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Cherrapunji ki Diwali? Netflix ad shows there’s never an effort to learn about Northeast

Whether it’s Priyanka Chopra playing Mary Kom or Netflix India's gross misrepresentation of Cherrapunji, the Northeast is always left to battle the issue of identity.

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The long Diwali weekend is here and the wait for firecrackers to degrade Delhi’s air quality level to reflect all colours of a rangoli is finally over. As I indulged in my Doomsday-scrolling on social media Saturday afternoon, I came across a friend’s post on Instagram about Netflix India’s Diwali advertisement gone wrong. A few minutes later, the video popped up as a sponsored ad on my Twitter timeline. Its thumbnail flashed in big letters: ‘Cherrapunji ki Diwali’.

The 2.50-minute ad starts with an elderly man narrating in fluent Hindi about how it rains in Meghalaya’s Cherrapunji all the time. However, the weather is no impediment when it comes to celebrating Diwali by the people of the small town, once famed for being the wettest place on Earth (currently, nearby Mawsynram holds the title).

There is so much rain that rangoli colours are flowing down the steps of the hills, people with sweet boxes are slipping on the stairs, and kids are unable to burst fire crackers. But the ad shows that no force is powerful enough to stop the people of Cherrapunji – a Khasi-dominated area where most follow Christianity or local Khasi faith – from celebrating Diwali.

The ad has Khasis fuming. “In Sohra (the Khasi name of the town), no one cares about Diwali,” a friend told me. Starting from the attire to the weather to the festive celebrations, the ad gets absolutely everything wrong. “Rangoli-making and lighting diyas are non-existent here. Plus, it’s autumn now, there is barely any rain,” they said.

That’s not all. Netflix India then posted an incorrect translation of the Khasi song heard in the ad as a comment under its YouTube link to the video. The translation has no reference to Cherrapunji. The most repeated line in the song “U Lapbah Sohra Jingshai ka Don” means “there’s light in the heavy rains of Sohra”.

Dealing dishonestly

Twitter might be filled with bots ensuring positive engagement with the post but some user comments on the site and several on Instagram have called the ad patronising. “The tradition of celebrating Diwali is non-existent. Maybe at most they partake in the firecracker trend but I haven’t really witnessed that in Sohra either,” the Khasi friend said.

While we are aware of Black or Native American or Aboriginal cultures being appropriated in the West, the Netflix ad is the Indian equivalent of cultural appropriation — by misrepresenting Cherrapunji and its people, Netflix India has shown how it doesn’t care about the cultural nuances and will sacrifice ethnic differences, customs, traditions and practices at the altar of corporate money making.

Earlier this month, a 2016 tweet by the Indian Farmers Fertiliser Cooperative Limited (IFFCO) resurfaced, which had misinterpreted a dish from the state to mean ‘abode of cloud’, which is the literal meaning of Meghalaya. The rumble died down without a big fuss.

These distortions come on the heels of RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat visiting Meghalaya last month during which he went to a sacred mountain to offer prayers with a group associated with the indigenous faith of the Khasis, Niam Khasi.

The Northeast has always had to battle the issue of identity. Whether it’s Priyanka Chopra playing boxer Mary Kom for a Bollywood film or this Netflix India ad on Cherrapunji, there is little effort to engage with the region, to learn about its tribes, communities and their cultures. Instead, the focus remains on minting money through tokenistic mention and gross misrepresentation of the region’s language, culture, customs and also its people. A bit of sincerity will go a long way in ensuring inclusivity, diversity and pluralism in the true form, especially in a politically turbulent climate when Hindu nationalism is on the rise.

Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant)

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