Mary Kom (Film) Cooked in Tricolour Garam Masala

By Garga Chatterjee,

There is something about a late-night film show that triggers nationalism like few other things can. Maybe it is the lit-up screen where all assembled people look at — thus connecting all of them in a common experience, may be it is the post-dinner contented feeling that frees the mind to think about things beyond ourselves, like the nation. The Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s produced, Omung Kumar directed, Priyanka Chopra starrer Bollywood film, Mary Kom, ended with the national anthem of the Indian Union. This was part of the film by design and not some random brain-wave of the cinema-hall owner. Thus started the loyalty to the nation-state test at midnight — who stands, who doesn’t. A friend reported that righteous and upstanding citizens at a Delhi cinema hall beat up disloyal sit-downers. It is only natural that a film themed around boxing will inspire some of the spectators, especially when that warm ‘India’ feeling bubbles up inside an air-conditioned cinema hall. Paisa wasool.

MaryKom Film

Mary Kom, is a bio-pic about the struggles of Mary Kom, a real life woman boxing world-champion from the Indian state of Manipur, which had a democratically elected state council that was bypassed when its constitutional head signed a merger agreement in 1949 with an Indian Union that was yet become a democratic republic. Different issues come into the Mary Kom story — some fleetingly, some prominently. They include, the socio-political instability in Manipur, the prejudicial behaviour of Hindustanis towards Manipuris, armed forces of the Indian Union, Manipuri terrorists (or armed insurgents — take your pick) and so on. If the personal trials and tribulations of Mary Kom is the meat of the story, these other issues are the masala. The meat may be of top quality but without the right amount of masala applied in the right way, the dish cannot be served. The masala has to be of a particular kind, given that the customers of the dish come primarily from the halls and multiplexes of the Indian Union’s small towns and big cities. Every day, Mother Hindi serves food cooked in her Bollywood kitchen to millions of her state-loving offsprings spread all across her nation. This is the kind of meat that adds to the muscle of the four lions atop the Ashokan pillar. Nowadays, everyone is a little experimentative and wants to try some variations in their cuisine — a little ‘unity in diversity’, if you will. Hence, Mary Kom is a hit — a daughter’s tale, a mother’s tale, a woman’s tale, the tale of a thoroughly Indian Manipuri’s eventual Indian acceptability, the tale of north-east taking centre-stage, the tale of mischievous daughter Manipur’s relationship with Mother India. The Indian state is a liberal one now. It can take stuff like this — a little self-critique here, a little dose of common humanity there. But not all meats can be served everywhere. I hear that some Nagas dishes are so out there that no amount of tri-colour garam masala makes their story palatable in Delhi, Mumbai, NOIDA and Gurgaon. Every snake-charmer knows that it is risky to show off a snake which still has its fangs intact.

In Mary Kom, the heavily pregnant heroine is going towards the hospital with her husband. She is nearing labour. There is curfew on the streets. The husband tells her to wait and advances a bit. He is in the middle of a group of khaki-clad Indian security force men out to weed out trouble-makers. He tells them about his wife. A jawan finds her. The story matches. They arrive safely at the hospital. Many such images of an agitated Manipur break into ‘Mary Kom’. I use the word ‘images’ very deliberately here, for some realities are somewhat different. In July 2009, Mary Kom was selected for the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna award, the Indian Union’s highest sporting award.  It was in the same July of 2009 that khaki-clad government forces surrounded an unarmed Chongkham Sanjit in a busy bazaar at Imphal, the capital of Manipur. Sanjit does not resist. He is whisked away to a dark area beside a roadside medicine shop. A few minutes later, the Khakis come out with Sanjit’s bullet-ridden dead body and throw it onto a truck. Wait. There is another corpse on the truck. It belongs to Rabina Devi, a pregnant bystander killed by police a short while ago. This whole sequence gets captured on camera, just like a film. A little Googling will do. Not all pregnant women and young men on Imphal streets get the ‘Mary Kom’ treatment. There is no market for these pictures of Manipur. The story of a decade-long hunger-striker protesting the ‘special powers’ granted to Indian Army in Manipur is no formula to Bollywood success. The picture of Irom Sharmila Chanu with the force-feeding tubes stuck to her nose is sure to take the pop out of popcorn. And if nothing else, the censor board will happily oblige in its mission of catering fairy-tales to citizens and protecting impressionable minds from such naked images. Sports are a better bet. A Manipuri woman’s struggle for legitimacy in Hindustan and Hindustan finally coming around to embrace her back. Mother India’s bosom is big enough for all. Taaliyan bacchon.

The day ‘Mary Kom’ was released, Indian Union’s prime minister gave a widely beamed ‘Teacher’s Day’ speech to school students. There was some Q and A too. A 17 year old school student Nickson Laisram of Imphal asked ‘How can I become the PM?’. Poor Nickson probably already knows that his ethnic origin unofficially rules that out already. The best he can hope is that his sisters will not have the fate of Thangjam Manorama, an insurgent who was picked up by security forces from her home in 2004. Her body, covered in sperm and bullets, was found the next day. 30 Manipuri mothers stripped themselves in protest outside an armed forces outpost with the banner ‘Indian Army, Rape Us’. I am waiting to stand up to the tune of the national anthem of the nation that will have the story of Manorama and her mothers in the night-show, without the garam masala.

The writer is a Bengal-based commentator on politics and culture. He tweets @gargac First Published in The Express Tribune.