If Priyanka Chopra feels a northeastern actor should've played Mary Kom, then Ben Kingsley shouldn't have been Gandhi

Where was this gyan when Priyanka Chopra Jonas not only played Mary Kom but also declared herself the perfect fit for the role (which she was, and Mary Kom agrees.)?

Subhash K Jha January 19, 2022 12:07:26 IST
If Priyanka Chopra feels a northeastern actor should've played Mary Kom, then Ben Kingsley shouldn't have been Gandhi

Priyanka Chopra in and as Mary Kom

There is this very well-known anecdote about Sir Laurence Olivier when he was shooting with Dustin Hoffman for The Marathon Man. Oliver caught Hoffman running to prepare for his scene.

“Try acting,” the distinguished British actor suggested to Hoffman.

That is what actors are supposed to do, right? Act? So where did Priyanka Chopra Jonas' belated wisdom come from? She now feels, seven years after the biopic was released, that Mary Kom should have been played by an actor from the northeast.

Where was this gyan when she not only played Kom but also declared herself the perfect fit for the role (which she was)?

The real Mary Kom agreed. In an interview with me after the release of the film, the real Mary Kom had only compliments for Chopra Jonas and the film: “I broke down, and cried. I remembered all the difficulties and all my struggles. It hasn’t been easy being Mary Kom. The film took me on an emotional journey. When I saw it the first time, I cried uncontrollably. I can’t forget all the pain and stress I’ve been through. Yes, it’s got my life almost right. Except for the bits showing insurgency in Manipur, which affects my state so deeply, the rest of the film is true to my life. It’s all true. Priyanka Chopra has done a great job of playing me. And not just Priyanka, even Darshan Kumar, who plays my husband, is very very good."

"No! I don’t think it was important for her to look like me. In many ways, Priyanka is very similar to me. It was important to feel like me. Any other girl from Manipur or northeast India could look more like me. But to express my feelings and thoughts was more important. Also, the movie would not have been a hit if any lookalike had played my role. The film is made for commercial purposes, and had to reach a large audience. A popular and talented actress is what we needed. Priyanka and  I are similar people. We found a lot in common. We both laugh and cry a lot. We’ve both gone through our own struggle. A lot of hard work has gone into her career, just like mine. The struggle has not been easy for either. What makes me happy is that my story, and whatever it may contain to inspire younger generations, would now be taken far. Now, the story of my struggle has gone to every corner of India. I may not be known in some parts of  the country. I am hopeful that after this film, I’ll be known in every corner of India. I hope after seeing the film, a lot of people would be inspired by my struggle. I hope they will learn some lessons from my history. That’s why I agreed to be part of a film on my life. I wanted my story to be told.”

There is an entirely absurd line of thought being applied to movie casting these days: casting should be culture-specific, and only an actor who is culturally, emotionally, physically, and sexually akin to the character, must play him or her.

In other words, only a blind actor could play Audrey Hepburn’s part in Wait Until Dark or Naseeruddin Shah in Sparsh. And of course, Ben Kingsley would not even be considered for Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi. Only a full-blown Gujarati would do, yes? And you thought Daniel-Day Lewis was perfect as Abraham Lincoln? Little did we know that a day would come when casting for a true-life character would depend on the actor’s place of origin than the volume of talent.

A powerful lobby fighting against cultural discrimination feels only gay actors should be cast as homosexuals. Practically speaking, that narrows down the list to those actors who are actually gay and out of the closet. Who would play Rock Hudson then? Recently, when Vaani Kapoor played a transwoman in Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui, there were murmurs of protest. But director Abhishek Kapoor was clear on this: casting would depend on suitability, not reality.

Adopting the opposite view, if a northeastern actor should play Mary Kom then by this logic, actors from the northeast should play characters from only their part of the world. No. I think Chopra Jonas did a fine job as Mary Kom. Any actor or director would tell you, it is not about how you look but the way you feel.

Subhash K Jha is a Patna-based film critic who has been writing about Bollywood for long enough to know the industry inside out. He tweets at SubhashK_Jha.

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