Here's why Korean pop is more popular than Priyanka Chopra's Mary Kom in Manipur
Every now and then, a conversation will flare up in which people lament at how bad Bollywood films are and how depressing it is that the commercial Hindi film industry is either a platform or a punching bag used by one and all. Cast whatever stones of criticism you will, but the fact remains that nothing else in India shines as bright a light upon those issues that usually languish in the darkness of neglect.
Take, for example, the matter of Manipur's Revolutionary People's Front banning Hindi films in the Northeastern state. With the upcoming Mary Kom not getting a Manipur release, the ban is suddenly a trending topic. The unfairness of the situation -- a film on Mary Kom, a Manipuri, won't be seen in Manipur! -- has struck a chord, it seems. That Bollywood films can't be shown in Manipur is now news.
Except, unless you think something that happened 14 years ago qualifies as news, it isn't anything of the sort.
All the way till 2000, Bollywood ruled the roost in Manipur. Songs from commercial Hindi films made up the soundtrack to parties and celebrations. From Shammi Kapoor to Shah Rukh Khan, Bollywood stars offered comfort and entertainment to generations of Manipuris, just as they did in so many other parts of India. Then along came the separatist group RPF's ban on all things Hindi, in September 2000.
Contrary to what the reports pegged to Mary Kom's non-release in Manipur may suggest, it isn't this film that is suffering a special fate. The RPF objected to Bollywood, accusing it of "Indianising" Manipur and eroding local culture. The radio no longer had the songs that everyone had once sung along to; barring Doordarshan, all television channels with Hindi programming disappeared from the airwaves. By 2002, Hindi had been driven out of the state. This whole drive against the "Indianisation" of Manipur is particularly ironic since RPF members were reportedly trained by China.
It's been 12 years since then and we're waking up to all this now, because producer Sanjay Leela Bhansali was hoping the state would add to Mary Kom's earnings. (Curiously, one of the last Hindi films to release in Manipur was the Bhansali-directed Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam.)
Had the Mary Kom team's efforts to secure a theatrical release in Manipur been successful, then it really would have been news. Not only because it would have meant a significant shift in attitude, but also because if there was ever a Bollywood film that embodied all the anxieties that anyone may have about mainland India's cultural chauvinism, Mary Kom is it. When it came to casting Kom's role in the film, Kumar and Bhansali went with Priyanka Chopra, arguing she was a more marketable name.
"An ideal casting choice would be someone from Kom's ethnic community," said playwright and theatre director Swar Thounaojam. "Cinema is no stranger to first time actors doing wonders on screen. Just look at the story of how journalism student Khulan Chuluun landed the role of Borte in the Oscar-nominated film Mongol. If the ideal situation is not possible, which is often the case, I think any good actor who shares Kom's race and her East Asian features (and she need not be just from the Northeast) in the hands of a sensitive director can be a non racefail beginning for Bollywood."
Kumar and Bhansali's decision is particularly difficult to justify because Manipur has a thriving local film industry that has grown significantly stronger since the ban against Hindi entertainment was imposed. In fact, before Chopra was cast, the original plan had been to cast a Manipuri actress, Lin Laishram, as Kom.
Laishram's credentials are impressive. She has experience as an athlete (she was a junior national champion in archery). She studied at the Stella Adler of Acting in New York. She's gorgeous (she has worked as a model for designers like Tarun Tahiliani) and has acting experience in Bollywood, having played a tiny role in Om Shanti Om. Laishram even trained as a boxer for a bit, as preparation to play Kom in the film. Eventually, Laishram was dropped in favour of Chopra. "I completely get that," Laishram told the Indian Express. "To be able to make a movie saleable and a hit, you have to cast big stars."
Although Laishram sounds remarkably graceful and unresentful, there's a very serious issue here that strikes at the heart of the racial and cultural diversity that should be one of India's crown jewels. However, Bollywood's narrow-mindedness is not much better or worse than the attitude of the insurgent groups who keep the ban against Hindi entertainment in place in Manipur.
Indian Express reports that militants threatened actress Bala Hijam when she accepted a role in a Hindi film. "I can’t tell you who they were," said Hijam. "But they told me to come back immediately. I tried negotiating with them. I assured them that the role I was doing would neither harm me nor Manipuri culture. But they just wouldn’t understand."
While it is true that there's a lot of local flavour in the Manipuri entertainment industry, it's not precisely indigenous. Korean entertainment, from television serials to K-pop, comes to the state via satellite channels and has grown in popularity to become something of a craze. "Local" in Manipur has come to mean Korean and this cultural imperialism by Korea is believed to be spreading its satellite tentacles to Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland. The fact that this foreign culture seems more familiar to these states than Hindi shows just how badly the situation in Northeast India has been handled, by both the government as well local leaders.
Perhaps it's expecting too much of Bollywood, which is ultimately a commercial film industry and not obliged to promote national integration, but a film like Mary Kom could have gone a long way to indicate to both Northeast Indian as well as mainland Indian audiences that differences need to respected and accepted; embraced even.
Instead, Kom is being paraded around the country as part of the film's publicity campaign, possibly because the publicity team is well aware that whether or not the film releases in Manipur, Mary Kom needs the stamp of legitimacy from the real person. It's not just because the film is Kom's life. The decision to cast Chopra as Kom suggests the distorted view that Manipur needs to conform to a mainland vision of what makes an Indian, even after winning the country an Olympic medal. Kom standing by Chopra in every publicity event is the equivalent of a "Get Out of Jail Free" card for Bhansali and Kumar. If Mary Kom fails at the box office, however, the popular belief that there's a lack of connect between the Northeast and the rest of India will only intensify, which is equally disheartening.
Perhaps the real victory in all this lies in the fact that even now, less than a month before the film's September release, when you put "Mary Kom" in an internet search, it's still the real athlete, not the patently un-Manipuri actress, who comes up, with her medal, Manipuri features and the Indian tricolour proudly on display .