Dear Paatal Lok makers, I am Nepali and I am not a r*ndi
Already misrepresented and underrepresented in popular media, the last thing the Nepali community should face is the existence of this dialogue as a reference of the community.
- Total Shares
From the outrage of the Nepali community against the usage of a racist slur in Paatal Lok to the legal notice to mute the dialogue sent to the makers, which includes actress Anushka Sharma, the recently released web series brought with it a fair share of uproar among my Nepali-speaking Gorkha community of India and the Nepali community as a whole.
I recently binge-watched the said Amazon Prime series and the usage of the phrase "Nepali r*ndi" (prostitute) in two different scenes did not unruffle me as much initially. Being a journalist sometimes desensitises you, and facing many racist comments as a minority living in various cities for years now sadly lowers your defence mechanism to even blatant stereotypes.
Then I rewound to an ugly memory from my own past. I had started my master's degree at IIMC in New Delhi and had gone out with my friends for dinner. When we stopped at a petrol pump and were closer to the road, a car just honked and some men randomly asked me for my "rate". My friend from Delhi hurled abuses at those men and she told me they were just ignorant fools. I was really shocked at first; the racism that stemmed from the comment would register later and stay.
After conversing with many of my friends and acquaintances from the Nepali community, being asked for your rate or being considered an "easy", "sexually and morally loose" person was a common occurrence based on merely our mongoloid facial features and nothing more. This is racism and even though Paatal Lok exposes the gritty reality, it will indirectly spread this notion and cause harm to the community in the longer run.
In the series, Mairembam Ronaldo Singh plays the character Cheeni (a problematic reference already), who is called a Nepali r*ndi by the female cop Manju Verma, played by Nikita Grover. On one side of the argument is when any woman with mongoloid features is caught in a crime, the police usually character-assassinate her. This exposes the insensitive treatment meted out, be it by government institutes or common folk, to people from Darjeeling and North-Eastern states, where our features seem to alienate us even within our country. But how can this so-called reality of an existing stereotype be justified when these two words put together leads to Nepali women being painted in this tone-deaf stereotype? There is no explanation or context that follows; it is left hanging like a universal truth for you to deal with.
Mairembam Ronaldo Singh plays the character Cheeni, who is called a Nepali r*ndi by a female cop in Paatal Lok. (Photo: Screenshot/ Prime Video)
If you are from the community, the line might outrage you or maybe you are thick-skinned due to years of racism that you faced. So you shrug it off as another racist slur and proclaim that this does not define your identity. What it does not do is educate the other communities, they may or may not be privy to this 'so-called reality' of the gaze that women with mongoloid features face, but the line projected as a reality by Paatal Lok, for specifically Nepali women, is solidified and opens up even more space for such discrimination by who are referred to as 'mainlanders', a distinction for the majority of citizens within the dominant geographical, social and cultural landscape of India.
A friend messaged me on WhatsApp, "No mainlander is going to feel ashamed after watching the series. They are gonna be like 'Acha, naya gaali mil gaya." This is the de-facto end of the creative license that any medium might take, as it leaves behind an ugly trail of actual instances of racism.
Darjeeling girl Akansha Pradhan, an actress currently living in Mumbai, feels otherwise. "Of course we have had a bitter past as a community. But Paatal Lok had such an intense scene, which required such a brutal, realistic dialogue. We need to stop playing the victim card. Don't pick on one word and overreact. It's a show that's trying to depict the hellish reality of life, and they have pointed out other social problems as well," she says.
There is indeed a bitter past. The Nepali community in popular media, including films and advertisements, has been projected with glaring racial stereotypes time and again. Author Regina Gurung rues that Paatal Lok is not the first to demean Nepalis in excuse of 'true India'. “The role of many aspiring Nepali actresses with mongoloid features have been confined to parlour aunties and spa receptionists. Sunil Chettri, the captain of the Indian football team, is a Nepali. Yet he gets comments like ‘Ye Nepali kaun hai’ during an Instagram live session with Virat Kohli.” She goes on to add that the mainstream does not want us to be acknowledged beyond the kind of identity they have created for us. “Representation of Nepalis and other North Easterners in films and series with a leading role is next to nil. When you finally see one, she is addressed as a whore, so you can imagine the outrage,” she says.
The action, the reality
Taking cognisance of the outrage within the Gorkha community, Darjeeling MP Raju Bista wrote to Information and Broadcasting Minister Prakash Javadekar on May 17, requesting action against the show. "I do believe that freedom of speech and expression is sacrosanct, but it should not be taken as a licence to stereotype, malign, vilify and demean one particular community,” he wrote. His call for action, coupled with the legal notice that has already been served to the makers of the show, is an important step to obliterate these two simple words that malign our community's name in popular media.
Social activist and lawyer Bandana Rai, who has worked in rescuing trafficked girls, sex workers, wrongfully confined women, knows the reality of the demand being high for ladies with mongoloid features in the flesh trade owing to their skin colour and appearance. So Nepalis and the entire North-East Indian populace becomes vulnerable to traffickers, sometimes trusted people from their own communities. Poverty, growing socio-economic disparity, lack of education and employment opportunities lead to many women getting trafficked. So the dialogue does have some origin but it should not be an excuse to paint an entire community in this light.
“Portraying us (the Nepali community) in such a vulgar manner with sexual abuse is an encouragement for racial slurs. Fabricated perception of the people regarding us becomes more prominent, which leads to possibilities in the increase of crimes against us. Films, documentaries, web series can definitely exhibit the issues but they cannot use such remarks to portray a specific community's women so negatively," says Rai. She has lodged a complaint with the National Commission for Women against the series. "I have a question for the producer, Anushka Sharma — can she use the same language for any other community? If yes, then make such an episode with the same sexist abuse," she dares.
Here, like Rai, I feel the pain of my community of being marginalised, subjected to its identity always being on the fringes and it finally leads to clutching at the straws and frustration. As we have seen earlier, when many other communities feel targeted by films or web series, makers go out of their way to appease them lest the film's release suffers or the community's sentiments are hurt. Even if makers are of the opposing view, there is maybe a statement issued or at least some form of acknowledgement. Here, there seems to be just silence beyond a broad, generic it is 'India's grim reality' trope. It has been ten days since its release and the backlash that followed over the dialogue.
The Nepali community itself remained divided over the outrage on the issue. There was a section of the intelligentsia, which believed overreacting and blaming just the series for these perceptions was not a solution. Having lived in metro cities away from my hometown Darjeeling for over a decade now, a myriad of facing racist experiences, sometimes subtle, sometimes blatant, has toughened my shell. Yes, I do ignore racist comments at times and sometimes I prepare myself for a long, bitter fight; there doesn't seem to be an alternative path at times. When the controversy over Paatal Lok's dialogue erupted, I read varying perspectives, had several discussions with people from within my community. The creative license, the portrayal of this stereotype as it exists in reality, exposing the racial gaze the character Cheeni dealt with as the dark side of Indian society were some of the arguments supporting the web series.
Subecha Rai, a research fellow, was subjected to backlash for speaking against the series. She said, "I was horrified at the labels that people of our own community were giving us. ‘Keyboard warriors, saviours of culture on change.org, opportunists, over-sensitive and self-victimising’ to name a few. If they are not offended, it's alright. But at least don't try to undermine whatever efforts the others are doing to have that one word muted or removed. I am sure that with/without using 'Nepali' in that dialogue, the essence of the character portrayed or the plotline would not have changed.”
Perhaps, subtlety would have been the way out. Even if it was to show that women with mongoloid features are perceived as prostitutes, it could have been portrayed without the added baggage of specifically targeting a particular community. However, our entertainment industry lacks such nuances.
The road ahead
With the politics of identity, minority communities existing within larger narratives and mores of a majority, there comes a juncture when certain issues crop up and must be addressed. Here, it is brought about by the dialogue in Paatal Lok.
Sure, the Nepali community was privy to racist slurs, discriminatory attitudes and stereotypes. We were made to internalise and normalise it several times, as resolving issues peacefully or letting it go for one's own mental peace seems easier. The change, though, must be brought at some point and here it is as simple as beeping the word out and blurring that subtitle. The web series has been a phenomenal success and I hope it goes on to become a much-watched series globally as well.
However, it would be of great disservice to women of my community to be judged and exposed to even more racist slurs due to the presence of just this mere line. Just like that unsolicited experience of mine, when I was asked for 'my rate', this mere dialogue will also stick with our identity if no action is taken against it.
This is 2020, where globally after addressing biases, discrimination, sexual harassment with the likes of #OscarsSoWhite, #MeToo, there needs to be some onus on our entertainment industry too to be sensitive when dealing with certain issues. With homegrown web series receiving wide acclaim in India and globally, a small intervention could be in the production stages itself. Be it having a consultant from the community or a check if creative license seems to be overstepping into creating real-life issues for a particular community.
I personally loved the series, right from the acting to the brilliant pace at which it introduced us to the characters through so many layers. I even found it better than Sacred Games in many respects. When the dreaded Hathoda Tyagi (Abhishek Banerjee) was rendered a redeeming quality, Chaaku Tope Singh (Jagjeet Sandhu) could retaliate to the caste-based discrimination against him, a grey zone existed for these brilliant characters. For Cheeni, though brilliantly portrayed by Mairembam, I cannot say the same. She remains someone, whose vague references to identity are mired in stereotypes based solely on the character's facial features and this is where the fault lies.
I am looking forward to more series like Paatal Lok but I do not want another propagation of a stereotype of my community. Already misrepresented and underrepresented in popular media, the last thing the Nepali community should face years down the line, is the existence of this dialogue as a reference of the community. Instead, make us diverse characters, help us add our faces to popular culture beyond stereotypes, just like how we are in real life. For I am Nepali, and I am not a r*ndi.