CultureCinema On the Mary Kom Biopic

On the Mary Kom Biopic

This article goes on to explain the subtle and often hidden racist intents in mainstream Indian cinema which exoticises the Oriental.

Posted by Anannya

*Mainlandsplaining (v)-

  1. When someone from the Indian mainland or a native informant condescends to explain someone’s own culture to them.
  2. When a mainland Indian or a native informant tells you that discrimination or abuse is in your own mind and you should stop complaining
  3.  When a mainland Indian or a native informant indulges in WhatAboutItis. As in What about X terrible thing in that context, if you did not outrage about it then, why outrage about this now
  4. As visual rhetoric that endorses the racial supremacy of certain phenotypes (eg doe-eyed dusky “Indian” beauty) over others

Examples of mainlandsplaining in the specific context of objections to Priyanka Chopra playing Mary Kom in a biopic:

“You are being racist and Anti Indian! Priyanka Chopra is a great actress and it is just one Indian playing the role of another Indian!”

Things that are not the point of this discussion: Priyanka Chopra’s acting abilities or her commitment to the role.

Things that have already been discussed- the point that there were several other actresses who could have played Mary Kom onscreen without needing to radically alter their features.

Now that the trailer is out, it seems that all the buzz that was generated only around the effort involved in making Priyanka Chopra look like Mary Kom was merely to create controversy, as they have reduced “authenticity” to a token sing-song accent that comes and goes from scene to scene. The choice between yellowfacing Priyanka Chopra and outright brownwashing Mary Kom must have been a difficult one for the filmmakers indeed. Given that the trailer looks like a boilerplate template for every sports movie ever, it seems that authenticity and originality have both taken a backseat in this telling  of the story of Mary Kom’s remarkable achievements.

Why should brownwashing Mary Kom be a problem, you ask? Well, possibly because it leads to things such as these- fan-art of Mary Kom, but not exactly, because it is of PC playing Mary Kom. Is this erasure perfectly harmless? Well, the official MC Mary Kom page certainly seems to think so. Some say representation in art or in the popular imagination is a harmless thing. Anyone who has had to fight against stereotypes of the cruel stepmother, the Muslim terrorist, the over-achieving, nerdy Asian kid or the dumb bimbette might beg to differ.

Some say people hating on PC playing MK are anti-Indian haters. After all, why should you object to an Indian playing the role of another Indian?

Which then begs two questions:

a. Is the Manipuri actress also not an Indian playing the role of another Indian, or am I missing something?

b. Do you then only watch films where an Indian plays the role of another Indian? (Somewhere in Mumbai, Katrina Kaif and Nargis Fakhri just high fived Amy Jackson).

Also, if it is just about “one Indian playing the role of another Indian”, can we have Sanjay Leela Bhansali produce a biopic of Saina Nehwal with Geetanjali Thapa playing her? Or one about Anjali Bhagwat with Bala Hijom in the lead? No? Why? Can they play key characters-protagonists, deuteragonists, supporting characters in mainstream cinema with names like Sharma or Pathak or Chopra or Khan without people telling them they don’t fit the role? Why? The director – playwright Roysten Abel has spoken about how his wife, an Assamese actress from NSD, was constantly rejected for not looking “Indian” enough. Exactly what is this definition of “Indian” appearance, and why does it not extend both ways?

It is about the economics, silly. You see audiences will just not accept an unknown actress in such a major role.

Ahem. Three breakthrough stars whom the audiences have loved in recent times – Vidya Balan, Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Irrfan Khan – were all relative unknowns. Total newcomers are launched in Bollywood all the time, with enough marketing budgets earmarked to create a buzz around them. Also, Geetanjali Thapa and Leishangthen Tonthoi are National Film Award and Rajat Kamal winners, so they aren’t exactly unknowns or untested actors.

So the question is, how can you be so sure audiences will not accept them if you don’t cast them in anything to begin with?

It is such an honour that a major mainstream star like Priyanka Chopra is playing someone from this region and going to such lengths to deglamorize herself, don’t you see? NOW Indians will also accept that we are also Indians. Look, Ben Kingsley played Gandhi!


The WhatAboutItis Version- You didn’t outrage when Ben Kingsley played Gandhi or X played Y or that terrible racist thing happened Y years ago, and therefore you can’t outrage now.

Yes, please also tell me how it was such an honour to all Moors when Sir Laurence Olivier decided to don Blackface for Othello. Or how all Indians were flattered when Ashton Kutcher brownfaced himself to play a racist cliché of an Indian for a Pop Chips ad.

Ben Kingsley is half Gujarati and changed his name from Krishna Bhanji to Ben Kingsley because a foreign surname would hamper his career. Brought up in England and coded as white because he could pass as an olive-skinned white man, he’s an actor who built a career around a lot of roles as dark-skinned villains. Excellent example, really. (Also, I wasn’t born when Gandhi was released, but just so we are clear, an infinite amount of racism in the past does not legitimize repetitions of racism in a hopefully more enlightened present).

So, here’s a quick quiz. Tell me how many named north east Indian characters can you think of from Bollywood in recent times, who played them and how?  Off the top of my head, I can think of:

  • Manisha Koirala in Dil Se as Meghna and her two unnamed brothers – terrorists from an unnamed part of the region, with no clear ideological or identifying markers – in a film that was touted as Mani Ratnam’s breakthrough film on secessionist movements in the region.
  • Kelly Dorji in a teeny tiny role as a Bodo militant leader in Tango Charlie.
  • Kimi Laldawla as Mary Ralte and Masochon “Chon Chon” Zimik as Molly Zimik in Chak De India who remind everyone that they don’t need passports in India and beat up men who make sexist, racist remarks.
  • Meiyang Chang as Tenzing/Zing in Badmaash Company– I haven’t watched it, but I am told he is the butt of his friends’ racist jokes and while his character arc does call out his friends’ remarks, the plot also uses the race card to trick the system.
  • There was also Priya Rajvansh in the old film about the 1962 war, Haqeeqat, playing Dharmendra’s girlfriend “Angmo” with heavy silver earrings and strange fur caps. Is she Tibetan? Is she from Arunachal? Why is that cap so square?  Someone enlighten me, because I don’t think I’ll ever know.
  • There is also Sridevi in this number from Roop Ki Rani Choron Ka Raja. No comments, especially not on Anil Kapoor in blackface.
  • There was Anupam Kher in Karma playing someone called Dr Dang, who had an army of Mao-suited soldiers. I am not sure what to make of it.
  • And there was always Danny Denzongpa, everyone’s favourite Bollywood villain – occasionally playing characters with names like Major Gurung or Jung Bahadur or Tamang. (Amjad Khan fans don’t count here).
  • You can, if you wish to, include Aamir Khan in Three Idiots playing a Phunsuk Wangdu who spent most of the film pretending to be Rancho from Shimla. I’m not sure why his character had to be from Ladakh, unless:

a. the cinematographer put his foot down and insisted on some beautiful landscapes, or

b. the filmmakers had a tie up with the Ladakh tourism folks, or

c. they needed a ready excuse for Aamir Khan’s over-botoxed expressionlessness and resorted to the expressionless Oriental cliché, or

d. they wanted to use Ladakh to indicate his complete isolation from the world – just as Parineeti Chopra’s father in Shuddh Desi Romance is far, far away in Guwahati and cannot police her and Hrithik Roshan in Mission Kashmir tells Preity Zinta that his adoptive parents lived in Assam, where letters never reached.

  • You can also, if you wish, include Imran Khan’s character in Delhi Belly who was called “Tashi Dorjee Lhatoo” for no comprehensible reason whatsoever. This film is indeed a remarkable achievement for everyone who urges people like us to blend into the mainstream – not only was a character called Tashi Dorjee Lhatoo speaking just like your average Dilli Bwoy, he blended into the mainstream so much that he also had large Punjabi eyes and a full, scruffy beard. So mainstream, much wow.

As we say in quiz questions, this is not a comprehensive list, please feel free to add to it. My headcount includes villains, terrorists, “Oriental” appearances and names played for laughs, and two named north east Indian characters in one film whose speaking roles make a political point about alienation, belonging and stereotypes. To quote Junot Diaz on race, “”If you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.”

When roles for people who look like us in mainstream Bollywood are few and far between to begin with; when the few roles that do crop up are usually that of a terrorist or a caricature; and when your appearance or your different name is played for laughs by major mainstream Bollywood stars – then yes, casting a major Bollywood star as a celebrated sports star who looks like us is not paying a compliment to the region. It is the easy appropriation of the achievements of an exceptional individual who has surmounted tremendous systemic deprivations to accomplish all that she has.

When most of the press around the film is constantly harping on the amount of effort that goes into changing a star’s physical appearance to “deglamorize” her, it tells you (and sometimes not-so-subtly) that the subject that the star is playing is not attractive, and the star is making huge sacrifices to look less than her usual attractive self for this role.

Mary Kom is a sportsperson. Her performance in the ring does not demand glamour or performative femininity. But when Mary Kom wants to glam it up, she sure as hell can.

Image Source: Odds and Ends blog

Image Source: Odds and Ends blog

It is also extremely ironic that the trailer shows us that the filmmakers have found actors of North East Indian appearance to play other roles in the film- her parents, her husband, even young Mary Kom. It is telling that no actress from the North East seems to have been even remotely in the running to play Mary Kom- while people who look like Mary Kom can play the supporting cast and bit roles in the story of her life, Mary Kom herself has been embraced by the mainstream so hard, she turned into a Punjabi girl from Bareilly.

It is not racist to ask that you choose someone who can play a national idol on film without needing to make a choice between drastically altering the actor’s  physical features or changing the idol’s ethnicity altogether. Nor is it racist to point out that with an ethnically different casting choice, that drastic alteration of her physical appearance and/or the adoption of an inconsistent sing-song accent seem to have become the only markers of the “authenticity” of the film.

Nearly 67 years on from Independence, maybe it is time you accepted that someone who looks like Mary Kom, someone who speaks Hindi like Mary Kom or doesn’t speak Hindi at all is as Indian as someone from anywhere else in India. And consider the possibility that they can take centerstage in a mainstream Bollywood film that will have massive distribution and publicity throughout the nation.

For everyone asking me why I am so angry, why I can’t take this in the right spirit; how come X from my region does not feel the same way; that Y from that region has also been discriminated against – I bring you Derailment Bingo. You are welcome.

(*Credits to @SabinaYRehman who coined it on twitter and @nsaikia who first brought it to my attention)

Disclaimer: This article was earlier published on the author’s blog here.


  1. Richa says:

    You write so well ! Envious of your talent to turn something people would consider either ‘too trivial’ or ‘too heavy’ into something that reads just right.

  2. How come no actress from Northeast was approached for this role?
    Well written.

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