“When I came to Pune to study at the Film Institute, on the first day all the students gave their names. I said that my name is Tsering Phinso Denzongpa. I was from Sikkim and no one could speak my name. Classmates used to say Shash… as if I am some animal. Then Jaya Bachchan also used to study there. And she said that I should keep my own simple name, Danny.”
Danny, who comes from Sikkim and is an actor of Hindi films, has heard this story many times.
After watching a few scenes in Anubhav Sinha and Ayushmann Khurrana’s new film ‘Anek’, the same thought came to mind that after Danny, who came in films in the 70s, there are still very few actors from Northeast states who have been able to make a place in Hindi films. .
These dialogues of the film ‘Anek’ attract your attention again and again. For example – “Has a parlor? Massage? Or ‘Nepalan’?”
This question is being asked to a girl from Northeast India during police interrogation. “If Ideo (a boxer from a northeastern state) is also included in the team, will it be the Indian team or the Chinese team?” So right there the actress says, “Humko chinki baulte hai”
Nagaland actress Andrea is debuting with Ayushmann Khurrana in ‘Anek’. You can probably count on the fingers of actors working in the Hindi film industry coming from Nagaland.
Andrea, who hails from Nagaland, is a model who used to model for Katrina Kaif’s makeup line and has worked with designers like Sabyasachi. She was also seen in Kapil Sharma’s show recently. In the words of actor Ayushmann Khurrana, who is working with Andrea, Andrea is like a fresh breath of air, she is well educated, she has new ideas, she is only 21 years old, she has a different mindset.
The question is, be it Assam, Manipur, Nagaland, Tripura or Sikkim, how many actors from Northeast states do you see in mainstream Hindi films?
Andrea plays a boxer in ‘Manek’ and at one point she says, “My father says we are not Indians, so I have to play for the Indian team.”
Seeing this dialogue, I remembered the film ‘Mary Kom’. In the film, when someone comments on Priyanka Chopra when she comes from the Northeast, she almost shouts, “I am Indian, India is my religion.”
The film ‘Mary Kom’ is one of the few Hindi films whose main character is from a northeastern state and not in a side role. Whereas Manipur actress and model Lynn Laishram worked with Priyanka Chopra in the same film. Later, Lynn acted in films like Rangoon and Akhuni.
There was a lot of debate at that time whether Bollywood should not be more diverse or diversified and whether the role of ‘Mary Kom’ should not have been given to a heroine coming from North East states?
In an interview given to Vanity Fair in 2002, Priyanka Chopra had said, “If I look back now, the role of Mary Kom should have been given to an actress from the North East. At that time as an actor, I had a kind of greed that I was this good. Let me roll. When the makers of the film insisted, I said yes.”
Film actor Danny is probably the exception who came from Sikkim in the 70s and made a place in Hindi films. He was sometimes seen in the role of a dreaded villain and sometimes as a character actor. But it was not easy due to his Naan-Naksha.
Andrea (film many)
Dipannita Sharma, model and actor
Geetanjali Thapa (National Award Winner)
Lynn Laishram (Mary Kom, Rangoon, Akhuni)
Usually, where North Indian heroes with tall stature were considered heroes, then at such a time in the 70s, Danny took an entry.
In those days, mostly family drama films were made and Danny, who hails from Sikkim, did not seem to be any brother or relative of any hero and it was difficult to get a role.
In a 2018 interview with the BBC, Danny said, “Then I was advised by some well-wishers that the kind of films that are made will not have characters like you, so still get a job somewhere.”
Although after films like Mere Apne, Fakira, Zaroor, Danny made his place in Bollywood. But it also has a long story.
Danny had said in a conversation with BBC, “When NN Sippy offered the role of Shashi Kapoor’s brother in the film ‘Fakira’, I said that I do not look like Shashi Kapoor’s brother from anywhere. But Sippy said that the audience has accepted you and now he will accept you in any role. Despite the success, I was not comfortable from within that an actor with a Mongol face like me should be asked to play a North Indian character.”
Almost 50 years have passed since the 70s, after Danny, Adil Hussain is perhaps one of the very few film actors who appear in Hindi films in big and important roles and hails from Assam.
Adil Hussain, who has worked in films like Ishqiya, English Vinglish, Mukti Bhawan, Bell Bottom, has also said many times that Bollywood has lost a great opportunity by not playing the Northeast actress in Mary Kom.
Northeast India movie Doesn’t even show up in shooting
Ayushmann, who worked with artistes from the Northeast in ‘Anek’, told BBC, “Actually in mainstream cinema we always go towards popular belief. People who look like us, speak like us, songs like us. We listen to them. We can relate ourselves more with them but this has to change. When we adopt other languages, all the people, then perhaps an Indian film will be full of virtues.”
“Many people from North, South, North East have worked in all the regions. There are two such actors from North East who were in National School of Drama, are waiting for 40 years when they will get a chance. Maybe they even gave up Granted, I’ll never get a chance in a mainstream Hindi film because of the way he looks, or his language. But working with him in many of them really felt like working with a veteran.”
Not only artists, North East is rarely shown as a location in Hindi films. For example, ‘Dil Se’ is a story set in Assam, but it was shot in Ladakh and Kerala more than any state in the North East. Kalpana Lajmi must have shot her film Daman in Assam or Shahrukh-Madhuri’s Koyla was shot in Arunachal Pradesh.
However, there are some such shows and films on the OTT platform which not only show the discrimination faced by the people of North India but are also giving the platform to many artists there.
The film Akhuni, which came on Netflix, is the story of a few people from the Northeast who live in Delhi and want to cook and feed their friend a special dish before her wedding. But this dish has a special smell and in Delhi, he gets to hear a lot from the landlord because he is from the Northeast.
In a scene in the film, the landlady (Dolly Ahluwalia) shouts at her tenants in the Northeast, “I told you while renting the house that you can’t cook your stinky food here.”
Many actors from North East have worked in this film. The film is directed by Meghalaya director Nicholas Kharkungor.
In a conversation with the BBC, Nicholas said, “What is shown in Akhuni has actually happened to many people from the Northeast in cities like Delhi, you come to Delhi and become a victim of racism in your own country. Sometimes the person in front does not even realize that he is a racist because he has never spoken to a person from the Northeast in his life. I have also been subjected to racism and I showed the same in the film.”
“Speaking of films, even today you will see more North Indian faces. Sometimes the culture of South India is visible. Northeast is not talked about much. Casting directors and directors of films need to step up and bring changes . Just like there is a diversity and inclusion policy in the private sector, so should it be in films too – then it is about showing women, people with disabilities, LGBT community.”
Nichols says, “Suppose there are 30 characters in the film and a hero named Raj goes to the office and talks to his boss, then the script will just say Boss. The stereotype is that you will make a North Indian that boss (who is a male only). Whereas that boss can be from any state of India and can be a woman or he can also be gay or could be from North East. But that doesn’t happen.”
There are many actors from the Northeast who complain that they face racism or discrimination when they come to Mumbai, get very stereotypical roles, and many go back.
Dr. Mousumi Saharia is a well-known singer from Assam. She says, “I remember that evening in 2006, when I came to Mumbai, the city of dreams. I had come there to learn music and I also did some recordings. It was not that I did not get work due to being from the North East but people Used to talk strange things like- Oh you people live in the whole forest? Or do you see elephants everyday? All this was very stinging and I had to spend a lot of time explaining to the people.
“In 2006, if there were more actors from the North East in the Mumbai industry, it would have been easier for me. I don’t feel isolated. I met many good people but the atmosphere was not what I could call inclusive. If the atmosphere was better, I would Thought of staying longer in Mumbai and pursuing her singing career. Now after two decades things are changing.”
Utpal Borpujari, who hails from Assam, is a National Film Award winning film critic and also makes films.
Putting both sides of the coin in front, he says, “North East states should also promote themselves that shooting can be done there and there should be subsidy scheme for film units like other states. If I want to increase the representation of artists from the North East, then this can be done only when Hindi filmmakers show themes related to this area in the films. And then people from the Northeast are also included in the film.”
“In Mary Kom we saw that the actor who played that role had nothing to do with the ethnicity of the real boxer. It’s like a blonde actor playing Nelson Mandela. Unfortunately, the filmmakers in our society don’t have that sensibility. This seems to be happening in many. I doubt he would have got even 5% of the roles. I wonder how Danny got acceptance and it also shows that no other actor with North-East look has got the same acceptance.”
Actress Lynn Laishram, who worked in Mary Kom, is hopeful of getting better despite the difficulties. She says, “I can tell from personal experience that till a few years ago, roles were not written for actors from the Northeast. But Vishal Bhardwaj’s film Rangoon changed things for me. I am glad that it is slowly. The right attitude is changing. Actually, there are less theaters showing mainstream films in the North East states and hence the earnings of Hindi films are also less from these states. Otherwise, not only will the business get a boost, but the artists will also get opportunities.”
Akhuni’s director Nicholls is also hopeful that the situation will change. He says, “I’m an optimist. Like in the fashion world now you can see a lot of people from Northeast India. Now you don’t have to tell that these people are Indians, not foreigners. 20 years ago if you saw someone on a TV commercial. When I used to see the model of North East, people used to think that it must have come from Hong Kong. I hope there will be a change in TV and films too.”
A single actor from Nagaland working in a Hindi film (many) remains a talking point today. But an actor or filmmaker like Andrea expects these ‘one’ to turn into many ‘many’.
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