Bollywood has been called many things – ‘colourful’, ‘exotic’ and ‘vibrant’ are words thrown around by westerners trying to be polite – but nobody thinks of it as sensitive or authentic. We’re talking about an industry that allowed 26/11 to be retold by Ram Ganja Verma, so let’s not even pretend that we have standards.
This is why it’s surprising to see the outrage against Mary Kom being played by Priyanka Chopra in the upcoming biopic titled ‘Hopefully This Will Make Up For Babli Badmaash’. It smacks of disrespect and racism, they say, to have Priyanka Chopra play a Manipuri, given that she looks as Manipuri as I look like Dakota Fanning.
Now Priyanka Chopra is a fine actor who’s turned in many great performances, like the time she convinced the world that she was an actual singer. The trailer, which released this week, looks good too. It’s hard to mess up a sports film, given that they all follow the same graph: a fiercely talented underdog overcomes obstacles – social, financial, political – to rise, then fall, then train using brutal montages, the mere sight of which gives normal people a hernia, then rise again before winning the ultimate prize, i.e. dancing on Cross-Dressers With Kapil Sharma.
So the argument isn’t about PC’s talent or the eventual fate of the film – it’s about the fact that Bollywood was too risk-averse to search for an equally talented actor who looked the part. Of course, we can’t know that for sure. Maybe the casting team tried really hard, but couldn’t find any North Easterners hanging out at the Lokhandwala CCD.
To make matters worse, there were reports that prosthetics would be used to make PC look like an authentic Manipuri. And by prosthetics, I mean six army guys hanging around the set at all times. Also, Bollywood takes commercial viability really seriously, which is why I’m glad that they at least chose Priyanka, because things could’ve been way worse. I’m sure that at some point, the suits investing in the film had the following conversation:
Suit 1: What do we do to make sure this is a guaranteed 8000 crore megasuperblockbuster?
Suit 2: Ooh, let’s get Salman to play Mary Kom!
Suit 1: That’s insane. For obvious reasons.
Suit 2: Like what?
Suit 1: Duh. Bhai will only play Mary Kom if a South Indian dude has played her first.
This isn’t the first time that a Priyanka Chopra film has been accused of racism. That honour would go to Fashion, where her character, Generic Model McTemplate, goes into a drug and booze-fueled spiral that results in her sleeping with a random black guy. It is this encounter that causes her to re-evaluate her life, because like they say in India, ‘Once you go black, you better not go back because log kya kahenge?’
Of course, it’d be unfair to say that Bollywood’s only good at racism. We’re great at reverse racism too. Case in point: a largely forgotten film called Gandhi to Hitler, where Raghubir Yadav played Hitler, Neha Dhupia played Eva Braun and a bunch of neo-Nazis went, “Bro, show some respect please.” Watch this film if you haven’t, because where else will you see a bunch of brown people fight for white power? Okay, maybe in every fairness cream ad ever, but you get my point.
But to come back to PC and Mary Kom, one thing is certain: it is a story that deserves a glittering showcase and the film, like it or not, will be a hit. It will hopefully inspire young people, especially girls, to follow their dreams, so that one day they too might have their cultural identity misappropriated for an audience that’s too dumb to appreciate them otherwise.
(Note: This is my HT column dated 27th July 2014.)