Lin Laishram lounges on the verandah of her four-storied home in Imphal, dressed in a T-shirt and track pants. At 5’9”, she is tall for a Manipuri woman. An actor and a model, she has spent more time trying to crack the Mumbai circuit than she has in her hometown. Among a handful of actors from the northeastern region in the Hindi film industry, Laishram had auditioned for the lead role in Mary Kom, a biopic based on Manipuri boxer and world champion MC Mary Kom. While Priyanka Chopra ended up playing Kom, Laishram bagged a role of the boxer’s friend and sparring partner. “Two years ago, when I spoke to the director, I think they were looking for someone from the Northeast. Only much later did they decide on PC, and I completely get that — to be able to make a movie saleable and a hit, you have to cast big stars,’’ says the actor, who is in her twenties. There are other actors from the region in the film, like Rajni Basumatry from Assam who plays Mary’s mother. “They are key members of the cast, and they made Priyanka Chopra’s character seem real and rooted,” says Omung Kumar, who has directed Mary Kom (the film releases in September) .
Like Chopra, Laishram had to train for the movie, though she did not need the prosthetic make-up that the Bollywood actor required for the part. “I had to think and behave like a boxer, I had to change my body language,” she says. A junior national champion in archery, her sporting background helped considerably. Laishram’s struggle in Bollywood began after she graduated from Sophia College, Mumbai. She has been a model with Elite, worked in Naseeruddin Shah’s theatre group Rangbaaz and studied at the Stella Adler Studio of Acting, New York. She has walked the ramp for Tarun Tahiliani and Shantanu-Nikhil, among others, and was featured on the Kingfisher calendar. Her first brush with Bollywood was a small role in Om Shanti Om. “I was studying at the time but went for it despite my exams because I absolutely love Shah Rukh Khan,’’ she says.
But she has very few illusions about how the system works. When she enters an agency to audition for an ad film, she ticks the box which says “foreign” because she knows she won’t be considered for the Indian roles. “I do face discrimination in every audition. They categorise me as ‘foreign’ or ‘Asian’ . Whether it’s in movies or in ad films, they want someone with fairer skin and bigger eyes,’’ she says. Many of the ads Laishram has featured in are made for Malaysian and Indonesian markets. She has been cast in a sequel to Chalo Dilli called Chalo China, produced by Lara Dutta’s production house: “Where I, of course, play a Chinese girl,’’ she says. In another movie, she plays Prateek Babbar’s Nepali wife. “Only in one film, Ticket to Bollywood, I play someone from the northeastern region,” she says.
That much of Omung Kumar’s film was shot in Mumbai and Manali — two places which look nothing like the rolling hills and the green pastures of Manipur — does not surprise her. She takes the pragmatic view about a north Indian Punjabi playing Kom too. “Ideally, a Manipuri actor or someone from the Northeast should have been cast. But this is neither the fault of the production house nor the director. It is India. It is simply not prepared to accept someone like us on the big screen – so very racially different from them,’’ says Laishram.
Actor Geetanjali Thapa, who won this year’s National Award for Liar’s Dice, and is from Sikkim, echoes Laishram’s experience. “Since I have done mostly indie films till now, where the stories are more important than looks, my physical features haven’t been a disadvantage. I did face difficulties in the beginning. When I went for auditions, some people would tell me that I am not a quintessential Indian beauty, I don’t have big, beautiful eyes, and that I don’t look Indian enough. But I really don’t blame anyone. That’s how big, commercial movies are made, spelling things out and having broad representations of race, ethnicity. It happens even in Hollywood,” she says.
The Manipuri film industry is a vibrant one, with as many as 80-100 movies being made a year, despite constraints of infrastructure and the issues arising out of conflict. Cinemas opened in Imphal after the Second World War and the first full-length Manipuri movie was made in 1972. But the boom happened in 2002, the height of the secessionist movement from India. That was when the Meitei valley insurgent groups from Manipur banned Hindi movies. (The film on Mary Kom is unlikely to reach theatres here. For a while, a lobby pushed for the movie to be dubbed in Manipuri so that it could be released in the state. But a few weeks ago, a cluster of banned insurgent groups in the state declared that they would not permit the release.)
As more and more movies were made, Manipuri films switched from celluloid to the cheaper digital format. Anybody and everybody is a movie producer in Manipur.
“Most are contractors or rich businessmen. A Manipuri movie takes as little as Rs 5-10 lakh to make, including the cost of post-production and actor fees,” says Romi Meitei, one of Manipur’s most successful directors. A female actor can earn up to Rs 60,000 for a movie.
Actors who wish to work elsewhere for more money or better roles face a double bind: while opportunities to act in Mumbai are scarce, when they come their way, militant groups based in Manipur raise the red flag. Bala Hijam is the ruling queen of the Manipur film industry. She started working five years ago, when she was a Class VIII student, and has already starred in 40 films. Two years ago, Hijam was approached to star in Zindagi on the Rocks, a movie about a gang of friends and their visit to Manali. “The producer and director had seen my profile on Facebook and some stuff on YouTube. They came to my house in Imphal and I signed the contract,’’ she says.
Hijam went to Mumbai to shoot for two months and stayed in Andheri East. She spent a month in Manali on the sets. Before the shoot was over, she got a call from a militant group. “I can’t tell you who they were. But they told me to come back immediately. I tried negotiating with them. I assured them that the role I was doing would neither harm me nor Manipuri culture. But they just wouldn’t understand. So I came back without finishing the shoot. The producer and director were very cooperative, they understood,’’she says.
After Hijam came back, she received another call. The militants wanted to meet her. So, along with her mother, Hijam crossed the international border which separates Manipur from Myanmar into the Burmese border town of Tamu, where the banned insurgent groups hold meetings. “There were around eight of them. I was warned never to go back to Mumbai or to work in any Indian film. If I did, they wouldn’t let me return to Manipur,’’says Hijam, who has since been approached for a Hindi serial but has had to turn it down. After that meeting, Hijam also found herself at the receiving end of a temporary ban. “I wasn’t allowed to work for several months. I would just sit at home, eat, sleep and read,’’ she says.
Tonthoi Leishangthem, who won the National Award for the Manipuri movie Phigigee Mani (My Only Gem) in 2011, says the militants seem to object to Hindi movies in particular. She has acted in Assamese movies, without ruffling any feathers. “But it’s so restrictive. Artists can’t think or work within boundaries like this,’’ says Leishangthem. Like Hijam, she received an offer for a Hindi movie a few years ago. “I informed the groups but they said a flat no. I explained to them that it was an international project, but the director (Leena Yadav) was Indian, so they wouldn’t budge. Another time, they insisted that we change the title of one of my movies because it had the word dera in it — it’s a word in both Hindi as well as Meitei Lon (Manipuri). We put our foot down and said we wouldn’t,’’she says.
Despite these contestations of language and identity, actors find ways to work around the restrictions. Last year, when Hijam was approached for a Malayalam movie, she quietly went to Kerala and shot for two months. “This time I made sure no word got out. Funnily enough, although it is now common knowledge that I have acted in a Malayalam movie, the militants don’t seem to have a problem with it,’’ she says.
In Mumbai, mainstream representations of people from the Northeast are rare, and roles written for them even fewer. Chak De! India was perhaps the last memorable film to feature one, with Masochon Zimik playing the feisty Molly Zimik. When Mani Ratnam made a film about militancy in the region, Dil Se, he cast Manisha Koirala. In that context, Mary Kom might seem like an opportunity lost. But Laishram would rather believe that the walls are breaking down. “Things are opening up, but very slowly. Filmmakers and scriptwriters now at least consider characters from the region. Maybe Mary Kom will be a trend-setter, and we’ll finally get more opportunities to act,’’ she says.