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Friday, August 06, 2021

‘We need representation’: The many faces of talents from Northeast

Barring a few pleasantly surprising inclusions such as Andrea Tariang in Pink or more recently Karma Takapa in the Amazon Prime Series The Last Hour, one hardly encounters a character from the Northeast in popular entertainment.

Written by Debasree Purkayastha | New Delhi |
Updated: June 16, 2021 4:59:02 pm
Rima Das with her young cast and crew at the shootFor Rima Das, there is no dearth of good regional films that a larger audience can find relatable.

Hindi cinema is viewed by millions across the world. Barring a few pleasantly surprising inclusions such as Andrea Tariang in Pink or more recently Karma Takapa in the Amazon Prime Series The Last Hour, one hardly encounters a character from the Northeast in popular entertainment. In fact, it is rare to come across the otherwise familiar faces of people of Northeast on-screen.

“India is a vast country and we are underrepresented so far,” said ace filmmaker Nicholas Kharkongor. Nicholas’ last directorial venture Axone created all the right kind of buzz upon its release on Netflix. The film not only introduced the pungent cuisine from the Northeast to the world, but also cleverly told the story of the people from the region who often encounter casual racism in metros. “Now there are a few series and films which are set in the Northeast. Unlike in the past, these stories are not only shot in these states but also have characters from the region, taking in the milieu of the places, which makes the audience get familiar with the faces of Northeast on-screen. Take for instance the recently released ‘The Last Hour’” he continued.

Amazon Prime Video series’ The Last Hour stars Karma Takapa in a central role and the thriller is set in the actor’s home state of Sikkim. In an interview with indianexpress.com, the FTII graduate said, “It became important for me to do the show because of the representation of Northeast.”

Axone, Nicholas Kharkongor, axone netflix, what is axone, indian express lifestyle A still from the Netflix film Axone.

From Seema Biswas to Danny Denzongpa to Adil Hussain, there are a few well-known actors from the region. Then there are many technicians, musicians and filmmakers, who are an integral part of the entertainment industry in Mumbai.

How OTT changed the scenario

“When a film is made, there are a lot of factors that come into play. There is a lot of money riding on the film and it’s a risk that the producer takes. If we want to see more representation, it’s the directors and producers from the region who have to take the initiative,” said multi-talented filmmaker Rima Das. Her work came into limelight following the selection of her film Village Rockstar as official entry for India at the Oscars in 2018. The Assamese film that came out in 2017 is one of the few native language films now available on Netflix. Das single-handedly has written, directed, produced and edited the film. 

Rima reiterates that OTT has proved that the audience has an “appetite for diverse language content.” She pointed out that the language of cinema is universal, if one gets into the practice of reading subtitles. Although her films Village Rockstar and Bulbul Can Sing are streaming on Netflix, the streaming sites may have “certain considerations while choosing films.”

village rockstar A still from Village Rockstar.

Pradip Kurbah, a National Award-winning Khasi filmmaker, echoed similar thoughts. “You will hardly see any movies from India’s northeastern region on OTT platforms. People often ask me ‘where can we watch your films?’ And we make movies for the viewers but we clearly are not able to bridge the gap. The OTT platforms could give us a space but they aren’t really.”

His last directorial venture Iewduh (market) that won the prestigious Kim Ji-seok Award at the 24th Busan International Film Festival (BIFF) in South Korea in 2019 is not available for viewers to watch yet. The film also won the National Awards for Best Khasi Film and the Best Audiography. However, Iewdah was recently telecast in BBC Channel 4 in June this year.

Bridging the gap

The passionate filmmakers of the region are hopeful but are also a realist. “Stories from Mumbai or UP will have faces (of actors) from these areas so a lot depends on the script,” Kurbah explained. He further went on to suggest a dedicated streaming platform for movies from East India.

With a limited number of theatres allocated for native-language films in the Northeastern cities, the makers have been struggling to compete with multiplexes screening various Hindi, English movies. But are cinemagoers ready to consume stories told in a tribal language? This might be the right time to highlight the fact that there are multiple languages spoken in the region, and often in the same state, one tribe fails to understand the language of another.

For Rima Das, there is no dearth of good regional films that a larger audience can find relatable. “What we lack is good marketing and distribution strategies. As a filmmaker, I want the audience to watch my film in its native language. But for starters, maybe we could consider getting regional films dubbed well and released to make it more accessible to a wider audience,” she suggested.

One of the ways to reach the audience, Kharkongor pointed out, is to make the audience feel familiar with the faces of Northeast and have more actors and characters from the region in mainstream entertainment. “We can’t just rely on Indie films, which are not popular films.”

Onus ultimately falls on makers and casting directors, the Axone-famed maker said. “Why aren’t we casting the secondary characters from the minority section of the society? We aren’t asking for the central character but we hardly see even a secondary character being essayed by someone from the Northeast.”

People behind the camera

The mainstream entertainment industry has many talents from the region who are often working behind the camera, and are integral part of the movie making.

“The top sound engineers, sound designers, guitarist…in fact almost 40-50% of the technicians and musicians in Mumbai are from the Northeast. People in Mumbai are very welcoming to us also because we are good at what we do,” National Award-winning composer Anurag Saikia said.

Veteran guitarist Kalyan Baruah, audio engineer Debajit Changmai, and sound designer Amrit Pritam, are among the many sought after talents from the region.

Saikia, who consciously works with makers from Northeast in their Indie projects, has worked with acclaimed Hindi film directors such as Anubhav Sinha. The young musician pointed out that, “The biggest music scene in the country is happening in the Northeast. Even though we don’t have academic institutes such as Berklee College of Music, we are exposed to the best of music here.”

Are things improving? People are set in their ways, Kharkongor opined. “Things are changing though. The notion of exotica is now vanishing, especially in the world of modelling and advertisement. Much of it has not happened in films yet.”

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