There are few instances that represent the issues pertaining to Northeast India in mainstream cinema. The recently released Anek, starring Ayushmann Khurrana, is one of the first commercial movies to explore the complex issues of the region – often limited to insurgency and racism.
The trailer of the movie generated quite a lot of interest – because of Khurrana’s track record of selecting issue-based movies. There were also some apprehensions, mostly amongst academics who study the Northeast and its complex situation – which is already beset by inadequate resources; misrepresentation and underreporting by ‘mainstream’ media; and public as well as government apathy.
The first step to solving or representing a problem is to correctly identify the issue first. While Anek does its best to portray insurgency in Northeast India and other issues, it will also likely contribute to the average person’s misconceptions about the region. In fact, it appears to be an attempt to attract eyeballs and amplify the saviour complex that the ‘mainland’ Indians tend to have for the ‘backward’ Northeasterners.
The movie starts with the police raiding a pub in Delhi and there are no prizes for guessing what unfolds. Along with a flurry of racial slurs like ‘Chilly Chicken’ and ‘Chinese’, girls from the Northeast are called “Massagewali’s from Bangkok”. The female lead in the movie, Aido (Andrea Kevichusa), is a boxer who aspires to represent India on the international stage. But India doesn’t consider her one of her own. The image of a few girls walking past Aido wearing India jerseys while she is walking on the other side of the road is quite striking.
The protagonist, Aman or Joshua (Khurrana), is an intelligence officer currently posted in Northeast India. He is tasked with negotiating with separatist leader Tiger Sanga to a peace accord signed between the Government of India. Aman narrates his time in the remote parts of the region and how over a period, he understands the complexity of the problem, gets emotionally invested, bringing out the “saviour” in him. He eventually acts against all odds to do what he thinks is right.
The movie centres on establishing peace in the Northeast – but as one of the scenes says, what is peace for one might not be for another.
One review described Anek as a rare, timely and powerful socio-political drama that brings to focus the troubled region of Northeast India. Though it acknowledges that the movie is flawed in many aspects and is occasionally preachy, the review calls Anek a “well-meaning and rare attempt that poses critical questions about who is an Indian”.
But here’s the thing, one of the biggest contributors to the failure to understand the issues from the Northeast is treating the entire region as a homogenous entity. Even today, an average Indian might just be unaware of the different languages, cultures and terrains in the Northeast. The political is even more complicated and warrants a separate examination.
Anek fails to address this most basic issue. The movie does not mention where Aman is posted and which insurgent group from which state or ethnic group he is dealing with. In fact, even the numbers plates of the vehicles in the movie have “NE” written on them, and not the initials of the state – clearly treating the entire region as one entity.
The movie undermines the decade-long struggle by the Northeasters states to mark their own distinct linguistic and cultural identities.
The problem of insurgency in the region has very deep roots in the cultural and linguistic groups of the region. Each state of the region has different reasons for their struggles and the creation of each state from the colonial Assam state has a vast and vivid reason associated with it.
Anek blatantly disregards the linguistic diversity of the region. Neither does it identify the language spoken by the ‘separatist leader’ nor does it distinguish between the different languages spoken by the members of a different group. Each linguistic group in the region has its own views on things. So, a solution for one group might not exactly be a solution for the other; and this was quite dramatically conveyed by the movie. But the movie itself fails to identify the linguistic groups it depicts.
For the longest time, only incidents of violence from the region managed to grab the attention of the ‘mainstream’ Indian media. The underlying problem of the region – under-representation, asymmetric utilisation of the abundant natural resources, lack of infrastructure – are ignored.
Anek attempts to tackle this problem, touching upon how it’s a game of profit for all and also very briefly shows how communities in the region are reeling because of drug trafficking and addiction. It also depicts community organisation and attempts by residents to work towards being self-sustainable and solving the underlying issues behind the insurgency. But these issues deserved greater examination. But instead, a majority of the movie dwells on acts of violence in the region.
It is also unclear in which era the movie unfolds. Insurgency and separatism are issues that the Northeast has faced since the independence of India. Each phase and each state has a different struggle. Through the name ‘Tiger Sanga’, the allusion to the peace accord, ethnic flags and the constitution, the movie did try to indicate a time and state. But with Khurrana driving around in a fairly new Mahindra Thar, the audience may infer this is present-day Northeast. But the socio-economic and ethnic issues now are clearly quite different.
The history and struggles of the Northeast are sensitive and complicated issues. Racism, insurgency in the region and politics of separation are just the most known facets of the plethora of problems that the region faces. Anek was an attempt to discuss and highlight some of these issues – but it was clearly half-baked. Half knowledge is very harmful – especially in commercial movies targeted at a passive audience – and can have serious consequences on how people understand the Northeast.
Though the movie may not rake in money at the box office – people may instead choose to watch mass entertainers like Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2, when the movie is released on over-the-top streaming platforms, it is likely to be watched by a larger population. For those unaware of the complexity of the Northeastern region, Anek‘s generalisation and inaccuracies could have troubling implications.
This article was first published on The Wire.