Manipur in the spotlight: actors from India’s north-east finally get chance to shine

Ignored for many years by Bollywood, these stars from the ethnically diverse region say the industry is showing signs of change

Lin Laishram pursued the role of Mary Kom, a part which eventually went to Priyanka Chopra. Supplied
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When international superstar Priyanka Chopra was cast as Indian Olympic medallist Mary Kom in a 2014 Bollywood biopic, the news ruffled feathers in the boxing champion's home state of Manipur. Chopra, people protested, looks nothing like their home town hero, the only boxer in the world to win eight world championships.

India's ethnically diverse north-eastern region, of which Manipur is a part, is geographically – and was for many years, politically – alienated from the rest of India. Because of its border shared with Myanmar, people from the region have a close affinity culturally to East and South-East Asia. And because of their distinct look, many have been subjected to racism by those from other parts of India.

Criticism of Chopra's casting soon died down after Kom herself called her the "perfect choice", and Mary Kom the film went on to become a major box office hit.

But if Mary Kom were to be made today, it would be a very different film, says Lin Laishram, a Manipuri actress who pursued the role that eventually went to Chopra.

"I called the director a number of times to tell him I was interested. But I was a nobody. So I had a lot of convincing to do," Laishram recalls. "Looking back, I feel ethically it's not right. It's like casting Brad Pitt to play [celebrated Indian cricketer] Sachin Tendulkar."

But things are changing, says Laishram, who was cast as a fellow boxer in Mary Kom and who has appeared in Bollywood films such as Om Shanti Om (2007), Umrika (2015) and Rangoon (2017).

Streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime Video are looking for diverse stories and giving breaks to people who have been overlooked for many years by the big Bollywood machine.

Laishram, who has been working in the Mumbai film industry for more than a decade, and mostly plays bit parts, was one of the leads in the Netflix film Axone. The movie is about a group of north-east Indian friends living in Delhi who throw a wedding party for a friend. They cook the traditional dish axone (pronounced akhuni) for the event, a delicacy known for its strong smell.

“People are getting conscious of what they are feeding themselves. They have the power of the internet to teach themselves, they want authentic stories and the streaming services are giving them that,” Laishram says.

Ask any mainlander to name five actors from the north-east and no one will be able to

"In many ways Axone has thrown open the door to this whole new world of talent in India. I really hope it will give a boost to people from our region trying to make it in the industry. And also confidence to producers to tell stories like this. We have proven that we have the calibre, and that they just need to give us the chance."

Bijou Thaangjam, another Manipuri actor in Bollywood, agrees. "Ask any mainlander to name five actors from the north-east and no one will be able to. And this after we have celebrated 100 years of Indian cinema. There are no talents you can name," he says.

Thaangjam, who has appeared in big-budget Bollywood films such as Shivaay (2016), Jagga Jasoos (2017) and Paltan (2018), was recently seen in the indie film Penalty, now streaming on Netflix. It is about an aspiring footballer from Manipur who faces discrimination as he tries to make it big.

“It’s a good time right now. People are exploring different cultures and concepts. Audiences are hungry for different things,” he says.

Bijou Thaangjam in the web series 'Shaitan 62'

Streaming platforms are also proving to be a lifesaver for small films such as Penalty, says actor Lukram Smil, who is also from Manipur.

"Cinema chains are also controlled by movie studios and that monopoly often stifles small films," he says. "Penalty was ready for release three years ago, but the cinemas refused to play it for one reason or the other. It took us two years to finally get it out last year, but even then we were given odd timings and very few screens, so the film never made an impact.

“After Netflix gave us the platform recently, the film trended for about two days on the site. And for all the producers and crew who have put in all that work, it was a big sigh of relief. Also, the global visibility it has given us is humbling.”

I've done everything including playing a Japanese person and a Chinese person and I don't want to do any kind of stereotypical characters any more

Pratiksha Rao, director of licensing at Netflix India, tells The National: "Entertainment is also about empathy and having a better understanding of the world. When we bring fresh perspectives to life and tell lesser-known stories that inspire us, that is when the magic happens.

“We want to find authentic, local stories that new and seasoned creators are passionate about and take them to our members in India and around the world.”

Both Laishram and Thaangjam say the struggle for roles continues, but that they have begun saying no to the many stereotypical parts that come their way.

“I recently got a call for a TV show and they wanted to know if I was interested in playing a Chinese character in a mythological series,” says Laishram. “I asked them if I had to learn the language for the role, and they said, ‘No, you just have to speak your language.’

“I had to politely explain to them that my language is Manipuri and that I would not be able to do justice to the role.”

The solution, Thaangjam says, is to pick the right parts. “I don’t want to point fingers, but because there are such few opportunities, there are some actors who will take any role. We need to stop doing that. We have to fight for it and stand our own ground with dignity,” he says.

Lukram Smil says streaming platforms are proving to be a 'lifesaver'

"I have rejected many roles. Some people think I am picky. But I've done everything including playing a Japanese person and a Chinese person and I don't want to do any kind of stereotypical characters any more. I will say no."

While Thaangjam is in the thriller series Flesh, a gruesome look at the human-trafficking industry, which was released at the weekend on streaming platform Eros Now, Laishram is waiting for her dream action role.

"I really want to play this [tough] woman who goes on a killing spree. I love action films. They are one of my favourite genres," she says.

Laishram believes someone who looks like her being the hero of a major Bollywood film is something that is just around the corner.

"We have seen, over the lockdown period, what people are consuming. People are looking for different content. A film like Gulabo Sitabo [starring Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan] was released on the same day as Axone, but our film got more views and was appreciated more. Things are changing very quickly."