Northeastern Actors are Finally Getting Their Shot at Bollywood Stardom

Streaming platforms have led to more regional cinema, diverse storytelling, and long-awaited opportunities for northeastern actors. Will mainstream Hindi cinema follow?

Axone still
Still from "Axone" (Netflix)

Makepeace Sitlhou


May 13, 2022

Millo Sunka never imagined acting on screen until it happened by chance four years ago in New Delhi’s Humayunpur. Home to thousands of migrants from India’s eight northeastern states, the neighborhood was a natural setting for shooting Axone, the first Bollywood film that exclusively portrayed the experiences of Indians who fit “India’s imagination of a Chinese person.” 

Being on a movie set, although cramped in a small apartment with a crew of 100 people in the middle of Delhi’s sweltering summer, made Millo (her surname) feel like Alice in Wonderland — the experience was magical. “Most of the cast had already been working in the industry for a few years, but I was the entrant absorbing everything around me,” said the 27-year-old newcomer from Arunachal Pradesh, the largest northeastern state bordering China. 

Bollywood is just as alien to artists like Millo as is the Indian “mainland,” a common refrain for the rest of the Indian subcontinent largely cut off from the northeastern states of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Tripura, and Mizoram. These states geographically connect to the “mainland” via a narrow strip of West Bengal called the chicken neck. In a largely “mainland” Indian-centric film industry, filmmakers and faces from the northeastern region are few and far between. 

Entertainment is witnessing remarkable shifts, especially as industries from music and politics to fashion become more inclusive and reflective of society. While actors of Indian origin like Priyanka Chopra and Shabana Azmi star in international titles such as The Matrix: Resurrections and Halo, respectively, the Hindi-dominated film industry in India hardly mirrors the ethnicities or accents that make up the vast Indian landscape. Though that appears to be slowly changing because of the rising popularity of streaming platforms in India, some of these changes are not fast enough — especially for northeastern Indians, who face discrimination because of racial and ethnic differences from the mainstream South Asian communities.

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