Bollywood’s tango with the Northeast

Since the rise of the current government, cantankerous calls for bans on mainstream Bollywood films have risen rapidly, leaving many of us defending films which are far from being tasteful, both in the aesthetic and political sense; let’s forget about the puree they make of history in big-budget period films. The grand entry is, of course, the ongoing ‘united’ Rajput rage against Padmaavat (with the missing ‘i’). The freedom to express and art’s license remain paramount and need to be protected; as a collateral risk, one ends up endorsing even films which valorise and romanticise abominable ‘values’, especially against the ‘second’ gender. However, away from the limelight cast on Deepika’s gorgeous costumes, jewellery, and upright Rajput morality, Shaheed’s well-built masculinity, Ranveer’s Game of Thrones mimicry, and the overall costly effort to cover mediocrity with visual extravaganza, I take this chance to introduce you to a less-known terrain.

A film by the name Tango Charlie, directed by Mani Shankar, hit screens in 2005. It is a self-proclaimed anti-war film which works through shots and narratives about actual field war situations within the nation. Told through the diary writings of a BSF soldier, Tarun Chauhan (played by Bobby Deol), the film works as a kind of autobiography of the nation, tracking the growth of Chauhan from a naïve “just-recruited, good-hearted” soldier to a more mature fighter, as he accompanies Havaldar (Sergeant) Mohammad Ali (Ajay Devgan), and becomes his protégé and assistant. The film takes the viewers on a journey across the nation by mapping its terror zones: Manipur (i.e., the Northeast) featuring Bodo militants, Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal featuring Naxalites, Gujarat in the midst of communal ‘riots,’ and Kargil, infested with khaki-uniformed Pakistani terrorists. In the last fight, the Muslim sergeant Mohammad Ali sacrifices his life for the good Indian nation as he fights the bad Muslims of the neighbourhood. The film was apparently well-received despite failing to top the box-office charts, screened in many international film festivals, and included in Amnesty International’s list of classic anti-war films (the latter claim is to be found only in the wiki entry of Mani Shankar). But there are few reviews to be found of this particularly important film which showcases terror issues in the nation. The country wasn’t patriotic enough in 2005! Or did the country have a relatively better aesthetic sense than now?

The first 40 minutes of the film are set in the deep forests of Manipur, Tarun Chauhan’s (code name Tango Charlie) first field posting. The BSF platoon grapple with fear as they try to comb out the barbaric Bodo terrorists from these forests; the narrator significantly points out that he had never seen such thick vegetation in his life. The terrorists are introduced in typical Bollywood under-informed style, but without the flair of the archetypal Bollywood villain Ajit – “Yahan ke aatankwadi Bodo bahut hi khatarnak hain” (The terrorists of this region, Bodos, are very dangerous). The introduction is itself thus a beginner’s manual to the people of the Northeast. The duration of this segment is itself remarkable since no film which is not made in Northeast or about it spends so much time on the issues of this region. But even in this film, the issue is not of the region, the region is an issue of the nation.

Aatankwadis are meant to be khatarnak, so the Bodo militants may well take a bit of pride at their introduction to the nation. Likewise, the interested parties can easily refrain from allowing their sentiments to be hurt. After this basic outlining, the film goes on to refer to Bodos repeatedly as militants. Mani Shankar may have done some very basic research about the difference between a tribe and an armed outfit here. But no, why will Bollywood spend time in any research and basic minimum exercise of common sense! The entire Northeast is fashioned as a huge unknowable patch of Earth with fantastic creatures inhabiting it, so if we call some of these creatures by another name, how does it matter? The whole country and its mirror, the great Bollywood, do perceive that region, even today, in these terms. But we may blame that on the British colonizers: they vacated the land in 1947, and it was merely 2005 when this film was made. It is a minor irony that more than 200 tribes live in that region, and none of them wants to be confused for another. And here Tango Charlie unabashedly, irresponsibly calls an entire tribe terrorist. There have been armed outfits of the Bodos and many other communities in the Northeast, but those are groups, not entire tribes. Is it a divyashastra to be learnt in some Gurukul through years of meditation and abstinence? Let us not even begin to talk about the differences between freedom fighters, revolutionaries, secessionists, terrorists, extremists, and militants. As a nationalist and statist film, Tango Charlie is firmly within its rights (ideology!) to define non-state armed actors as terrorists.

Move a little forward, and you hear one of the most sickeningly hilarious lines uttered in the film: “kaan katega aur uski mala bana ke apni premika ko tohfe mein dega.” The English translation kills the effect, but it goes like this: “he will chop off your ears, make a garland from them, and gift it to his lover”. This line refers to the khatarnak Bodo militant leader played by Kelly Dorjee, who is seen chopping off the ears of his victims, like a ‘regular’ psychopath. However, he is no psychopath, but an average barbaric tribal of the northeast who indulges in ritualistic primitive violence, quite unlike the civilised warfare that civilised soldiers of civilised nations engage in. Oh, but maybe I forgot to remember – isn’t it here that head-hunters are found? Mani Shankar teases the viewer, promising such images as the female lover bedecked with a garland of human ears (who we never see in the film). That could have been a visually informative treat for those viewers who have no idea about the region, except that its inhabitants wear feathers and skulls and dance around the fire, and yet speak a sort of junglee-Hindi. Where would Paros and Padmavatis with their gold and gems stand in front of this organ-wearing love interest of the Bodo terrorist leader! Why did Mani Shankar stop short here: was it too barbaric to show a civilized non-tribal audience a tribal woman wearing her prize of severed ears? Did he just draw a line between fantasy and the real?

Screen villains are usually given certain traits of deviance to make their evil look convincing, and these personal traits remain as patented images in the viewer’s minds. Villainy works like that. Except that Dorjee’s love for human ears is eerily reminiscent of something quite real. The cinematic imagination here echoes colonial narratives about fantastic tribes and aboriginals. Let me give you an example; more may be found in abundance in many colonial, even pre-colonial writings. J.P.Mills[1] says

something of the little known tribes inhabiting   it [the Northeast]. In doing so, I have, I feel, excellent authority behind me, for the early geographers never failed, when writing of strange mountains and deserts, to say something of the even stranger races to be found there. Indeed, it is in these very hills of Eastern India that some of these queer folk are placed. One night in 1922, sitting by a camp fire I was told by a Naga of a tradition of a tribe whose ears were so long that when they went to bed one served as a mattress and the other as a blanket. Dr. Hutton[2] has pointed out to me that Pliny had not only heard and recorded this story nearly sixteen hundred years before I did, but that he also places in quadam convalle imai (eg. Himalaya) montis, a tribe of cannibals which he calls Abarimon, which is simply the Assamese words abari manuh (“independent men”), a term commonly used to this day for any wild hill tribe.[3]

The Bodos speak to each other in some ‘strange’ native language (at least it is not the default junglee-Hindi of Bollywood’s tribals), they communicate through avian language since they are close to nature, and never speak a single word of actual Bodo. But why am I making an unnecessary point here: Mani Shankar may not have known that Bodos have a language called Bodo, which is not exclusive to the militants. Once, though, an injured Bodo militant speaks in Assamese. Mani Shankar couldn’t be bothered to check these unnecessary details, could he!

Further, the naïve and good-hearted Tango Charlie asks a very soulful humanist question, posed more as a rhetorical question, as Haldar Mohammad Ali tells him that these Bodo militants are fighting because “Unhe azaadi chahiye” (They want Independence). “Kisse azadi chahiye? Yeh desh unka hain, yeh log unke hain, aur kaunsi azadi chahte hain?” (Independence from whom? This country is theirs, these people are their own, what independence do they want?). Good question. Does the film try to provide any answers or elaborate on the issue? No, and of course it was not the director’s job, was it? He was just mapping the terror belts of the beloved nation through the medium of film. Havildar Mohammad Ali beautifully articulates the film’s worldview by highlighting the fact that terrorism exists in India because our neighbours (China vis-a-vis Northeast, Pakistan vis-a-vis Kashmir and Western India, and Sri Lanka vis-à-vis South India) do not want to see us happy.

The people of the Northeast were angry at their ill-informed and negative portrayal as violent, primitive barbarians, even if it was about terrorism and ‘not about’ people. The Bodos were particularly outraged at being depicted as an entire tribe of terrorists. There were protests against this film and a call for banning it from being screened in Assam; the government of Assam eventually decided to implement the ban. These events received little coverage in news media outside the states of Assam and Manipur. But, as Ranjan Yumnam says,

My own views mirror those of the Bodos. I am not so much angry at the errors of geographical attribution as to the portrayal of the Bodos as blood-guzzling monsters. To an outsider, the Bodo militant is just another militant in the Northeast, and therefore, the implications of the movie go well beyond Manipur and Bodos. The movie assassinates the character of the entire peoples of the Northeast” (Ranjan Yumnam, The Lies of Tango Charlie! E-Pao 2005).

Geographical misplacement is no big deal: we can pose at some fancy corner of our own homes and mark it as an exotic location. Tango Charlie’s biggest problem is not this simple cheat code. It is more like a bad pastiche, made out of little morsels of information the country occasionally spots here and there in the newspapers and media about conflict in the Northeast. One feels like telling Mani Shankar and his ilk: Assam is not Manipur like Rajasthan is not Gujarat. Bodos are people like Rajputs, Tamils, Marwaris. Just as all Rajputs are not driven to violence over Padmaavat, all Bodos are not ‘terrorists’ (I resent that term here). I am sure that in the past few days of havoc and violence, the whole population of Rajputs did not swing into mob formation out of hurt sentiments. Moreover, the protests are happening in urban areas, and have been styled as a social movement for dignity and justice. With Tango Charlie, people were angry, but no one was killed or hurt, nothing was burned down. Unquestionably, both people’s living histories and sentiments were hurt in Bollywood’s forced tango with the Northeast. But no one paid any attention, not even a fraction of the attention the edges of Deepika’s skirts are receiving from the haters and lovers of Padmaavat, be it out in the streets or printed in black ink.

Many articles have been written on the controversy: first when the sets of Padmaavat were vandalized during shooting, then during censorship battles, and now as the film hit theatres on the eve of Republic Day. Padmaavat is based on a narrative poem, itself based on historical characters and events that happened centuries ago. There are available history books to find out relative truths or lies. The continuous flow of articles on Padmaavat, getting into the vague details of things long past, is overwhelming and tiring. The case of the Bodos and the Northeast in Tango Charlie in 2005 and now is, in contrast, about actual people in actual history that is happening even now; this film insulted a whole region’s history and people, and no reviewer, apart from Ranjan Yumnam, even noticed this.

And I wonder at the outrage of the Karni Sena and Rajput men turning into actual aggression and violence, strangely over a film which outright eulogizes the myth of Rajput valour, morality and dignity. If at all someone should be out in the streets protesting, it should be the women of the country, for being told that sexual harassment is the way to love in every popular film for generations; it should be the Rajput women who are hailed for dying for their community’s dignity in this particular film; it should be the Bodos and the ‘Northeasterners’ misrepresented in films like Tango Charlie. But the reality is that, unlike the Rajputs of India, no Northeastern community can hold the nation at ransom, being confined to a little-known region. And Indian women are perhaps too used to being represented as people who eventually get turned on by the hero’s stalking, teasing, threats, and harassment. But lo! there is no Bodo Sena or Nari Sena with hurt sentiments running amok, even as people are killed over the hoisting of the Tricolour on the occasion of our 69th Republic Day. Just as an aside for Mani Shankar, here is a piece of trivia: for most of the Northeasterners of my generation, the Republic Day used to be Black Day. History has changed.

I wonder, if Tango Charlie was released today, testosterone-driven patriotic lads would be thumping their chests as Baby Deol single-handedly finishes off the Pakistani terrorists, loyal to his genetically-coded acting skills inherited from Senior Deol. On the reverse, if Padmaavat was made in 2005, it wouldn’t be so unduly famous.


[1] District Commissioner in the Naga Hills, 1914-1948, and later Reader in Anthropology at London. Author of ‘The Rengma Nagas’, ‘The Lhota Nagas’ and ‘The Ao Nagas’

[2] J.H.Hutton was District Commissioner in the Naga Hills, 1909-1935, and later Professor of Anthropology at Cambridge. He is also the author of ‘The Angami Nagas’ and ‘The Sema Nagas’

[3] J P Mills. “The Assam-Burma Frontier.” The Geographical Journal.Vol. 67, No. 4 (Apr., 1926), pp. 289-299



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Amrapali Basumatary Written by:

Amrapali Basumatary teaches English Literature in Delhi

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