When I sit down during the pre-show for Public Obscenities by Shayok Misha Chowdhury at Soho Rep, I see my own name flash at me from a television mounted on a stage right wall: Ankita. I have never experienced anything like this in the American theater.
My name is on the screen because the television is playing a rerun of “Sa Re Ga Ma Pa – Bangla” – a popular Bengali singing competition, which had a contestant last season who shares my name. The screen itself was part of a set (designed by dots) that took me right back to Kolkata, the city in east India where the play takes place. My own family is from the north Indian state of Uttarakhand and most of them now live in and around Delhi. So it wasn’t until I started visiting my Bengali partner’s family that I ever went to Kolkata. I’ve been there three times now: twice I stayed with my partner’s Dida (maternal grandmother), and the third time was when I went to see this play.
From the style of locks on the doors and the slow, droning fan to the water-damaged walls and the brand of juice in the fridge, the atmosphere was impeccably accurate. This play is not South Asian culture porn; it’s not vibrant colors and designer sarees and big Bollywood songs. Of course, those other things exist too, and I love them; but here the colors were faded with age, the clothes were cotton kurta pajamas, and the songs were lazy afternoon solos that touch the soul with their simplicity. I felt like I could step across the threshold of the stage and find myself in Kolkata again, fixing my own mawsharee (mosquito net) around my bed just like Choton and Raheem (actors Abram Haque and Jakeem Dante Powell) do later in the play, and using the flashlight on my phone to track down the lone, pesky mosquito that made it inside.
As I take in this marvel of a set, I see my new friend, Debashis Chowdhury, sitting in profile behind a barred window that peeks into another part of the house, click-clacking away at a keyboard. In the show, Debashis Chowdhury (no relation to the playwright) plays the role of Pishe, one of several Bengali words for Uncle, in this case, father’s sister’s husband. A couple of weeks ago, I met Debashis Uncle via Zoom and learned about his unique journey to the Soho Rep stage.
As a student, Debashis Uncle studied engineering and computer science at Jadavpur University in Kolkata, West Bengal. While he was there, he participated in inter-college play competitions, but his first foray into what he calls “serious” theater was with the nationally renowned Badal Sircar’s street theater group. He spent a year workshopping and performing a new play, giving all his evenings and weekends to the endeavor. And then, he became a software engineer. “That I do to pay my mortgage, you know?” He moved to America in 1993 and has spent the majority of his years in Boston and the Bay Area, working in tech, and joining Bengali community theaters wherever he goes.
“I always loved that – creative and experimental plays,” Debashis Uncle tells me. “So from that I find a connection with this play, because this is very experimental right? What Misha as a playwright and director, he's doing.”
In fact, Debashis Uncle’s theatrical journey is incredibly experimental: from Kolkata street theater (“Badal Sircar’s theater was, as you know, anti-proscenium theater”), to performing Sukumar Ray’s HaJaBaRaLa in Boston (“a farcical play similar to Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland but in Bengali…based in New York, about the Wall Street meltdown”) to Public Obscenities at Soho Rep (“it is like the mecca of experimental theater here in New York”).
I asked him about the difference between Indian theater and American theater, now that he has experience with both. In India, he says, “the acting is more physical acting. Your whole body is involved…as opposed to I think this play, or a category of American play which probably inspired Misha, is more naturalistic. It is closer to, in some sense, television or film...your approach is much more subdued as an actor. You do less to get more.”
This statement strikes me twice – once when Debashis Uncle first says it, and I think of how I would describe the difference between American film and American theater in almost the same way that he describes the difference between American theater and Indian theater. But Indian theater comes from an epic tradition. Debashis Uncle says, “actions are more exaggerated…if you see other Indian theater…from the Marathi theater, theater from Gujarat, all those productions are larger than life. Here, it is just life.”
The statement strikes me again as I watch the play unfold. “Here, it is just life.” There are so many layers of nuance that hit me at once. The experiment of this play, as I see it, is to theatricalize the legacy of Satyajit Ray, arguably the most renowned Bengali filmmaker of all time. The character Raheem, our American way into the world of Kolkata, says in the first scene of the play, “I mean don’t get me wrong, Ray is a...genius obviously, I just...I guess like...when I watch his stuff, I kind of feel like— like he wants us to forget there’s a camera, right?” To which Debashis Uncle, as Pishe, responds, “See for Ray this is...reality toh. He is showing the reality of the life in Bengal.”
Satyajit Ray is known for his slice-of-life renderings, eye for detail, the way time moves at the pace of the environment in his work, and for casting actors with a diverse range of experiences. Shayok Misha Chowdhury emulates it all. Somehow, in a live performance with no actual lens to force my focus, my eye is inexorably drawn to subtle but profound changes in facial expressions, something not usually so legible on a stage. I live and breathe in time with the characters, who live and breathe in time with the city outside their walls. The Soho Rep space, with both its depth and its intimacy, is the perfect venue for this experiment with quiet, slice-of-life storytelling.
After intermission, there is Pishe again, behind his little window, typing away. I watch him sit in the “quiet” of Kolkata while he types and types. I read the chat messages between Pishe and his online Billiards competitor, who we only know by the codename minnesota76. I see Pishe walk around his home in his boxers and tee shirt, like so many Indian uncles. I watch him tell Raheem a story about a peculiar dream he had that felt like a short film. I watch him tell Raheem the story again. I watch him become a picture through Raheem’s lens. And through Misha’s.
The most important way, to me, that the production emulated Satyajit Ray, is in the casting. Debashis Uncle first met Shayok Misha Chowdhury’s father at the Bengali community theater Off-Kendrik in Boston, where both Chowdhurys participated in productions such as the one written by Satyajit Ray’s father, Sukumar Ray (the aforementioned HaJaBaRaLa). Misha was there, too, sometimes. “I knew them as a family friend,” says Debashis Uncle. “Misha reached out to me to audition for this role. He knew me, so he just encouraged me, why don’t you try for this role and audition?” That audition was last summer, two rounds, “and then I almost forgot about it. One day, there was this Soho Rep email came, you know? Congratulations, you have been selected for this role...I couldn’t believe it.” With his wife’s support, he approached his management at the tech startup where he works in the Bay Area and said he was willing to quit his job for this role, but they didn’t want to lose him. “My senior VP of management said, this is your passion, go for it.” And so instead of quitting, he took a three-month leave of absence. “I have left my job… I don’t think about it. When I go back, I will switch back to that life.” He adds, “I am fortunate, you know. I am telling you, universe is helping me.”
I feel pretty strongly that you can’t do this kind of play – bilingual, bicultural, living fully in the performance traditions of two distinct places – without this kind of casting. Without looking for someone like Debashis Chowdhury to step into a character he was born to inhabit. Or like Tashnuva Anan (Shou), who comes to Soho Rep from a media career in Bangladesh and brought a burst of joyful energy to the Soho Rep stage. Or like Golam Sarwar Harun (Jitesh), artistic director of Bangladeshi theater company Dhaka Drama, who is highly experienced in South Asian theater and film spaces – Harun’s performance in particular was exquisitely detailed and heartbreaking.
There are times I laughed at a joke by myself, or before the English translation hit the screen. I heard my partner’s mother’s voice so clearly in the way Pishimoni (actor Gargi Mukherjee) said the word “Simple.” I wondered, when I was on the verge of tears at the sound of Jitesh Da’s (Harun) folk singing, if I alone was so overwhelmed with emotion. But when Raheem’s photographs developed before us, the whole audience at Soho Rep was just as captured by the moment as I was. When minnesota76 started flirting awkwardly with Pishe online, we all gasped and giggled at the messages together. And when Pishimoni told Choton, “Shobai chhobi hoye gelo,” I know I’m not the only one who cried.
Debashis Uncle, whose facial hair looks different than how he normally wears it for the show, tells me about looking in the mirror these days and wondering sometimes if it’s really him looking back. “Sometimes I feel I have transformed as a different person…I’ll go back to the other person, but I can always recall this person when he’s needed, you know.” Would you do another show at Soho Rep, I ask him, or Off Broadway someplace else? “I can dream about it. One should dream. I don’t know.”