Hijam Anganghal’s Jahera eponymously titled after its heroine Jahera became one of the most popular novels of the time followed by AIR Manipur’s adaptation of the same into the famous radio leela Jahera and film-maker Chandam Shyamacharan’s subsequent adaptation of the same into the feature film- Zehra (1999). Jahera/Zehra became a household name in mainstream art and literature of its time. The story revolves around a conflicted love story of a Pangal woman whose excessive acceptance of orthodox Meitei culture in pursuit of a love relationship with a Meitei man ends tragically. This eponymous heroine and the cross-religious love story of yesteryears somewhere left problematic cultural and religious dominance of Meitei over Pangal and also marked a certain type of representation of Pangal in mainstream art and literature till date.
In most of the literatures, Pangal as a community has been time and again defined as the Cousins of Meiteis. While this is true historically, the identity question of Pangals have been jeopardised and a proper identity representation of Pangal as a community is still not been able to be formed. This makes an easy license to define and represent Pangals in the way the writer or filmmakers wish to and hence susceptible to misrepresentation. For instance, the representation of Pangals in Shumang Leela and Nokphade has mostly been outrightly problematic. Pangals are often represented as characters to be ridiculed or as objects of humor (for their Meiteilon accent) and for worse as “thieves and pick-pocketers or drug peddlers”. This trend paints a very negative image of Pangals in mainstream representation. In fact, representation of Pangals in the literature and mainstream art in Manipur have been very limited and skewed towards a particular set of stereotypes and misconceptions. There have been very few representations and mostly as supporting characters. This means that there has been very limited representation of Pangals to fully express their identity in more nuanced light and participate in cultural exchange through popular media. The limited or rather non existence of Pangal writers or filmmakers in the mainstream art seem to be a plausible factor resulting to the non representation of Pangal perspectives in popular arts.
Romita, a Meitei female actor plays the role of Zehra in the 1999 blockbuster Zehra. And Zehra’s Pangal identity is quite problematic from the beginning of the film. She is a Pangal but devoted to Hindu rituals and customs. Her chandan embellished nose and forehead, her choice of Meitei attire, her sincere practice of Meitei (Hindu) ritual including praying and worshipping the tulsi plant and strict vegetarianism as against her disbelief of Pangal belief systems questions her Pangal identity. All these are pitted against the Meitei male protagonist who is spared the struggles of transgression and practice of the other religion and culture. Then one must raise the question; is there an inherent cultural and religious hegemony? Is Zehra’s acceptance and embodiment of Meitei cultural and religious practices the only way for a mainstream cinema to make her lovable and beautiful in a Meitei dominated audience of the time? And why was it important that the majoritarian religious and cultural values be accepted by a minority in a text that claims at religious syncretism and popular consumption? Cultural and religious hegemony and majoritarian ethos seem to limit the overall story and characterisation.
The social condition of the time when Zehra was made must be looked into as well. It was post 1993 Meitei-Pangal Riot. There was too much strain and turning guns towards each other. So, as said above, stereotypes and prejudices by the heavily represented Meiteis in mainstream media seemed to have taken part in this situation or even made worst. Zehra was one such example. The movie been a blockbuster of that time and cine-goers mostly being Meiteis, explain the type of understanding of Pangals the majority people had in those times. The other characters in the movie are also problematic in their representations. The characterization of Tolhan as a person with a big family lends to the stereotyping of the majoritarian narrative of Pangals as largely a community that does not practice birth control and are polygamous. The plot is also problematic in its entirety. It shows the radicalism and orthodoxy of the communities to make the plot buyable by making romance winning against social and cultural norms while it can be fairly claimed that Meiteis and Pangals have never been radicalised that much and many cross marriages within the communities are celebrated and seen in reality without much hoopla.
The film ends with the death of the lovers Zehra and Kunjabihari, in a very quintessential conflicted love story style popular in classic romances. Like all conflicted romances, the lovers try everything they can to keep their relationship alive. However, finding their relationship caught in the community/religious conflict and impossible of acceptance by their kins, the lovers finally take their own lives. However, their deaths seem to symbolise much more than just a tragic ending. Zehra and Kunjabihari are both transgressive characters in the way they both defy cultural and religious boundaries for the sake of their love relationship, Zehra even more so (though it is has been repeatedly emphasised that her Pangal identity is questionable from the start). The question then is what closure does the story have? It is either the union of the lovers at the cost of cultural and religious transgression or the annihilation of the transgressive elements. The latter seems to become more acceptable for consumers of mainstream art and literature and death (a common trope in tragedies) becomes the convenient and predictable cathartic ending to a tragic love story. But, their deaths also surely kill the transgression that is possible in fiction.
The story despite its popularity suffers from misrepresentation and acquiescence. Even after two decades after the film was released, it seems that mainstream art and industry is still struggling with representation of Pangals. Sanaleipak Nachom Artistes’s 2018 production Mangluraba Lann written by Mutum Nobin and directed by L Tomba Meitei vindictively centres on a Pangal couple who are drug peddlers and is filled with Pangal stereotypes throughout. Jahera/Zehra and subsequent representations of Pangal in mainstream art and literature (mostly created by Meitei) pose serious concerns on the issue of hegemonic representation.