When Bhediya, a Bollywood film starring Varun Dhawan and Kriti Sanon, was released on November 25, it found an unlikely promotional push from a politician. Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister Pema Khandu took to social media making an appeal to public to watch the film. While certain films in recent times have found political patronage because of the subjects the films dealt with, Bhediya was far from being a political film.
But Khandu had a different reason to become the self-styled campaigner for the film. Not only the storyline of the film was based in Arunachal Pradesh, the entire shooting also happened in the scenic north-eastern state. Not surprisingly, the Arunachal CM tweeted: “Do not miss to watch Bhediya and in being thrilled and mesmerised by the beauty of Arunachal Pradesh (sic).”
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Around the time Bhediya was making waves for the pristine and virgin beauty of the state known as the land of the rising sun, Bollywood superstar Hrithik Roshan along with veteran Anil Kapoor was busy shooting at Tezpur in neighbouring Assam for another Hindi film titled Fighter. Deepika Padukone is expected to join the cast in the next shooting schedule in Assam. That’s not all. Nearly 165 km east of Tezpur, at Panikhaiti, national award-winning actor Kangana Ranaut was recreating Bangladesh for her new Bollywood venture titled Emergency.
On November 30, another north-eastern state Manipur gained national limelight when former Miss Universe and actor Sushmita Sen walked the ramp as a showstopper for Manipuri designer Robert Naorem at the closing ceremony of the Manipur Sangai Festival in Imphal. Just the previous night the capital of Manipur had hosted Danish rock band Michael Learns to Rock, better known as MLTR. The internationally popular band was on a whirlwind tour performing in Mizoram, Assam, Manipur, and Meghalaya between November 25 and December 1.
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Welcome to India’s northeast which has been gradually emerging as the latest hub for mainstream cultural activities. Occupying India’s 8 per cent geography and home to around 4 per cent of the country’s total population, the region has a strategic significance. It’s the only part of India which shares international borders—spanning 5,484 km—with five countries, including China. Already known for its iconic musical events such as Ziro Festival, Orange Festival, NH7 Weekender or traditional cultural events such as Rongali Bihu, Hornbill Festival, and Cherry Blossom, the northeast is now finding the attention of top celebrities and talents from other parts of India and the globe.
The northeast always had it in to become the celebratory destination of the country for its natural beauty—the undulating hills, scenic landscapes, lush green cover, peaceful lakes, snow-capped mountains, and wildlife. For the Bollywood fraternity, which doesn’t hesitate to fly to picturesque European countries for a single dance sequence, northeast should have been a natural choice. There had been some previous attempts to explore the beauty of the region for the 35 mm screen. For instance, the Shah Rukh Khan and Madhuri Dikshit starrer Koyla, released in 1997, were shot in Arunachal Pradesh.
But Koyla was not the first one to be shot in the northeast. Jewel Thief, released in 1967 and starring the then reigning superstar Dev Anand, was shot extensively in Sikkim. In 1991, Kurbaan, starring Salman Khan was partly shot in Meghalaya. Hindi films such as Ek Pal (1986), Daman (2001) were shot in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, though both films had the involvement of legendary Assamese musician Bhupen Hazarika. More recently in 2016, Rock On 2, starring Farhan Akhtar was shot in Meghalaya. In 2017, Vishal Bharadwaj’s Rangoon, starring Saif Ali Khan, Shahid Kapoor, and Ranaut, was reportedly shot in Arunachal Pradesh.
But the cloud of insurgency and poor logistical support made most Bollywood filmmakers wary of shooting in the region. For instance, the Priyanka Chopra starrer biopic on Mary Kom in 2004 was shot in Dharamshala and Manali, where a large portion of Manipur was recreated, as plans to shoot in the legendary boxer’s birthplace got cancelled because of safety issues. But these concerns are gradually becoming a thing of the past.
In last one decade, partly because of increased political focus on the northeast and partly because of more interaction between the people of the eight states and their counterparts in the rest of India, the perception about the region is gradually changing. Migration of a large number of youngsters from the northeast to other parts of India for better employment opportunities and free flow of communication through traditional media and social media have helped bust many myths surrounding these eight states. In Bollywood itself, several talents from the northeast such as musician Papon, actor Adil Hussain and filmmaker Rima Das have made their marks. Both Hussain and Das found their way to Oscar nominations. Achievers in other fields such as Mary Kom or Hima Das have also made others sit up and take notice.
But the biggest trigger behind this recent flow of celebrities to the northeast was the sharp decline in insurgency-related incidents in the region. There has been a 74 per cent decrease in insurgency-related incidences and an 89 per cent decrease in civilian deaths in the North-eastern area since 2014. According to South Asian Terrorism Portal, 824 insurgency-related incidents took place in 2014 while the number dropped to 209 in 2021. Between 2014 and 2021, 5,319 extremists surrendered while 580 were killed and 9,103 arrested.
With more insurgent groups joining peace talks with the government, the region has seen a new-found vibrancy in recent times. So, if Priyanka Chopra became Assam’s tourism brand ambassador in 2016, Sanjay Dutt landed in Arunachal Pradesh last year to promote tourism in the state. “Ever since BJP governments have come to power at the Centre and in almost all NE states, there has been a very positive atmosphere in the region. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has always kept NE as his top priority. The region is now reaping the benefits of his vision, Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma told India Today NE.
His counterpart in Manipur, N. Biren Singh agrees. “Earlier, the Congress-led Central governments used to send an army whenever there was trouble in the region. There was no attempt to reach out to the people. Now PM Modi sends his Cabinet colleagues almost every week. The unprecedented focus has almost wiped out insurgency from the region. It has brought NE closer to the mainstream and the rest of India is waking up to the true potential of the region”, says Singh who has been leading a BJP government since 2016.
In fact, the political disturbances in the northeast, often leading to violent confrontations, have found a place in Bollywood films in bits and pieces. From Shah Rukh Khan’s Dil Se in 1998 to Ayushmann Khurrana’s Anek earlier this year, mainstream Bollywood films have tried to highlight the “northeast issue” beyond the idea of a serene landscape. Tango Charlie, a forgettable Bollywood film in 2005, with an impressive star cast of Ajay Devgn, Bobby Deol, Sanjay Dutt, Sunil Shetty, had parts of it showcasing northeast insurgency. The same year, Dansh, a Hindi film starring Kay Kay Menon, was made on the armed struggle witnessed in Mizoram in 1980s. Unfortunately, most of these films were flawed on background research resulting in becoming poor caricatures of a serious subject.
Perhaps, the new-found interest in the northeast will help in building an accurate impression of the region in the mainstream mind space. For long it has suffered tags such as “disturbed area”, “backward”, “violent”, and “underdeveloped” in national discourse. The films shot in these eight states, through their authentic visual representation, could emerge as the torchbearers to erase these labels.