The North East of India is not unknown to Bollywood that has often chosen the region either for its scenic beauty or as a subject. However, in the latter case, the mainstream movies have barely done justice to the North East, the latest example being Anek that not only shows the director’s lack of understanding of the issue highlighted in the film but also his limited knowledge of the several local tribes’ cultures and tradition.
The recently released movie, directed by Anubhav Sinha, tells the story of insurgency and a boxer’s struggle to uphold the message of ‘Unity in Diversity’ through her winning performance. One can assume that the director is talking about Nagaland as the movie shows discussions on peace accord (the peace talks between Naga insurgency group NSCN and the Centre is hanging fire for over two decades now). One can also assume that the story is set in Nagaland — the lead female character is played by a model from the state, Andrea Kevichusa — and can expect to see some of the beautiful locations in Nagaland. But the story remains in one’s assumptions as the film neither states the time and place of incidents clearly nor was it shot in Nagaland.
More than the vagueness of the movie, what is more frustrating for anyone from the North East is Bollywood’s absolute disregard for the unique culture that each tribe in the North East has. And it is not Anek that has to be solely blamed for its faulty portrayal of the region. Earlier too, Bollywood had made little or no effort to understand the region, its diversity and problems and the different tribes.
Talking about Bollywood’s shallow approach towards any subject or issue in the North East, award-winning filmmaker Dominic Sangma said these mainstream movies are made for a particular group of viewers from the mainland that has a picture of the North East in its imagination.
“I had tried to watch Mary Kom (the Manipuri boxer’s biopic) but could not stand it,” said Sangma, whose film MA.AMA became the first Garo language film to win the national award.
Mary Kom, a 2014 film directed by Omung Kumar, featured Priyanka Chopra in the lead role. Moreover, the film was not shot anywhere in the North East.
“I personally feel, they (the Bollywood filmmakers) have not understood the true essence of the land, its people and their issues. For example, Mary Kom was based on a personality from the region but the cast was not justified. The North East is a land of diversity and one needs to understand the culture, traditions and life as a whole to justify it on a big screen,” said filmmaker Biswajit Bora, adding that most of these films on the region or showcasing it are commercially unsuccessful.
Understanding the region and its people is a daunting task and requires deep research. According to national award-winning filmmaker Jahnu Baruah, the socio-politico-cultural problems of the North East are not well understood by the rest of the country, including the mainstream film industry.
“This is the reason why films on the region don’t have any connect with reality. The issues in the region are not easy to understand, and at times, even people from the region don’t understand these in entirety… People tend to take these issues lightly,” said Baruah, adding that though some filmmakers’ intention to highlight such issues might be genuine, but the kind of study that is required to portray these on screen is lacking.
“Afterall, the North East is a part of the country and its issues should be considered with much gravity. But that sincerity is missing,” he said.
The lack of sincerity is evident in Anek, for instance, where the director does not give any history of time and events. The ambiguity in the insurgency story is unpardonable because each state has its own history of militancy. Also, in a few scenes, women are seen wearing jainkyrshah, which is the attire of the Khasi tribe from Meghalaya.
Even if it is reasoned that the director wanted to remain as vague as possible about the place of occurrence of insurgency, the mere fact that there is no mention of timeline sends out a wrong message about Meghalaya where the militancy problem has been curbed to a great extent.
That the female protagonist is a boxer, who lives in a typical Khasi house, shows the story writer’s lack of imagination. Also, the ‘villain’, who is a former militant leader, has a Mizo surname.
“Anubhav Sinha is a sensitive filmmaker. His earlier films did well and loved by the critics but the failure of Anek has its own reasons,” said Bora, whose recent film Boomba Ride was screened at Cannes.
Filmmaker Bhaskar Hazarika, whose film Aamis was critically acclaimed, in an interview had expressed his reservations about the way the lead actress was chosen through “Google search” and found everything in the movie “fake”.
In the film Rock On 2, which was shot in Meghalaya (East Khasi Hills), there were no local actors in lead roles. The film could have been shot anywhere telling any story and it would not have made any difference.
The blunders in Bollywood films focused on the North East can be traced to the seventies. The 1972 film Yeh Gulistan Hamara, starring Dev Anand and Sharmila Tagore, tells the story of a tribal community living along the Indo-China border. A song in the film, Mere Paas Aao/mera naam jao, was considered offensive to the Ao tribe of Nagaland. This is apart from the fact that the characters were played by mainstream Bollywood actors.
While the North East has piqued the interest of Bollywood, it has failed to inspire mainstream filmmakers to go deeper into the various issues of the region. Then result is thus more quantitative than qualitative.
However, Manipur-based filmmaker Haobam Paban Kumar finds a positive aspect to the growing interest of the mainland tinsel town in the region. According to the award-winning director, this new-found interest should be encouraged as this will help the rest of the country know about the region. He strongly feels that the finesse in storytelling will come with time as more filmmakers become aware of the past mistakes and get acquainted with the region.
“These films are made for a certain market. Once the North East turns into a good market, Bollywood will take things more seriously,” he added.
Probably, but going by Bollywood’s performance history, one can safely conclude that it does not learn from its mistakes and there is little hope that it will stop distorting facts and engaging in superfluous storytelling.
Bridging the gap
All the filmmakers that Sunday Monitor spoke to agree that one needs to understand the place and its intrinsic issues to tell a great story about the region.
“We have great stories to tell from the North East and now things are changing because people are getting educated about the region. We are no more a region to be neglected or looked down upon. We have proved that through different media, sports, music, education and literature, among others,” asserted Bora.
Sunday Monitor spoke to several movie buffs from the region and many among them feel that there is a dearth of commercial films from the region telling stories of the region.
Baruah agreed that this may be a way to send the right message about the North East to the mainland viewers, but at the same time, he pointed out the problem in doing so. According to him, when a serious issue is the subject of a commercial film, the gravity of it may not be understood by many viewers. “It may backfire,” he added.
Paban Kumar is more introspective. “It is not just about Bollywood. We, the filmmakers from the region, should also take it upon us to tell our stories. Our films should be technically strong. We should also understand the market and know how to put them on popular OTT platforms,” he said.
OTT platforms can definitely go a long way in popularising northeastern films by local directors, said Sangma.
However, directors often find it difficult to put their films on such platforms. “We all know that apart from theatres many Assamese films have not reached the audience. We have satellites, now OTT but these platforms don’t give sufficient amount to producers for which many producers are discouraged to go for the next. In that case, if the industry unites and makes strong norms, then I think we can get minimum respect from those platforms,” pointed out Bora.
There is also a need for Bollywood filmmakers interested in northeastern issues to work closely with experts on those subjects for more clarity so that the same is reflected in their movies. A film like Anek on such a complex issue as insurgency, when made frivolously, will only distort the image of the North East and give out a wrong message to viewers outside of the region.
~ Team Sunday Monitor