Is The Northeast Ready For Bollywood?


Two superstars performed at the peak of their career at perhaps the highest peak (altitude-wise) they had ever been on in their lives. The aftermath was quite extraordinary and while many of the critics lambasted the State Government for changing the name of the Shungetser Lake to Madhuri Lake, the rational to a few was palpable. Bollywood had seldom reared its fascinating head in the Northeast and the feeling of alienation from the rest of country was quite understandable.

Bollywood has been India's biggest export after Cricket. It is considered as one of the largest film producers in India and one of the largest centres of film production in the world. Since 1913, when Raja Harishchandra, the first film was ever made by Dadasaheb Phalke, Bollywood has been producing over 200 films per annum. And yet over the decades only a handful of movies have ever been made on and in the region. Worse still barring odd actors like Danny Denzongpa not a single successful face from the Northeast has been successful in an industry which has a plethora of actors that the world recognise.

"The Northeast has many beautiful spots for shooting films. The State Government of Meghalaya is developing such sites", stated MukulSangma, Chief Minister of Meghalaya. While these words would have seemed hollow a decade ago things are now changing, not only in Meghalaya but also states like Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, where it is rumoured that the next big Bollywood film is soon to be shot.

But change does take time to come about and while we must admit that the Government has a huge role to play in facilitating and ensuring that more movies are made in the region, it must be acknowledged that there is a strong need for Bollywood to also conform.

Mary Kom, the biopic of the famed Manipuri boxer was never shot in Manipur, where she grew up. Initially because of a ban on Hindi films by the insurgents there, fear played in the minds of the director and producers. "Then when they witnessed the lack of response from the State Government, the writing was clear" says R.K Konthoujam, a set designer in Mumbai who hails from Manipur.

The film was eventually shot in Dharamsala and scenes shot in Himachal Pradesh were eventually passed off as Manipur.

The cultural impact and pain for some of the Northeasterners however was immense when Priyanka Chopra, who played the lead role of Mary Kom, was selected over the initial choice Lin Laishram, as Priyanka was considered more marketable. One can only imagine if in the same analogy Mel Gibson or a Tom Cruise would have played a role of Nelson Mandela in Hollywood.

Credit therefore goes to newer directors from Bollywood who are more open to scripts which demand that certain locales are essential to the script. "Gone are the days when suddenly out of nowhere the actress and actor would suddenly be seen dancing in the mountains of Switzerland" says one such director, adding that things are changing in Bollywood but slowly.

The change recently seen earlier this year when the entire crew of Rock On 2 descended upon Shillong for shooting the sequel to its previous super-hit movie Rock On. The script according to many film insiders is based on a musician, who frustrated and despondent from city life, goes away and finds solace in the hills of Shillong.

"Shillong was selected because it is an integral part of the script and not because we wanted to shoot song and dance sequence in the mountains," says Farhan Akhtar, who plays the main lead in the movie. Similar views are echoed by Arjun Rampal,also starring in the film, who states that they were conscious of the fact that Rock music and Shillong went hand-in-hand and hence, they chose Shillong over any other place in India.

The good news does not end here!

Vishal Bharadwaj'slatest movie called Rangoon was also shot in Arunachal Pradesh. The film is based on the Second World War and stars actors such as Shahid Kapoor and Kangna Ranaut. And the best news, if rumours are to be believed, is that Manipur's very own Lin Laishram has also been given a prominent part in the film.

Rangoon is supposed to be Vishal Bhawradaj's most ambitious project after Omkara and Haider. If the film is really based on the Second World War then hopes are that the brave Naga, Manipuri, and Tripurimen who lost their lives fighting along with the British in Imphal, Kohima and some even in Myanmar, would be highlighted. Apprehensions however remain. Will Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose's story overshadow everyone else because he is somewhat of a controversial figure whose death is shrouded in mystery and that would make for better marketability of the film than unnamed men from the Northeast?

While it is easier to always blame Bollywood for the low exposure that both, places and people from the Northeast have, sadly many Northeasterners are also to blame. "It is upto the actors themselves to feel proud about their origins and where they come" states Rakesh Debbarma, a student of Tripura University, adding that despite being from Tripura RD Burman and SD Burman never acknowledged their origin as indigenous Tripuri people. "Even today people are amazed to know that they were from Tripura and while we do feel proud of their achievements, it would have been nice if they acknowledged the role of the State in promoting them for all those years under Maharaja Rakesh" adds the young student,with obvious reference to SD Burman.

Similar views are echoed by Sharmila Hazarika from Dibrugarh,who says, "We all know that Udita Goswami hails from Assam and her movie Paap was shot extensively in Arunachal Pradesh, but she has hardly ever acknowledged the fact that she comes from the Northeast and this pains us." Sharmila adds, "We can keep complaining that the rest of the country ignores us while our very own choose to ignore us as well as soon as they gain some popularity and fame".

A fact to be noted is that in Bollywood most stars who have been successful have always acknowledged their origin, be it the proud Jat roots of the Deols or the Punjabi roots of the Kapoors. Even Mithun Chakraborty has always played to his Bengali origin and has been proud of the fact.

Not all is lost. Emergence of strong character actors such as Adil Hussain, who hails from Assam, has conscientiously made known that his origins are in the Northeast and while he has made a mark in Hollywood with Life of Pi and in Bollywood with English Vinglish, continues to be open to associating with the Assamese film industry. Singer Papon, who is now an established playback singer in Bollywood having films like Barfi, Bajrandi Bhaijan and Humari Adhuri Kahani to his credit, is proud to reveal his roots and will soon be featured in Hometown Heroes, a two-part documentary which traces back singers to their roots and influences.

And while recognition and fame are relevant, it must be remembered that the silver lining of Bollywood making a serious entry to the Northeast is the boost to economy. "Bollywood is a multi-billion dollar industry and when a film is shot in Assam, Meghalaya or Arunachal Pradesh, the direct impact for a month's shooting is beyond 7-10 crores" says Ronnie Lahiri, a Shillong-educated film producer who has gone on to make films such as Madras Cafe (based on the Rajiv Gandhi assassination).

Jahnu Barua of Assam, on the other hand insists that beyond the money, it is the image of the region which is often perceived as dangerous is broken through such large-sale exposure. "If a movie is made in the region then the support cast can and should be local actor," he opines. "This gives the local actors confidence and also a platform to showcase their talent", adds Barua.

But does this really happen?

Critics have questioned this by citing the lack of exposure that was given to local musicians in the film Rock On 2. This theory is however debunked when the Rock On 2 Team got on-board Summersalt comprising of Kitkupar Shangpliang (Kit)- Vocals/ Front Man/ Acoustic Guitar; Ador Shangpliang- Traditional Instrument Duitara and Keys; Pynsuk Syiemiong- Vocals; Dawadhok Shangpliang (Weet)- Drums/ Vocal/ Home Tools; Baiaineh Shangpliang (Nah) – Bass Guitar; Gregory Ford Nongrum (Greg) – Electric Guitar. The band plays TransFusion – A mix of traditional Khasi Music, Rock, Contemporary Acoustic Style Music, and a pinch of funk-jazz. The Rock On 2 Team claim that lot of local music elements have been incorporated in their songs as Shillong is an integral part of the script for this movie and not just another beautiful location for a shoot at.

Narratives such as these do indicate that there has been a shift in the commercial cinema from the same old mundane run-of-the-mill movies to some serious indulgence in proper script writing and beyond the traditional choices of movie locales. In the Northeast lies a huge market for filmmakers to explore, a plethora of scripts and stories waiting to be told and immense talent waiting for an opportunity.

For too long many have stated that we should promote this region as a tourism hub, a safe place for all from across the country to come and spend their money so it helps our economy. Perhaps more than boring seminars and events that we hold in Delhi, Bollywood may help change their perception. It is to be noted that Bhaichung Bhutia or Eugenson Lyngdoh have done a better job at sensitising the mainland towards us than the Government's efforts through festivals and fairs.

There is a saying that 1% is talent and 99% is luck in Bollywood. It's about time that this changes to 1% talent, 1% sensitivity, 1% authenticity and the rest can then be attributed to luck. We pin our hopes on Bollywood – we have the locales, the stories and the talent.

And though there will always be detractors, communist-minded people who will question everything from direct benefit to the people in the shooting locales to the coke cans which the stars drank out of but did not recycle it -hence the damage to the local ecology, we would rather believe that the Northeast take this opportunity than play to a gallery of a few sour grapes. Rather than scoff at Bollywood as a genre, admit that it is a very successful industry. Rather than ridicule its stars, know that the world at large recognises them and honours them.

This article is not merely written in awe of Bollywood but backed by a viewpoint that if we need to enter the national minds-pace then we have to admit after cricket, Bollywood is India's biggest pastime.