Priyanka as Mary Kom: Casting coup or racist faux pas?

There’s something about Mary that is making Priyanka Chopra very nervous.

“I’m extremely stressed about the Mary Kom biopic because it’s such a huge name to live up to,” said Priyanka earlier this year.

It’s no small feat to be convincing as an Olympic medalist boxer on the screen. But you can train to be a boxer. How do you “train” to be Manipuri?

Luckily for Priyanka, you have special effects for that. A Hollywood makeup artist was hired to do a prosthetic makeover by giving Chopra heavier eyelids for a more Asian look. (See the pictures here.) But the filmmakers apparently were worried those prosthetics would not hold during heavy action boxing bouts. So the latest word is they are going for special effects from Red Chillies VFX instead.

In a country where north easterners have faced endless "chinky" jokes and routinely been treated as the “other”, it’s hard to tell if the casting of Priyanka Chopra is a sign of embrace or erasure.

Mary Kom and Priyanka Chopra. Agencies.

Mary Kom and Priyanka Chopra. Agencies.

“To me the idea smacks of strong racist tones, almost at par with the time when Hollwyood would apply black paint on the faces of white actors – going back to Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer (1927) and Peter Sellers in The Party (1968)” writes film columnist Aseem Chhabra in a hard-hitting column for the Mumbai Mirror.

He is right. This is yellow-face, plain and simple.

The White House correspondents dinner this weekend took a hilarious jab at race and casting when Obama unveiled Steven Spielberg’s alleged new project Obama starring Daniel Day Lewis. “I needed someone to dive in and really become Obama,” says a serious-looking Spielberg. “As it turns out the answer was right in front of me all along – Daniel Day Lewis!” It had the audience in splits especially Obama playing Daniel Day Lewis playing Obama. African American actor Tracy Morgan pops up at the end to announce he is going to play Joe Biden.

As a spoof, it’s pretty funny mostly because in real life these days Hollywood usually steers clear of (black/brown/yellow) face. But in an industry which is all about profits, box office and bankable stars, the palette of choices is often stark – if not black/brown/yellow face then it’s whiteout.

That is what happens in 21 (2008) about an MIT professor who teaches his students to beat the odds in Las Vegas studios. His star student is played by Ben Campbell. In real life, he was an Asian American named Jeff Ma. This is not the colourblind “it’s about the best actor for the role” nonsense.

“Are you kidding me? A movie about math, MIT and gambling, and the lead was made white? Have you ever seen the pai gow tables in Vegas?” exclaims Manish Vij on the blog ultrabrown. “You can just imagine the studio meeting: ‘Asian won’t sell. If you want the movie made, we have to re-cast the leads.’”

Surely, pretty much the same thing happened with the Mary Kom bio-pic. At that time Miss R had written on MissMalini.com, “(T)here have been no major parts for actors and actresses from the Northeast in Bollywood films, and denying this role to an Northeast actress by giving it to a more commercial Bollywood actress would be a great disservice.” As one commentator on social media points out, it’s not like Manipur has no actors. Ratan Thiyam’s famous repertory theater is from Manipur and has been around since 1976.

Desis are the first to complain (and rightly so) when they are the victims of brownface or whiteout. Chhabra writes how Hollywood tried to make a film based on the Indian American civil rights lawyer Vanita Gupta but wanted to cast Halle Berry to play the lead. The 1994 version of Jungle Book made Jason Scott Lee Mowgli as if any kind of Asian would do.

Sometimes even being desi is not enough. When Mira Nair cast Irrfan Khan and Tabu in The Namesake Ajit Duara complained in The Hindu“(T)hey are not Bengalis and you can tell it. It is like David Lean casting Alec Guiness as Prof. Godbole in ‘Passage to India’, possibly for a wider audience, and ending up losing an essential E. M. Forster’s character.”

Sure, Mary Kom might say graciously “Any actress is good enough to play my role. They are all talented. I am happy that Priyanka is doing my role.” And Jeff Ma was fobbed off with a “consultant” role on 21. But the problem with both 21 and the Mary Kom bio-pic is that these are actually about real people from ethnic and racial backgrounds who do not often get to star on the big screen. That’s what makes it a lost opportunity whether it’s lost due to yellow-face or whiteout. Or through the latest bizarre diversity tactic - name-dropping.

That’s when a character has a name that signals a particular ethnicity but nothing else about him/her does. Like Imran Khan playing Tashi Dorjee in Delhi Belly or his uncle Aamir Khan playing Ladakhi Phonstok Wangdu in 3 Idiots.

“The population composition of cities like Delhi is mixed. I wanted the film to reflect the new reality of India in all its shades,” Delhi Belly writer, Akshat Verma told The Times of India. Then he added mystifyingly, “I feel in today’s time a character need not look like he belongs to particular place.”

It’s like diversity used as seasoning sprinkled over the film. “Bollywood is probably bored of old names,” Tenzin Lobang, a befuddled Tibetan resident of Delhi told TOI.

Oddly in a scenario like that Priyanka Chopra’s digitally altered eyelids might actually be read as a hopeful sign. Bollywood is at least waking up to the fact that Priyanka Chopra can’t look like Priyanka Chopra and still play Mary Kom. Weird as it might seem, in an industry where diversity usually means Parsee jokes and Sardar stereotypes, this is actually a flicker of progress.


Updated Date: Apr 29, 2013 17:02 PM

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