There is no dearth of good movies and actors from the northeast region of India but even then there is not much representation of the region in mainstream Indian movies, television and even advertisements.

Northeast language films are also mostly missing from leading OTT platforms. And although things are changing gradually and slowly, it is a long road ahead, feel cine makers from the region. 

In recent times, besides a few examples such as Andrea Tariang in Pink, Karma Takapa in the Amazon Prime Series The Last Hour or Chum Darang in Badhaai Do — and names such as Seema Biswas and Adil Hussain — one hardly encounters a character or actor from the northeast region in popular Indian entertainment.

The movie Mary Kom, based on the life of the ace boxer from Manipur, would have looked more convincing had there been a face from the northeast instead of Priyanka Chopra, though Chopra did a good job. 

“Mainstream Hindi cinema, unfortunately, follows the logic of ‘saleability’ over ‘credibility’. That is why in the film Mary Kom, an actress was cast who looks nothing like an ethnic northeastern person of what is known as ‘Mongoloid’ or ‘Asian’ features,” said Utpal Borpujari, a journalist-turned-filmmaker. 

Borpujari said it is like a white actor playing Nelson Mandela, however great the actor may be, while pointing out that these issues are more minutely followed even in an extremely commercial industry such as Hollywood though. 

“A good film will pass the test of time with any actor, even newbies, and a mainstream film can also become a big box office success if it can engage with the viewers in some way no matter if it stars a known name or not (and vice versa, a film with a huge star cast can be a super flop — and there are examples galore),” said Borpujari.

Borpujari has made documentaries such as ‘Mayong: Myth/Reality’, ‘Songs of the Blue Hills’, ‘Soccer Queens of Rani’, ‘For a Durbar of the People,’ feature-length documentary ‘Memories of a Forgotten War’, a children’s film in Assamese ‘Ishu’ and others.

Director and writer Ahsan Muzid feels if biopic films such as Mary Kom or Milkha Singh are made with the commercial aspect in mind, they can’t do proper justice. 

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Mary Kom couldn’t be screened in Manipur as Hindi films were not allowed there. If you have seen ‘Aśoka’, they have hardly done any research on the dress, structural, architectural details of those times,” said Muzid, the maker of ‘Sonam …the fortunate one’, which was the first dialect feature film from Arunachal Pradesh, and Assamese film ‘Pokhilar Pakhi’ (Wings of Butterfly). He also produced a doc-feature, “…and ripples, not waves” and produced, directed documentaries and telefilms for Doordarshan.

Little representation on TV, ads

Colors TV had launched a TV show titled ‘Nima Denzongpa’, starring Assamese actor Surabhi Das in the lead role, putting the spotlight on the struggles of a northeastern girl named Nima, who moved from her village in Sikkim to Mumbai for her love.

Initially, the serial’s aim was to highlight the racial discrimination people from the northeast are subjected to in mainstream cities. But the show later lost track, turning into a saas-bahu saga. 

“As for TV serials, more often than not, they lose track of the initial idea, hence it’s not surprising. However, in the OTT space, we see serious efforts to cast actors who look the part, and here the so-called star system has bitten the dust as we have seen in the case of shows like Pataal Lok,” said Borpujari. 

A few years ago, reality show ‘Roadies’ was shot in various locations across the northeast; places which mainland Indians had never seen before. The season’s theme song ‘Jajabor’, in Assamese and Hindi, was a collaboration between singer Papon and Raghu.

Not much is different when it comes to advertisements, which hardly show any character from the northeast. A recent exception was an ad by WhatsApp ‘Message Privately,’ which shows a Tamil-speaking family’s efforts to learn Assamese in order to help their daughter-in-law feel more at ease. Such ads with a northeast face are very rare.

But filmmaker Nicholas Kharkongor—who made his directorial debut with ‘Fair and Lowly’, and made feature films such as ‘Mantra’ and the much-acclaimed ‘Axone’—is very positive and feels things are changing for good. “I have seen a lot more ads on TV or YouTube with northeastern faces then it used to be earlier. Like a bunch of friends with a northeasterner, and I feel it’s a good thing.” 

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Kharkongor says nowadays, he doesn’t feel it becomes necessary to explain that this is not a foreigner but from our own country and this means there is acceptance. “Of course, more needs to be done but we are in the right direction. Even in the fashion world, a lot of northeast models can be seen. We just hope things will get better.” 

Removed from mainland but getting closer

Once a KBC promo showed a participant from the northeast sitting on the hotseat — at which point a cutaway shows a few young men watching on TV, who quip, “Arrey, yeh hotseat tak pahunch gayi!” 

The girl, when asked the question, ‘Kohima is a part of which country?’, and given the options of India, Bhutan, Nepal and China, opts to use the audience poll lifeline. Thereafter, when Amitabh Bachchan announces the audience poll results with “100% logon ne kaha, India,” and asks her, “Yeh baat toh sabhi jaante hain,” the contestant replies, “Jaante sab hain, par maante kitne hain?”

The ad irked a government official who filed a complaint with the Broadcasting Content Complaints Council (BCCC) against the promo, demanding that it be taken off air, as it could create controversy. 

But the BCCC found nothing objectionable in it; the trailer was highlighting the problem that northeastern people faced, and was a step in the right direction. 

Kharkongor explained how we all have to remember that historically and culturally, the northeast has been aloof from the rest of India. “Assam has had the largest association with the subcontinent of India since pre-independence times. But if we look at the Naga Hills, the Lushai Hills, they had absolutely no association, these were just unreachable land. It’s only after 1947 that things have changed,” Kharkongor said.

“Cable television happened in the late ’80s, internet in the ’90s. Social media and internet are all recent phenomena and brought places closer. Before that, everything was removed, everything was about what was happening in Delhi or Bombay,” Kharkongor added.

According to Muzid, India’s northeast is a distinct geographic, cultural, political and administrative entity. Assamese cinema was the first to achieve a separate identity when it started its journey with Jyoti Prasad Agarwala’s ‘Joymoti’ in 1935, he said. 

When ‘Sonam’ attained double triumphs at the 37th International Film Festival of India 2006 in Goa, and in Competitive Section and Indian Panorama; one famous pictorial magazine mentioned the film as from Himachal Pradesh instead of Arunachal Pradesh, Muzid said. “In spite of several email correspondence, the correction was not done. It reflects the ignorance about our region in other parts of the country and that’s why sometimes the people feel alienated.”

Almost absent from OTT

There are good movies from other regional languages such as Malayalam, Tamil, etc., on popular OTT platforms but one can’t find good northeast language movies in this space. The Assamese acclaimed movie ‘Aamis’ was initially available only on moviesaints.com. After a long time, it was available on SonyLiv.

Acknowledging the limited presence of Assamese or other northeastern language films on OTT, Borpujari said it is really unfortunate that streaming platforms are falling prey to the numbers game in a lopsided way. 

“Yes, the OTTs need hit shows and films to sustain, but given that the virtual space is a very democratic space, there is a possibility of getting good ‘business’ out of a film in a language which is ‘smaller’ in terms of population speaking it.” 

If the OTTs acquire, say an Assamese film, and do not promote it well, it gets drowned in the ocean of content. Borpujari explained. “So, if I don’t know that a particular film exists on a particular OTT, I won’t find it in and since viewers wanting to watch good films across languages won’t find it, it would not be viewed, and thus it would give rise to the logic that films in such languages don’t have enough viewers. Thus, acquisition of such films gets stopped.” 

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Borpujari said it happens with even films like, say ‘Disciple’ or ‘Soni’ or ‘Meel Patthar’, which are on Netflix but because of the algorithm, they would never get displayed in any of the panels. “It’s a chicken ‘n’ egg situation really and unfortunately. That is why we need more platforms like MovieSaints to give space to Indie cinema in various languages, provided these platforms are marketed well among the discerning viewers,” he said. 

Even Rima Das’ work came into limelight following the selection of her film Village Rockstar as an official entry for India to the Oscars in 2018. The Assamese film that came out in 2017 is one of the few native language films now available on Netflix. Das single-handedly has written, directed, produced and edited the film.

Kharkongor’s directorial venture in Hindi Axone, now on Netflix, introduced the pungent cuisine from the northeast to the world but at the same time intelligently told the story of the people from the region often facing casual racism in metros.

Character sensitisation is important

When it comes to films, there needs to be lot of sensitisation with directors, casting directors, producers or people at the helm, to be aware about the whole process of casting, Kharkongor said. 

“Across the world, things are being worked out to have a department that looks at cultivating diversity and inclusion in the work place. Sensitisation is happening globally across the corporate sector and other sectors. The same needs to be done in the Indian film industry in a small way at least,” Kharkongor said.

Elaborating further, Kharkongor said attention needs to be given on even small characters in a story. “Suppose, a story is written around Delhi’s Lajpat Nagar. So the protagonist here has to be shown as a north Indian. Besides the lead, there are lot of characters. But the minute details of those characters are not given importance at all.” 

Giving an example, Kharkongor said if the hero goes to a shop or to a government office and meets an officer, in the script they only write ‘a government officer or a shopkeeper’ and give no other details, which is in a way lazy and dangerous thinking at one level. 

“They will always show a north Indian middle-aged man as a shopkeeper or government officer. Why not a woman, or a physically disabled person, or a person from the northeast or a person with different sexual orientation? That is where things need to be changed to change people’s perception at a larger level. Details of each character should be looked after and this way you can make the film pan-India,” he said. 

Kharkongor said if different types of people who are also good actors are cast each time, they will offer different things to a work place and at the same time it won’t make any difference or compromise the storyline. “Then it becomes responsible filmmaking and can bring a big change and make a difference in society. The more of these faces we see in the media, there will be more inclusivity in this country. The beautiful thing about art is that it changes things at a subconscious level.” 

Very few northeast faces in national scene

There are only a few well-known actors from the region such as Seema Biswas or Adil Hussain in mainstream cinema.

Filmmaker Anshuman Barua, who made ‘Door’, a film based on the insurgency problem in Assam, said we are ourselves to blame for this as very few people from the northeast tend to go out of their comfort zone. He also made a Hindi remake of ‘Dr Bezbarua’, a popular Assamese movie of the 1960s made by his uncle Brajen Barua. 

“We can’t blame the film industry if we ourselves are not available. Danny Denzongpa, Adil Hussain, Zubeen, Papon, Joi and the Late Bhupen Hazarika in earlier times had done some stupendous work in Mumbai and other places outside of NE. When you first step into Mumbai, the city tends to overwhelm you, but if one can negotiate the initial days, then it is a city of dreams. This holds true for all sectors — corporate, film, music, banking, services or manufacturing,” said Barua.

Muzid feels certain things are not fair for northeast cinema and questioned why only one movie from Assam is entered in the Indian Panorama segment at The International Film Festival of India (IFFI) when other languages get more opportunities. “I would say it is harming the future of Assamese and other northeast cinema.”

Muzid is not happy with how things work at the Indian Panorama and National Film Awards. “Now even commercial cinema has entered the Panorama section, which was exclusively for art house films earlier.”

Talking about why Indie films don’t work when compared to commercial movies with a big star cast, Muzid shared a personal experience about how a prominent Bollywood producer told him why Sonam’s music was good but “it won’t work commercially since it was not made by any big composer.”

Muzid said the same producer, who made many award-winning art house movies, told him that he stopped doing such films as in India only commercial films and big star cast movies work. Muzid said the producer told him that if he gave the film ‘Sonam’ to his market exploring team, they would reject it because it doesn’t have any star cast or commercial value. “He asked me to direct a low budget film like ‘Bheja Fry’ in Mumbai under his banner. It was not my cup of tea so I did not take the opportunity as I make regional movies only.”     

Muzid thinks it’s sad that in India, cinema means Mumbai and the South’s commercial industry. Financial support is a very important point, so can’t filmmakers of the region form a strong, united lobby? “In commercial movies, money comes from multiple sides. Unfortunately, northeast has no billionaire and corporate house and the government is also always not supportive to promote art house movies.”

The writer is an independent journalist and video content creator based in Delhi-NCR. Runs a YouTube channel Think Positive: Live Healthy. 

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