Today I had my film debut and I’m thrilled it’s in an Indian flick. I was honored that accomplished director Abhijit Chowdhury, whose current HoiChoi (think Bengali Netflix) series Astey, Ladies rocked my world. He asked if I’d do him a favor and play a British police officer in his new limited series, a period drama entitled Manbhanjan adapted from Rabindranath Tagore’s short story “Giribala.” Really he was doing me the favor because it turns out he’s shooting a historical film set in the 1870s against the backdrop of the nascent Bengali theatre scene, which is exactly one of my Fulbright research areas.
I’m not going to give away the entire plot but suffice it to say they had done their homework and recreated it spot on. My hat’s off to the screenwriter, set designers, choreographer, director and the whole crew. The 1870s saw the first productions of Dinabandhu Mitra’s controversial (for the British Raj) play Nil Darpan (literally “Blue Mirror,” in this case blue referring to the indigo plant), which held a mirror up to the gross mistreatment of impoverished indigo farmers. I won’t go into detail here, but it led to an amazing turn of events and other protest plays, culminating in the 1876 passage of the Dramatic Performances Control Act, which was only ever enforced by the British Raj against Indian plays.
In my obsession with this time period, and having visited what’s left of Kolkata’s old theatres and perused many hundreds of old theatrical advertisements, new articles, reviews and photos at this point, I have often wished I could go back in time and see the real productions. Tonight on set I got a glimpse of what that might be like.
We were shooting in an old playhouse recreating what would have been a typical night at a Bengali theatre, opening with a mythological drama (in this case a story from the life of Lord Krishna and his consort Radha), then a long wait for the audience while the set was changed for the next play, the social drama Nil Darpan.
So here I am watching actors in period clothing doing scenes from Radha-Krishna, then Nil Darpan, while an “audience” of actors in 19th century period attire sat watching and reacting to it. I played a British police officer sitting with my British wife near the front, becoming highly offended and eventually enraged by what I see onstage. I’m stopping there regarding the plot.
The biggest thrill for me was getting to share the screen with a major star, Anirban Bhattacharya, who is known for many award-winning stage and film roles but he’ll always be HoiChoi’s Byomkesh to me. Byomkesh is India’s answer to Sherlock Holmes, the stories written by Sharadindu Bandhopadhay and set in pre-Independence Calcutta. I’ve been a fan for several years, have read all the stories, seen I think all of the movie adaptations, and all of the current HoiChoi episodes. This was long before I knew I’d not only be meeting Mr. Bhattacharya but performing alongside him.
At one point, I said to a fellow white performer who seemed unaware of who he was, “That guy’s a famous actor.” She replied that famous people didn’t impress her. I said, “Yes but he’s famous for a reason. He’s famous because he’s a terrific actor. One of the finest in India.”
She thought for a moment. “What was his name again?” She whipped out her phone to Google him.
You should have seen me gushing at Anirban between takes, pumping his hand up and down saying, “I’m a big fan. I’m aware of who you are. It’s an honor to work with you.”
One more day of shooting for me later this week in which I get to have a face-off with Anirban’s character. Suffice it to say, I’m brushing up on my British accent.
UPDATE, June 2019: