Slur Against Nepali-Speaking Communities in ‘Paatal Lok’ Is Hardly a One-Off Incident

Hindi cinema and series often come under flak for stereotyping different communities. The stereotyping is not only community-based, but regionalistic as well – people belonging to the hinterland are stereotyped much more than people from the mainland.

The frequency of this phenomenon spikes exponentially when it comes to marginalised communities from Northeast India. Most of the tribes from the Northeast are often shown as fearful people – to the extent of being cannibalistic. Women from the region are mostly taken in the role of beauty parlour professionals, masseuses and, in many cases, prostitutes.

One such misrepresented community among many others from the Northeast are the ‘Indian Nepalese’ – the Gurkhas.

The big screen, small screen and advertisements alike have equally stereotyped the Gurkha community. ‘Ohh Sabji’, ‘Bahadhur’ and ‘Chinki’ are the accolades of Hindi cinema to the Gurkha community. The entire industry seems to think ‘watchmen’, ‘beauty parlour worker’, ‘masseuse’ and ‘loyal khukuri wielding soldiers’ are the only roles deemed fit for the people of this community.

Movies like Kasauti (1974), Haseena Maan Jayegi (1999), Apna Sapna Money Money (2007), Tango Charlie (2005) and LOC Kargil (2003) are a few that have propagated this stereotype. This vocabulary of stereotyping has only grown over time, with the latest addition made by the Anushka Sharma-produced Amazon Prime series Paatal Lok where a character, played by transwoman Mairembam Ronaldo Singh, from the Northeast, is referred to as a ‘Nepali r****’ (Nepali prostitute).

The Gurkha community has vehemently criticised the use of this casteist slur. A legal notice has been sent to Anushka Sharma by a member of lawyers guild, the All Arunachal Pradesh Gorkha Youth Association (AAPGYA) has filed an online complaint with the National Human Right Commission (NHRC), the Bharatiya Gorkha Yuva Parisangh (BhaGoYuP) has started an online petition seeking to mute the particular scene and an FIR has been filed by a lawyer and an activist with the Gangtok Sadar police demanding strict action against Sharma.

The cinematic misportrayal has affected how people from the Gurkha community are treated in mainland India. The situation is aggravated when these terms find a way out of the screen to vocabulary used daily. This gets worse when an entire profession is addressed by the name of a community. Yes, from Delhi to Chennai, Mumbai to Bangalore, many professional security guards are called Gurkhas – even by the most educated and elite segment of the society.

It is not just an unfortunate incident but sheer ignorance and disrespect to the community when the official government notification legitimises these terms. In 2014, Tamil Nadu state government notification shamelessly advertised the post of ‘Gurkha watchmen’ as did the state of Andhra Pradesh. More recently, the Delhi government published an advertisement that mentions Sikkim – a state with a majority Gurkha community, as a separate country.

Also read: Pataal Lok: A Descent Into Hell With Stories and Back Stories

Articles 6 and 7 of the 1950 ‘Treaty of Peace and Friendship Between the Government of India and Government of Nepal’ grants nationals of these countries same privileges on a reciprocal basis in other country’s territories in the matter of residence, ownership of property, participation in trade and commerce, movement and other privileges of a similar nature.

This has enabled Nepalese people to move freely across the border, live, work, and conduct trade and business in India and Indians to do the same in Nepal. A large proportion of these migrant workers from Nepal settle in India and pick up jobs of watchmen, cooks and maids to earn their livelihood and send money back home. Hindi cinema and the small screen picked this up and continue to propagate the stereotype.

It is ethically and morally questionable to represent a community and recognise them through one profession. This is along the same lines as the doomed ‘caste system’ India has been suffering from since time immemorial where a section of the people from ‘higher caste’ expect and want people of certain communities to be involved only in a few particular sets of professions and don’t welcome them in others. Similarly, the Bollywood and Hindi entertainment industry have propagated Gurkhas to be only guards and nothing more.

According to the 2011 census, about 30 lakh people in India speak Nepali as their mother tongue.  The Nepali language is one of the scheduled languages of India. Nepali-speaking Indian Gurkhas are one of the most advanced communities, with high literacy rates, very reformed cultures and traditions and better socio-economic indices. They have been engaged in a plethora of professions and excelled on national and international stages. The Hindi entertainment industry has failed to pick to represent any of this on screen.

What is concerning is that Bollywood picked the profession of guards – which many migrant Nepalese adopt to earn a livelihood – and made it a ‘brand identity’ of the entire Gurkha community. With this precedent, the dialogue in Paatal Lok is very unfortunate and condemnable. The India-Nepal border has always been one of the busiest human trafficking gateways. More so after the 2015 Nepal earthquake, which disrupted social and economic structures of Nepal. Approximately 12,000 children are trafficked from Nepal to India every year, mainly for sexual exploitation.

When a web series on a platform like Amazon, with millions of viewers, uses the term ‘prostitute’ and connects with the victim community, it becomes problematic. It is insensitive as it ignores the heinous crime of human trafficking and the plight suffered by the victims.

Moreover, the way online content – from memes to WhatsApp forwards – are consumed in India, this will increase the instances of racial discrimination of the already marginalised community in India. Women from the Northeast are already victims of discrimination and harassment because of misrepresentation by popular culture of the region they come from and the way they look.

The dialogue in Paatal Lok, which will be consumed by millions, will further reinforce the disparaging racial discrimination.

Hemant Kumar Neopaney is a founding team member of the Daksha Fellowship and a senior associate at 9dot9 Education. He is from Sikkim and belongs to the Gurkha community.

Featured image credit: Netflix