Today I had my film debut and I’m thrilled it’s in an Indian flick. I was honored that accomplished director Abhijit Choudhury, whose current HoiChoi (think Bengali Netflix) series Astey, Ladies rocked my world, asked if I’d do him a favor and play a British officer in his new feature film, a period drama entitled Maanbhanjan 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 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 set designers, choreographer, director and the whole crew. The 1870s saw the first productions of Dinabandhu Mitra’s controversial (for the British) play Nil Darpan (literally “Blue Mirror,” in this case the blue referring to indigo), which held a mirror up to the gross mistreatment of poor 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 against Indian plays.
In my obsession with this time period, and having visited what’s left of Kolkata’s old theatres and perused hundreds of old theatrical advertisements, articles 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, and then a social drama, in this case 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 officer sitting with my wife and our British friends in the front row becoming highly offended and eventually enraged by what I saw 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 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 HoiChoi episodes. And this was long before I knew I’d not only be meeting Mr. Bhatttacharya but performing alongside him.
At one point I said to a fellow actor 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?” came her response as she whipped out her phone to Google him. You should have seen me gushing at him 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 his character. Suffice it to say I’m brushing up on my British accent.