Utpal Borpujari

September 20, 2017

Misinformed comments do Priyanka – and the NE – no good

By Utpal Borpujari


(Published in http://www.hindustantimes.com on Sept 14, 2017; http://www.hindustantimes.com/bollywood/priyanka-chopra-your-misinformed-comments-about-sikkim-did-a-huge-disservice-to-northeast/story-OdgSqJC3N93AD8FzwTEVJK.html)

Only a couple of days ago, the cleaning lady at one of my fellow Assamese friend’s music studio in Mumbai had asked him where Assam was. The lady is a Tamilian, who has lived in Mumbai for long, and has not gone to school beyond a few classes. My friend jokingly told her, in his Assamese-tinged Hindi, “Jaise aapka Tamil Nadu India ka niche hai, waise hi Assam India ka upar hai”, meaning just as Tamil Nadu is in the south, Assam is in the North – or the Northeast to be more precise.

It’s a fact that a huge number of people still have either no idea about the Northeast region or India, or just have a vague idea about it. And they include not only the unlettered or social-disadvantaged class, but also what we know as educated and socially-aware classes. As a Northeasterner living in Delhi since last 23 years, and having worked in the media all this time, I personally can vouch for the fact that even within the media, the awareness about the Northeast, and its complex issues, is hardly worth anything to write home about.

But it is also a fact that the visibility of and awareness about the region has improved to some extent now, as compared to even, say, ten years ago, thanks to the multitudes of Northeast cultural events, increasing population of people from the region in the NCR and other parts of the country, and also the increasing number of journalists from the region working in the media houses.

From the initial years of anger and outrage that I would feel when someone otherwise “informed” would make a silly observation on the region, now it’s the feeling of more of a pity on such people, as I increasingly feel that the fault lies more in the lack of virtually any information about the region in the primary, secondary and higher education curricula. If we people from the Northeast know about the Chola dynasty or Chhatrapati Shivaji, it’s because we had read about them in our school books, and if people elsewhere do not know about Lachit Barphukan or U Tirot Singh (to give two examples), it’s because they are absent from the school books elsewhere.

But even then, the misinformed comments on Sikkim by UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, Assam Tourism Brand Ambassador and “Mary Kom” star Priyanka Chopra – in an interview given at the Toronto International Film Festival while talking about her production “Pahuna” – rankles. An unlettered cleaning lady in Mumbai not knowing about Assam is one thing, and a hugely-popular and talented star like Ms Chopra giving wrong information about a region that she is genuinely trying to connect with (if we go by the latest announcement that she is producing an Assamese film with legendary filmmaker Jahnu Barua, coupled with her production of Sikkimese film “Pahuna”) surely is another.

Ms Chopra is a known name now internationally, thanks to her appearances in television series “Quantico” and Hollywood movie “Baywatch”. She is, as we all know, a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador. And above all, she is the brand ambassador of one of the Northeastern states. Along with that, she is a top name of Indian cinema. So, anything she says, goes out to a huge audience, through conventional media as well as social media.

Therefore, when she says that Sikkim is an insurgency-hit state, and that “Pahuna” is the first feature film to come out of the state, it is quite natural that many would believe both the statements. The only problem is – as social media have already stated emphatically and angrily – that both statements are incorrect. Quite clearly, Ms Chopra is misinformed, or – as most people tend to do – paint the entire Northeastern region with one brush. It is a fact that for most Indians, the term “Northeast” is used to describe a region that has a history of insurgencies, is full of exotic tribes, and a region that lies beyond the mental boundaries of “mainland” India (though it is a dichotomy that the same “mainland” term is never in terms of India’s two island territories of Andaman & Nicobar and Lakshadweep). While it’s a popular coinage, it also works in a strangely negative way – by homogenizing the immense geo-political, social and cultural diversity of the region and its eight states.

But even if one considers this aspect, talking of Sikkim specifically as insurgency affected is far beyond being far fetched. In fact, if there is one state in the Northeast that has stayed free from any such trouble, it’s Sikkim. In fact, it’s one of the most-peaceful states all across India, with an absolutely low crime rate, leave aside insurgency or terrorism. Sikkim actually is mostly talked about for its positive aspects – such as having one of India’s highest per capita incomes, being among the leading states in literacy level, being one of India’s cleanest states, being the first Indian states to be declared Open Defecation Free way back in 2008, and being India’s first – and only one till now – fully organic state.

Sikkim is also a tourism-intensive state, and had led the country in introducing home stays and heli-tourism. A large number of domestic and international tourist visit the peaceful state every year, and Ms Chopra’s comments could hugely impact the tourist inflow as for any lay person, it’s easy to believe a Northeastern state to be insurgency impacted going by the image of the region, especially when it comes from a figure whose comments are quoted widely across media. No wonder, the Sikkim government, along with the people of the state and the region – as well as informed people from across India – has reacted with anger at the comment.

Ms Chopra’s other comment about “Pahuna” being the first film to come out of Sikkim, has also been ridiculed, and rightly so. Sikkim does not have a film industry per se, but films have been made in the state quite regularly. In fact, only this year, Sikkimese film “Ralang Road”, by director Karma Takapa, had its world premiere at the Competition Section of the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, one of the highly-respected film festivals of the world. The film will also be screened at the forthcoming edition of the MAMI Mumbai International Film Festival. “Acharya” and “Katha” by another young filmmaker, Prashant Rasaily, has also earned acclaim earlier. And these are just three examples from among the films that have been made in Sikkim over the years.

It’s laudable the way a top Bollywood actor like Priyanka Chopra has taken to producing cinema in various Indian languages, including those in languages from states that have very small domestic markets such as Sikkim and Assam, but her comments in the context of “Pahuna” have unnecessarily diminished that effort while belittling the works of the local filmmakers who make films with unimaginably-limited resources.

It’s quite befitting that the actor has tendered her apology to the Government of Sikkim for her comments regarding the state being insurgency affected. Perhaps, she could also issue one more to the filmmakers from Sikkim, whose works have got negated by that interview in Toronto.

The Service Sector in North East India vis-à-vis the film industry

(Expanded version of the author’s comment at a panel on service sector at the North East Business Summit, organised by Indian Chamber of Commerce, at New Delhi on 9th March, 2017. An edited version of this was published in the Eclectic Magazine, August, 2017 issue)

Fact 1: North East India has extremely beautiful locations which need to be showcased in cinema.

Fact 2: North East India lacks the necessary infrastructure to attract filmmakers from outside the region.

These two contradictory facts help us underline the potential that the service sector has with regard to filmmaking.

First, let’s give examples of a few films: Mani Ratnam’s Dil Se and Omung Kumar’s Mary Kom had stories that were intrinsically set in the North East. But both the films do not feature a single shot from the places – Assam and Manipur respectively – they are set in.

In contrast, we have had films like Rakesh Roshan’s Koyla, Salman Khan-starrer Kurbaan, Dev Anand’s Jewel Thief, Kalpana Lajmi’s Ek Pal and Daman, Atma Ram’s Yeh Gulistan Hamara and more recently Rock On 2 and Rangoon that have been filmed in NE India. Among other recent films that have been filmed in the North East include the late Bappaditya Bandopadhyay’s Bengali film “Sohra Bridge”, Suman Mukhopadhyay’s Bengali film “Shesher Kobita”, etc.

There is no denying the fact that NE India has some of the most visually-appealing locations. But is that enough? Well, therein lies the answer to what needs to be done to develop the service sector vis-à-vis filmmaking in the region.

So, what are the sectors that are needed to attract filmmakers to the region? They are: tourism and hospitality sector, transport sector, local film production support and manpower.

It’s very easy to say that we have beautiful locations, come, shoot with us. But a film’s production means inflow of at least 100 people for a mid-size production, which can go up to 300 or more if it’s a big film.

No filmmaker would come to the region if there is no proper accommodation facilities and easy accessibility to the locations. And it’s a fact that except Guwahati and Shillong, no other place in the region has decent accommodation to host so many people for long periods that may vary from a few weeks to a few months.

Briefly, what we require in the region that can attract outside filmmakers and benefit local people are as follows:

  1. Development of adequate accommodation facilities at scenic locales: these need not be permanent facilities, but maybe temporary housing facilities such as luxury tents. As it is impractical to expect film crews to come to the same spot for different productions, a model where such facilities can be shared among states where shootings take place may be a workable idea. A sizeable number of people can get absorbed in such a venture that would require expertise in setting up the accommodations at locations, and their maintenance and servicing.
  2. Development of local line production support: While there are local production managers with good experience in Assam and Manipur as far as feature films go, it’s a fact that no one has the expertise to handle big ticket productions of the scale that are made in Mumbai or the South, leave aside international productions. Line Production support at local levels is key to attracting film shooting from outside, as line producers are the persons who have the knowledge about the place and the necessary contacts to organise everything related to shooting: from permissions and securing manpower to arranging transport or food facilities. Training modules for line production/overall film production need to be developed locally in the region to develop this most crucial sector. This can be done through courses at institutions like the Regional Government Film and TV Institute in Guwahati or the film school being set up by the centre in Arunachal Pradesh.
  3. Another crucial aspect for film production is transportation and food. One might say that we have that infrastructure, but the fact is that transport and food services in film shootings require special training because of the long and erratic hours of filming involving different locations. This may be developed by training local caterers and transport service providers.

But these are aspects that will be required only when filmmakers from outside come regularly to shoot their films in the region. And that to happen would require incentivising filmmakers. What do I mean by that? Mainly the following:

  1. Subsidies: Filmmakers usually get attracted to a particular region not only for its natural beauty or story requirement, but also because of incentives they get for shooting their films at that locale. For example, Switzerland offers highly attractive subsidies to Indian filmmakers who shoot there. The late Yash Chopra made it a habit to shoot their because of this. Now many other countries aggressively court top Indian filmmakers to attract them to their countries through subsidies on expenses incurred, especially expenses related to accommodation and location permissions. Why? The reason is simple: films, particularly if they score at the Box Office, work as wonderful promotion of those countries among potential tourists. A case in point is Hrithik Rohan’s debut film Kaho Naa Pyar Hai, which was shot in New Zealand. That country attracted a large number of Indian tourists in the years that followed that film’s stupendous success. Surely, multiple ad campaigns costing much more that the facilities they gave to the film’s shooting would not have been able to achieve that. Even within India, states like Uttar Pradesh are offering attractive incentives and subsidies if a film is shot there with a particular percentage of local actors and crew members. This is something that has to be done by the NE states if they want to attract filmmakers.
  2. Single-window facilitation: This is another major factor that attracts filmmakers to a particular state or country. Countries like Switzerland has the facility to offer filmmakers everything required – from local production and equipment support to getting shooting permissions, etc. – through a single-window model developed by its tourism department. This saves filmmakers from a lot of hassles, like that of visiting multiple people and officers for various requirements. Perhaps something like this can be developed by the Ministry of DONER in collaboration with the tourism ministries of each NE state.
  3. Sensitising tourism departments: This is another crucial factor to attract filmmakers. It’s not enough to we have this beautiful location. Tourism Departments of each state need to first understand the intricate requirements of film production and accordingly prepare themselves to present their respective states before filmmakers. For example, if a filmmaker approaches the tourism department of a state, it not only would have to be able to suggest locations that would suit the film’s requirements, but also suggest them local line producers and advise them about how to avail subsidies, etc. Again, the Uttar Pradesh model can be studied for this.
  4. Developing a data base of trained local line producers: This is what the facilitation department – ideally the tourism department – must be able to do. But before that, there has to be availability of trained line producers. Thus, it can happen only after there are trained local line producers, who, as I have mentioned, are the most crucial cogs in the wheel as far as film shooting is concerned.
  5. Promotion of potential shooting locales through targeted tours and events: This is akin to the tourism road shows that happen, but with a focused approached. Events targeting only filmmakers in various states of the country is a must by the tourism departments of the states, and so are conducted tours of film producers and directors of repute to prospective locations. One has to realise that only a few filmmakers would choose to shoot in the North East on their own, something that can change if filmmakers get aware about the region and the facilities offered.
  6. Each state as separate entity: As you might have noticed, I have not said North East India should be promoted as film shooting location. That is because each state of the region has its own identity and beauty, which need to be made visible to prospective filmmakers. A uniform promotion as North East India not only homogenises the huge diversity of the region, but also sometimes acts negatively. For example, why should Sikkim or Meghalaya suffer if there is disturbance in Manipur. But often, because of this NE label, disturbance in Manipur is seen as disturbance in North East because of lack of knowledge about the region. Thus, it’s incumbent on the governments or each state to decide how they want to attract filmmakers, and develop their policies accordingly.

Quite clearly, there is huge potential to develop a service industry surrounding filmmaking in the region, but before that service industry develops, the governments of the states in North East India must express their intent by developing a plan of action with regard to the points mentioned above.

At the end, one might ask what about North Eastern youth working in film industries outside the region? Well, that’s already happening, with many young people working in Mumbai already. And once local modules of various service sectors are developed, many among them would automatically get absorbed in film industries outside on the basis of their quality of performance. But for that, one would require development of the local service sector first.

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