appropriating any character as an actor.

There have been many opinions and criticism on casting Chopra in the role of Mary Kom in the film titled after the boxing champion from Manipur. These range from cinematic liberty to the excuse of that it was a commercial movie which needed a popular face in order to succeed at the box office. 

Mary Kom belongs to the ‘Kom’ community of Manipur.  As an actress whose race is different from that of Kom’s, Chopra not only appropriated the Kom community, but the casting decision also implicitly signalled that that actresses from Manipur are below Bollywood’s standards.

Commercial viability being given priority over the identity of the Kom community is not only a racist approach, but also one that takes away the community’s identity. Despite such a reality confronting Bollywood, it continues to dictate what set of features – facial structure, accent, language, culture – define Bollywood and what should or should not cater to its audiences. This hegemony has no space for people from racially different regions, Dalits and tribal people. The recent controversy around MSG-2 movie on portrayal of tribal people (and also of Bahubali) tells us something about the mainstream entertainment industry.

Cut to the present scenario. Priyanka Chopra’s stint in Quantico is making news and is receiving applause and positive reviews, partially thanks to aggressive promotion by production house ABC.

Chopra’s roles in in Quantico and in Mary Kom are a study in the politics of representation – who can represent whom?

In Quantico, Chopra is wearing the popular image of an Indian character on her sleeves, and of course, her accent which is a cross between Indian and American accents. All in all, she is playing her role by retaining the identity and culture she belongs to.

Imagine if in the name of greater commercial viability, a white actress more popular than Chopra were cast to essay the character Chopraplays in Quantico. Wouldn’t that illuminate the debate around the appropriation of the Kom community in Mary Kom movie?

If this doesn’t bring out the irony within entertainment industry which is guided by monetary and nationalistic aspects perhaps nothing will. Instances such as these raise the question of whether the stories and experiences of minorities and marginalised communities are a commodity that can be co-opted without giving them what is rightfully theirs.

In the quest of a progressive and inclusive ecosystem in entertainment industry, the story of hegemony and its politics needs to be told and deconstructed. The under-representation of the ‘other’ in mainstream entertainment industry is a dark reflection of the society we live and thrive in, and the realities of existing inequality and injustice.