Ayushmann Khurrana and Andrea Kevichusa from 'Anek'
Ayushmann Khurrana and Andrea Kevichusa from 'Anek' Image Credit: Benaras Media Works

For all those who balked at the culturally inappropriate casting of bankable Bollywood actress Priyanka Chopra Jonas as the celebrated North Eastern boxer Mary Kom in the eponymous 2014 biopic, there’s some redemption to be had.

Bollywood, more specifically director Anubhav Sinha — known for his hard-hitting films such as ‘Article 15’ that explored the politics of casteism in India and ‘Thappad’ that presented a searing look at what constitutes to domestic violence — hasn’t taken the easy route for his latest film. Rather, he has stuck his proverbial neck out by aiming for culturally authentic casting for his new thriller ‘Anek’.

In the movie, out in UAE cinemas on May 27, Sinha has cast Andrea Kevichusa, a model from India’s North Eastern state of Nagaland, who plays a boxer from that region. But why is this significant?

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Ayushmann Khurrana and Andrea Kevichusa from 'Anek' Image Credit: Benaras Media Works

Bollywood is often condemned for its convenient culturally inaccurate castings.

Chopra Jonas — who faced backlash for playing a Manipuri pugilist when she didn’t look anything like Kom — expressed her contrition recently and felt that somebody from that region should have ideally played that part. It took her eight years to admit it, and claimed her greed as an actor had resulted in that misguided career choice.

Bollywood mainstream cinema is also blasted for casting North Indian actors from Bollywood in staunchly South Indian roles.

Priyanka Chopra in 'Mary Kom'
Priyanka Chopra in 'Mary Kom' Image Credit: Supplied

But director Sinha’s ‘Anek’, a film exploring the racial stereotyping and the civil unrest in the North East, aims to correct that flawed lineage. And nobody is as thrilled as Nagaland-based Kevichusa who makes her Bollywood acting debut with ‘Anek’, which also stars the man-of-the-moment, Ayushmann Khurrana.

“There’s a lot of misrepresentation and underrepresentation when it comes to us actors from the North East. We are pigeon-holed into one category in films and I am glad our time has finally come,” said Kevichusa in an interview with Gulf News.

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Andrea Kevichusa from Nagaland plays North Eastern boxer in 'Anek', directed by Anubhav Sinha

But this is no “prototype of a commercial Hindi film,” warns its lead hero Khurrana. The award-winning actor, known for his versatile roles like playing a prematurely balding young man in ‘Bala’ or an unhappy spouse who fat-shames his bride in ‘Dum Laga Ke Haisha’, plays an undercover cop on a mission to restore peace in the North East region. He’s just glad that he’s a part of film that explores a sensitive and a significant topic on what constitutes “the other” India.

“We want to present this film in its truest form and our endeavour is to link it to mainstream cinema despite it not being a commercial prototype. And, that’s never happened before … There’s a message of how unity is important in diversity in our country … It’s very, very sensitive,” said Khurrana.

The impactful trailer explores the civic unrest in India’s North East and how inhabitants constantly have to prove their allegiance to their native country.

“Yes, she’s always trying to find her place in her country and prove her ‘Indianness’. And she’s always trying to find space in the country and how she starts to figure out why she’s not par with everyone else. It’s just sad that someone has to prove that they should be a part of a country that they were born in,” said Kevichusa about her character in the film.

Khurrana also points out that ‘Anek’ explores the murky issue of stereotyping that invariable seeps into a diverse country like India.

“It’s about racial stereotyping of people that exists in India or anywhere across the world. For instance, if a South Indian goes to North Indian Tier 2 or 3 cities, that person may face issues. Similarly, if we go down to South India without knowing their language, we will face issues too,” said Khurrana.

As an artist, you have a certain social responsibility, which I take very seriously … But the core job of cinema is to entertain. Entertainment and engagement are the two words that should go with cinema … There’s huge empathy in my heart for casteism or for North Eastern students

- Ayushmann Khurrana about being an actor

While studying in college in Chandigarh, Khurrana remembers how his North Eastern peers and students from that region felt a sense of mutual alienation. “The North East students in Chandigarh used to face racial remarks and vice versa. I knew this guitarist from Assam who used to call me ‘Mayang’ in his local language, which means that I was an outsider of his state. So I was inducted to all this quite early in life when I was 18 or 19,” said Khurrana.

His own life experiences gave him some perspective to play the pivotal role in this political thriller. “You see this happen everywhere, not just in North East, but anywhere with an insurgency or political unrest will relate to ‘Anek’,” said Khurrana.

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Ayushmann Khurrana in 'Anek' Image Credit: Pallav Paliwal

While the subject of this political thriller held great appeal, the idea of playing an overtly macho role was also a great draw for Khurrana.

“My physicality and the gait in my film is very different. Even in the way I run or deliver dialogues, there’s a sense of gravitas and composure. This role is different from my earlier films and the character of an undercover cop wanting peace in a region made him exciting,” said Khurrana.

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Ayushmann Khurrana plays an undercover cop in 'Anek' Image Credit: Supplied

Despite realising that this film might be his career’s most controversial film till date, the actor, who made his debut in Bollywood with the zany sperm-donation comedy ‘Vicky Donor’ in 2012, isn’t worried. If he has chosen a genre that deals with social or political issues, then he must learn to own it with every fibre of his being.

“As an artist, I will be more vocal through my art but not as a person on social media. Art is my tool of expression. This film ‘Anek’ is an expression or extension of my artistic personality. As artists, we are always learning and evolving. But our core job is to act and a lot of research has been put in for ‘Anek’,” said Khurrana.

Ayushmann Khurrana
Ayushmann Khurrana Image Credit: Supplied

Sinha’s sturdy oeuvre are films that tackle sticky topics with a deft hand. If his arresting film ‘Mulk’ delved into communal divides in India or 'Article 15' was a searing portrait of India's caste divisions , his upcoming project ‘Anek’ will explore the idea of ‘us’, ‘them’, and the ‘other’. The film will push you towards the idea of how humanity should triumph over all else and how geography shouldn’t dictate whether you truly belong to a nation or not.

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“A lot of people claim ‘leave your brains behind for a film’, but this is one film where you need to take your brains and your heart with you … Cinema for change is real and I endorse it,” said Khurrana.

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Ayushmann Khurrana

It’s a tough situation to be in. If you are feeling isolated, perhaps you can reach out to the person making you feel like that. Perhaps you can explain your situation. But it all boils down to awareness of other cultures, languages, regions, and religions. Dialogue and communication can solve everything

- Ayushmann Khurrana on how to deal with anyone who feels alienated or isolated from their own country
Quick Take:
What was the most challenging part about their roles in ‘Anek’?

Andrea Kevichusa: “I am not an athletic person in real life, so getting into the role and psyche of a boxer and a tough girl was hard to pull off. But I think I managed it well.”

Khurrana: “The first time where I had to fire shots from a gun was tough. There is a certain gait when you handle a gun. It was not difficult, but different and exciting as an actor.”

Did you know?

Ayushmann Khurrana used to be thrust with hyper-masculine roles when he was doing theatre in college. In Bollywood, he began with playing endearing, guy-next-door roles. “I played this alpha role of Ashwatthama [fierce warrior] in college. He’s so tall, but it’s the expressions that made me convincing in that towering role.”

Don’t miss it!

‘Anek’ is out in UAE cinemas on May 27.