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Aqui Thami

aquiNichelle Nichols on meeting Martin Luther King jr. — “I said, “I’m going to leave Star Trek because (I was going to say ‘because I have an offer to star in…’ I never got that far”) He (Martin Luther King) said “You cannot – you cannot. For the first time on television we will be seen as we should be seen every day– as intelligent, quality, beautiful people who can sing, dance, but who can also go into space, who can be lawyers, who can be teachers, who can be professors – who ARE on this day, and yet you don’t see it on television – until now…”

A biopic on Mary Kom, a woman who inspired and continues to inspire women everywhere but specially women in the northeastern region of India will hit the theaters next year. It is a welcome change from the male centered and voyeuristic movies that Bollyhood otherwise makes.

The spoiler is that Priyanka Chopra plays Mary Kom, and to get “the look” not only did she have to experiment with prosthetics but has to wear make up to look like Mary. Now when there are Manipuri actresses who could fit the role better considering it is a biopic casting someone who looks and sounds so different could either be for her popularity or because of the widely held notions of beauty in our society.

I am not a Manipuri, I am from Darjeeling and I have to say that we are not represented in the media as we are, and if we are then the media loses it. We have been ridiculed, oppressed and treated as inferior people. I know I face the world in my mother’s clothes everyday, it is because of my appearance, the way I speak. Almost everyday I am asked about the country of my origin. Why is it hard for an average Indian person to accept that a person from North East lives in the same building as them? Why is it so hard for them to see me as any one but a momo seller down the street or a security guard? Not to mention the hyper-sexualization and fetishization of the women from North East and the racist-slurs we encounter solely based on our appearance.

Our stories never make it to the headlines, our victories are never accounted for, and worst of all, our struggles are essentialized. It is not just the popular media but history books and the society at large turn a blind eye towards the North East.

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And then we have Mary who breaks away from all these hegemonies and wins her spot in the mainstream. A face for once on the silver screen that represents me, a face in the multitude of faces in the tube that I can finally relate to. Every victory of hers is not just hers but a victory of the region she is from, she put Manipur back in the news (this time for a happy story) but Priyanka Chopra playing Mary is a slap on our face. It makes us further alienated; even worse, making her eyes look small highlights racism, it is not like Hollyhood pulling off yellow-face.

My eyes are an indelible part of me. They come with a history of oppression of an entire region, cultural genocide and bigotry, so using them for a role in a movie is like making them disposable. Racism (yes, I said it) in India needs to be addressed because the brown people are always seen as the oppressed and not the oppressors.

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Aqui Thami works with women and children in communities undergoing forceful change, and indulges in self publishing and street interventions.

This article is also published in SAVARI.

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