Sep 15, 2014, 05.36AM IST

(By having Chopra portray…)
By Nehmat Kaur

Mary Kom is an inspiring woman and Priyanka Chopra is a talented actress. And yet, by having Chopra portray one of India’s sporting icons, the Hindi film industry has perpetuated the old problem it has had with representation. For years, Bollywood has ignored actors from religious and ethnic minorities, and stereotyped characters from the same groups. For a country so proud of its diversity, why is our cinema so discriminatory?

Till of late, the only Sikh characters on screen were men with names like Happy Singh who provided comic relief, included in the story for the laughs. Then came movies like Gadar and Bhagat Singh in which the main characters were Sikh men played by the likes of Sunny Deol and Ajay Devgn, both donning turbans and beard for the occasion.

It would seem by such a trend that there are no talented Sikh actors, with real turbans and real beard. The problem has persisted with movies like Singh Is Kinng, Love Aaj Kal, Rocket Singh and Bhaag Milkha Bhaag — if one considers only Sikh protagonists, not one of them played by a Sikh actor.

For Love Aaj Kal, for instance, director Imtiaz Ali even went as far as to cast a Brazilian model for the role of a Sikh woman. Getting an actual sardarni with long, unshorn hair seemed too much of a hassle.

One can understand Sikh actors unable to play non-Sikh characters. Which is why it is a professional double-loss of opportunity when they don’t even get to play Sikh roles. There is no shortage of talented Sikh actors in the movie industry. The Punjabi movie industry is worth about Rs 50 crore and is growing. It has a star in Jimmy Shergill and actors — still essentially singers who double as actors — such as Harbhajan Mann, Babbu Maan and Jasbir Jassi.

In the case of Mary Kom, casting a non-northeastern actor is even more regressive than casting a non-Sikh in a Sikh’s role. If a regular Hindu, Muslim or Christian actor grows a beard or wears a false beard and a turban, he can at least appear to be a Sikh. But in the case of Priyanka Chopra playing Mary Kom, the difference in appearance goes way deeper. It is a racial difference. It is equivalent to, say, a Black actor like Will Smith playing the role of a White character.

Providing Chopra Mongoloid features and passing her off as Kom is as ridiculous as when Al Jolson, a White actor, ‘blacked up’ for his role in the first ‘talkies’, The Jazz Singer, in 1927. If Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi was portrayed by, say, Julia Roberts instead of Michelle Yeoh in the 2011 biopic The Lady, it would have been considered ludicrous and offensive. So why do Indians tolerate such on-screen misrepresentation?

Northeasterners already face racial stereotyping and outright racism in other parts of the country. Chopra’s portrayal of Kom is a symptom of this racism, even as it actively encourages us by stating that such casting is acceptable. The movie’s casting choice basically sends this message: Bollywood filmmakers do not think any northeastern actress is talented or box office-worthy enough to carry a mainstream Bollywood movie.

All this, of course, raises the troubling question about what we, the audience, want to watch. If we go by Hindi mainstream movies, Indian audiences do seem to reject portrayals of religious and ethnic minorities. But our daily lives tell a different story. We can only change how Bollywood mirrors our real world outside the confines of the cinema or television screens by proving these producers and directors wrong. Don’t watch Mary Kom.

Don’t let Bollywood make money through discrimination. When we make movies like Mary Kom, we are essentially telling the world that our movie industry does not respect our country’s diversity.

The writer is an undergraduate student at Swarthmore College, US