Dingko Singh biopic stars Shahid Kapoor, but aren't stories from Manipur best told by its own people?
A new film on Dingko Singh’s incredible life, which has Shahid Kapoor playing the titular role, is bound to reignite the conversations around racebending and cultural appropriation.
It seemed that the ground had shifted under Babai’s feet a year ago when the doctors informed her that her husband, boxer Ngangom Dingko Singh, had bile duct cancer. In desperation, Babai and Singh had seen an immediate way out of the vicissitude — to sell their house and come to Delhi for his treatment. But for Babai, a mother of two, separation from her young children, who had to be put up in a boarding school in Manipur while the family struggled to raise money for Dingko’s treatment, was the toughest part of the ordeal.
“It was hard, leaving behind my youngest, my daughter who had never left my side before this,” Babai tells Firstpost from Manipur over the phone. After a year-long treatment, Singh is cancer free, and has gone back to coaching with the Sports Authority of India (SAI) in Imphal. But Babai, who is a trained beautician, has had to give up her career to be able to look after Singh, the boxer who won a gold medal in the 1998 Asian Games in Bangkok in the 54-kg Bantamweight category.
A new film on Dingko Singh’s incredible life, which has Shahid Kapoor playing the titular role, is bound to reignite the conversations around racebending and cultural appropriation. Ironically Singh is the inspiration behind Manipuri boxer Mary Kom taking up the sport, whose character was played by Priyanka Chopra in the film by the same name in 2014, leading to a wave of criticism at Bollywood’s attempts at whitewashing ethnicity.
Bollywood’s blind eye to race
Babai is unconcerned that a Hindi-speaking actor from New Delhi will play her husband.
“See, cancer is life-altering. I was neither very old, not experienced when this happened to us. At 34-35 years of age, I didn’t know if my husband will even live. My son had his class 10 exams and we couldn’t pay any attention to his studies. We had to leave everything and come to Delhi for his treatment. He has lived this life of a sportsman…. so if someone wants to make a film on him, tell his story, I have no problem with who plays him on screen,” Babai says.
But aren't stories based in Manipur best told by its own people?
When it comes to race and ethnicity, the Indian film industry has largely been reductive and complaint, choosing to bankroll cultural exclusion instead of finding avenues for representation. Leave alone the new directors who don’t have the maneuvering space for risks, even seasoned filmmakers with deep pockets choose to go with actors who are safer bets at the box office for pure economic reason. But Bollywood draws its apathy from society at large and North India’s unease about people from the North East Indian states have led to continuous othering. It has bred and fostered a climate of suspicion often resulting in violence.
We seem to suffer collective amnesia when it comes to acknowledging the politics that drive this othering. Manipuris, fighting for the removal of the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), have had a long history of protests. This politics sits uneasily with the mass narrative of nationalism and fealty. Which is why Mary Kom has to proclaim in the film that she is “Indian at heart”. It’s not enough that her achievements do the talking for her.
Lost in the debate on mainstreaming, is the nuance of what we see as the so-called mainstream. From a psychological perspective, the physical attributes are only one aspect of the targeted racism. Floods in Nagaland have half the emotional appeal as that of in Kerala, though none of are heartland states.
Actor Adil Hussain, who is from Assam, once said, not without irony, “I am probably here because I have some Aryan features."
“Would you rather tell a story or not see the film made?”
Raja Krishna Menon (Airlift and Chef), who is making the Dingko Singh biopic, says the film will not get made if he waits to cast someone from Manipur for the lead role. He is candid about the considerations that go into making certain choices.
“The story has been there since the '80s. Why didn’t someone buy the rights to it? Shahid Kapoor did. Tell me this. Should only a doctor play a doctor? An actor should be able to play any part. It takes money to make a film. It’s a hugely inspiring story. My job is to see that the story and Dingko’s character is represented right. Movies need a certain amount of money to be made. No producer will put in their money for a film that doesn’t have a bankable star to power it through the crucial first weekend. If the choice is between picking an unknown Manipuri actor and the film not getting made, and picking an established star and taking Dingko’s incredible life story to millions, I will go with the latter,” he says.
“Cinema is an expensive medium. If ever there is a sellable Manipuri star available for roles for stories from the state, they’ll be picked. I’m making a film about a character and I will use the best tools I have to tell the story. If you can’t tell the story, then what’s the point? It’s very easy to sit back and have this conversation, but reality is very different,” Menon says.
He goes on to break down the process a film goes through post production.
“Consider this, the marketing cost of an average film is anything between 5-10 crore now. To recover the money we have only the first weekend. The marketing cost is so high the producer needs to see his audience in the first weekend. Now there are some films that are sleeper hits, based on many things, including word of mouth. But in India, the problem is, you don’t have enough screens for the word of mouth to convert to tickets.”
“So my consideration is: How many people are going to see the film? If I choose an actor who will draw 100 people and if Shahid is in it a million people will watch it, I will choose to reach a story like this to a much wider audience. But I will do everything in my power to see that the feel is right his story is represented correctly and not with frivolous intent,” he says.
“What is North East?”
At the recently concluded Youth Ki Awaaz summit, Imphal-based journalist Chitra Ahanthem pointed out a basic dichotomy when we talk about areas of India thought far removed from the mainland’s daily churn. “What is the ‘North East’? North East is a direction. North Eastern India is the geographical location of the states,” Ahanthem says of the deliberate laziness of lingual othering. Ahanthem also highlights the stereotyping of the people from the North Eastern states as a form of casual racism.
“There are a lot of myths about women from the northeast. On one hand, people say that they are very strong, while on the other hand it is propagated that they aren’t as much of a feminist. Women in the northeast are underrepresented in various decision-making and policymaking process and suffer,” she says.
Our worst problem is not that our racism is virulent and aggressive. It’s that our racism is polished and benign, without the jagged edges of malice that would trigger a chain reaction of controversy and change. Our politics of exclusion is rooted in the fear of the culturally unknown with no real effort directed in undoing that wrong. We think nothing of casual slurs tossed at people from North East India studying in the Hindi heartland.
The discussion on racebending was revived after M. Night Shyamalan cast white actors for his adaptation of Nickelodeon’s animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender. Historically, racebending is seen as a common practice in Hollywood to discriminate against people of colour, resulting in loss of opportunity and deplatforming of ethnic diversity. Jake Gyllenhaal played Prince Dastan in the Prince of Persia. Ben Affleck played the hispanic Tony Mendez in Argo. At home, Aamir Khan playing the role of Phunsukh Wangdu in 3 Idiots, believed to be based on the life of Ladakhi innovator Sonam Wangchuk, raised no eyebrows. The fact that the movie went on to become a monstrous hit, perhaps firmly established the toxicity of whitewashing for other directors who will choose to tell stories from the north eastern states in the future.
Bollywood’s pusillanimity in the area of ethnic representation is reflected in the global trend of a deep-seated reluctance to open up the space for cultural diversity.
If there can ever be a positive side to this, Babai lays it down in simple terms. “Well, as long as Manipur’s stories are told, we are happy no matter who plays my husband,” she says, underscoring the importance of the narrative over actors who will script that narrative.
In Sekta, in the Imphal East district, Babai and Singh are building a new home with an eye towards the future of their two children. Let’s hope that future is free and inclusive.
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