Can Bollywood actors effectively pull off a punch when it comes to essaying the role of Manipuri boxers? Or, would a Manipuri actor fit the bill to step into the ring and slip on the boxing gloves? This debate has been rekindled in the wake of Mirabai Chanu’s Olympic triumph (Bollywood moghuls must have already beaten a track to her home) and due to model-actor Lin Laishram lashing out recently at the “non-inclusiveness” of Indian films.
Lin Laishram, who had co-starred in the Bollywood film, ‘Mary Kom’, in which Priyanka Chopra played the titular role, had said in an interview to Free Press Journal that though she admired Priyanka for her hard work she had put in to look like Mary Kom, she felt that it was “heart-breaking” a girl from Manipur or the north-east was not cast to represent them.
Stating that she believed in authenticity and inclusivity, Laishram said, “When it comes to playing an achiever from the north-east, a non-north-eastern person is chosen as seen in ‘Mary Kom’. On the other hand, why not cast people from the north-east also as normal Indians in all walks of life which we are.”
A Hindustan Times report on Saturday (August 7 has now carried a rebuttal given to a daily by Omung Kumar, the director of Mary Kom, to all this rekindled criticism for his culturally inauthentic casting. Kumar defended himself stating that any actor can “mould themselves” into any character and that’s what Priyanka Chopra did beautifully, which eventually made his film so “effective.” He had to consider the “reach” of the film while casting and no north-eastern actor had fit into the role for the parts played by Priyanka and Darshan Kumaar.
According to him, people mistook the Haryanavi Darshan Kumaar, who had played Mary Kom‘s husband as a Manipuri and if actors suited the part, he felt that they could play any role. “Amitabh Bachchan played Anthony Gonsalves without being Christian,” he pointed out, adding that if there is a south Indian character in the film, there’s no hard and fast rule that states we have to cast a south Indian actor only in the role.
However, Lin had spoken about the concept of inclusivity gaining ground in the film industry by citing the example of ‘The Family Man-2’. “In the show, people are cast from Tamil Nadu and speak Tamil, representing their local culture and ethnicity, and it has been so widely accepted and appreciated. So, if south Indian culture can be accepted then why not north-eastern?”, asked the actor, who had appeared in Shah Rukh Khan’s ‘Om Shanti Om’ in a cameo role, in ‘Umrika’ opposite Prateik Babbar, ‘Rangoon’ (2017) and ‘Axone’ in 2019.
‘Mary Kom’ traces the journey of Mary, a rice farmer’s daughter in Manipur, who went on to becoming a five-time world champion boxer. In the film, Jamshedpur-born Chopra played the Manipuri boxer, while Haryana-born Darshan Kumaar played her husband, Onler.
Earlier too, Bollywood actor Vidya Balan was criticised for playing the tragic south siren, Silk Smitha. Many criticised her for not nailing the Tamil culture, which was shown more like a parody. But, let us not forget, Mahatma Gandhi was played by none other than a British actor, Ben Kingsley. A casting that prompted the fastidious, brilliant actor Naseeruddin Shah, who had auditioned for the role to say, that he could never have matched Kingsley’s portrayal of the great Mahatma.