7 September 2014

There's a myth about Mary

My Mumbai Mirror column today:

A big-budget film simplifies Mary Kom's story more than some of us would like. But then Hindi cinema, like Hollywood, is not in the business of realism. It is in the business of myth-making.

Omung Kumar's Mary Kom was discussed threadbare before anyone actually watched the film. The trailer released in end-July was shared by thousands. But detractors were many, too. The first objection was that Manipur-born Mary was played by Bollywood star Priyanka Chopra, her Punjabi features ineffectively masked by prosthetics. One piece suggested four actresses from India's northeast as more realistic choices.

The second charge was that big-budget Bollywood would cannibalise Mary's life, reducing complexities to broad strokes. Irate opinion pieces fed on (and into) a desire for ‘authenticity’ voiced widely on social media. A well-known documentary filmmaker said on Facebook that she had approached Mary Kom for a documentary in 2010, that Mary was “very excited”, but “the only language the [media] agency spoke was money”. The documentary didn't get made. The filmmaker seemed to lament Mary's decision, writing, “I just hope for her, that she made money out of this film and not just her media agency. Well, for good or for bad, at least she’ll be a household name and maybe become an inspiration for other female boxers.” One typical commenter on the thread wrote: “Characters like Milkha Singh and Mary Kom are stars in themselves, so u dont need another star to tell their story. Their name is enough. I still can’t comprehend how could both... allowed them to make films which seems like a cinematic extension of high gloss virgin plastic.” (sic)

I’m really glad the Indian media has outlets able to list actresses from the Northeast, and that there are so many people taking up online cudgels on behalf of a woman who has put the region in the spotlight. But wouldn't it be nice if all these angry people acknowledged that Mary Kom's life story belongs first and foremost, to herself? And if Kom has chosen to have it turned into a Sanjay Leela Bhansali film rather than a documentary, aren't we being presumptuous in suggesting that she shouldn't have?

Documentaries are crucial to my film-viewing life, and there are two fascinating ones on Mary Kom just on Youtube. But whether we like it or not, even the most acclaimed documentary would earn Kom a fraction of the money or bandwidth that this film will. Millions more Indians will hear of Mary Kom than of a documentary, and Chopra is crucial here. Mary Kom knows that. Having fought her way up from obscurity even as she rose through the world boxing ranks, Kom understands the power of fame. And given the absurdly unstarry treatment of non-cricketing sportspersons by Indian authorities (something documented with increasing and surprising frequency by Hindi films from Paan Singh Tomar to Chak De India), surely Mary and Milkha are best equipped to judge whether they need “another star” to tell their story.

Omung Kumar’s choppy film, though it fails to explain Mary's fascination with boxing, does capture her hunger for celebrity. A scene where Mary cooks a Manipuri meal for a visiting Delhi/Mumbai journalist prefigures current media stories of Mary’s down-home friendship with Priyanka Chopra. Later we see her treasure her medals, and paste clippings about herself in a scrapbook. Mary Kom may be a legend in Manipur, but she wants to be a legend across India. And she knows that there is no better way of ensuring that than to become the subject of a Bollywood myth.

Hindi films have been banned in Manipur since 2000 by the insurgent group Revolutionary Peoples Front, who see them as part of mainland India's expansionist strategy. But such a ban means little in the internet era. And many Manipuris, like Mary, seem happy with the moment in the Bollywood sun. “So what if they haven’t used a Manipuri actress, the story is ours. We should be proud as Indians,” said Mary's coach to IBNLive. “As a child, I watched so many movies and could never have dreamt that one day a film would be made on me,” Mary told Delhi Times. “I liked Amitabh Bachchan sir's boxing in Sholay film.” No wonder she seemed pleased as punch when an admiring Bachchan launched her autobiography Unbreakable last December.

We need to acknowledge that Hindi cinema, like Hollywood, is not in the business of realism. It is in the business of myth-making. Its myths can be dangerous, but they can also be powerfully affecting. No doubt there is a flattening of Manipur's socio-political context in Mary Kom, and of Mary's persona. Her fierce interest in girly things, almost as fierce as her boxing; the fact that her fashionableness involves a rise from ragged poverty; her deep Christian belief; the powerful links between sport and poverty in an underdeveloped region -- these are left tragically unexplored. But the film offers up a rare female icon: an almost impossible heroine who is both feminine and a fighter, managing motherhood while also fulfilling her career dreams.

But in a world where Mangte Chungneijang Mary Kom can get to the national list only by shortening herself to MC Mary Kom, Bollywood’s simplifications are merely a symptom. The malaise runs much deeper.

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