Director Kabir Khan belongs to that rare breed of Bollywood filmmakers who understand that a film is more than just entertainment. A documentary filmmaker by training, he has told entertaining fictional stories set against a very real political scenario.
Kabir’s not been averse to addressing sensitive subjects like the state of Muslims post 9/11, communal differences or hyper nationalism in his films. More than anything else, Kabir has been very categorical about the importance of his films’ ideology or politics.
“Films should make a comment on something, otherwise what’s the point? As a director, I have access to one of the most powerful mediums in this country. I am not an activist and I am not going to start preaching but the way a film is made reflects its maker’s politics. These politics have nothing to do with political parties but with ideology. Without ideology, we are animals. The way you treat female characters is an indication of your gender politics. Or, the how an older person is treated shows your social politics,” he explained to me in an interview before the release of Tubelight.
Adapted from the 2015 American film Little Boy,Tubelight, the Salman Khan starrer. is set during the India-Sino War in 1962.
The film revolves around Laxman Singh Bisht (Salman), a village simpleton who lives in the fictional hamlet Jagatpur, in Kumaon. Kabir brings together a host of supporting characters – a loving brother (Sohail Khan), a father figure (Om Puri) and a local hothead (Zeeshan Ayyub) – to weave a tale of yakeen (belief). This motley crew also includes Liling and Guo, a mother-son duo who are Indians of Chinese origin. Befriended by Laxman, this ‘Chinese’ looking duo is seen as the enemy by many in the village.
The director cast Chinese actress Zhu Zhu and eight-year-old Matin Rey Tangu from Arunachal Pradesh as mother-and-son in the film. In the political climate we live in, the adage ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ holds true. After all, the imagery portrayed in our films influence how we perceive ourselves and how we are viewed by the world around us.
If the casting of Tubelight is anything to go by, a Chinese person and an Arunachali are identical. This casting is problematic not just because of how the rest of the country sees and treats North-Easterners but also because China has been slowly but steadily upping its claim on Arunachal Pradesh.
The disputed land between India and China covers 3488-kms along the Line of Actual Control. In the East, the LAC runs through Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh.
This was one of the triggers of the ’62 India-Sino war and decades later that dispute is yet to be resolved. China claims parts of Arunachal as Southern Tibet. Last year about 250 Chinese soldiers entered Arunachal Pradesh’s Kameng district.
Earlier this year, the state-controlled China Daily wrote an editorial about the hard lives of the people of ‘South Tibet’ under India’s ‘illegal rule’. Chinese maps show large parts of Arunachal as a part of South Tibet. In retaliation against the Dalai Lama’s visit to the state in April this year, the Chinese renamed six places in Arunachal to reaffirm Beijing’s ‘territorial sovereignty’ in the region.
Casting Matin with Zhu Zhu is as unforgivable as it would have been to get a Kashmiri actor to play a Pakistani.
Bollywood believes that everyone east of the Brahmaputra looks the same and Tubelight further cements that stereotype. I won’t have expected most Bollywood directors to even understand the implication of this casting, but Kabir has always talked about how politically aware he is.